KFC’s Global CMO Catherine Tan-Gillespie, second from left, with members of her marketing team at the Cannes Lions creativity festival June 17-21.

Did you laugh when Colonel Sanders and Mrs. Butterworth kissed to the Celine Dion ballad “I’m your Lady” in a TV ad last March? 

Did you jump at the chance to send a personalized greeting to your mom last Mother’s Day from the half-naked “Chickendales” dancers, a Colonel Sanders-style take on the world-famous Chippendales?

If so you’re a fan of KFC’s hilarious and sometimes controversial marketing campaigns, and you’ve probably wondered: Where do they come up with this stuff?

To find out, I eagerly accepted an offer to interview KFC’s Global Chief Marketing Officer Catherine Tan-Gillespie, who commands a global marketing budget that equals 4-6 percent of total annual revenue at the fried chicken giant.

Where do KFC’s marketing chiefs go to recharge their creative batteries? For three people on her staff, the annual Cannes Lions festival was the place to be in late June.

“To a marketer it’s wonderful to get lost in that world for a week. It’s very inspiring. It tells me what’s possible,” said Tan-Gillespie, referring to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, just after she returned from the five-day conference, which draws attendees from advertising, marketing and branding.

A Brit by background who moved to Australia in 2000, Tan-Gillespie then moved to Dallas in February 2018 to take KFC’s global chief marketing officer post. “One of my key agendas in my role is to build marketing muscle,” she said, so at their recent corporate annual meeting of some 300 marketers across the KFC system, she gave away three tickets to attend Cannes Lions with her, making the journey “into a more formal inspiration session.”

One of her inspirations at the festival this year was Apple. “I was blown away by Apple, in terms of a brand that is all about simplicity and creativity,” she said, naming “simplicity” in particular as a quality she is trying to foster at KFC.

“I think as marketers we can overcomplicate things. They’ve stripped everything back. We’ve done that somewhat at KFC but we can do it more.”

Marketing at KFC is de-centralized, she said, but in recent years she and others have tried to become more laser-focused on one idea: originality, because nothing tastes like KFC chicken, she said. “We’re always original at our heart. The story is all around finger-lickin’ good in the right way.”

Asked about the Chickendales promotions this past May, she praised the U.S.-based team that created it. “The U.S. example is a great one in that they are absolutely channeling the spirit of Colonel Sanders. The work is feisty,” unapologetically so, “and it’s eccentric, and that’s the Colonel himself.”

“I would say a few years ago we were definitely guilty of being a schizophrenic brand,” she said. “The last year and a half we’ve really tightened up our brand positioning,” around the idea that “nothing tastes like it.”

Although some people complain about KFC ads—“the Colonel is looking down, shaking his head” was one response to the Chickendales promotion—she stands behind her managers. 

“What I think liberates great creativity is a culture of courageousness and reducing all of the fear that our marketers maybe previously felt. That’s one of the easiest ways to kill creativity.”

Another example: The FCK ad, a scrambling of the KFC logo created in Britain after the chain ran out of—wait for it—chicken. “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal,” read the ad under an empty bucket of Colonel Sanders’ finest. “Huge apologies to our customers.”

The ad won a Gold Lion in printing & publishing this year in Cannes.

Tan-Gillespie plans to take another group of KFC marketers to Cannes Lions next year. “Marketers are innately creative and curious people,” she said, and bringing them to Cannes Lions “almost fuels people to do better work, to think bigger.”

 

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