For 60 years KFC Corp, which was founded in 1952 by Colonel Harland Sanders, has communicated in advertising and PR that the Colonel always uses fresh, on-the-bone chicken, and the brand still does so today, says Rick Maynard, PR manager for KFC.
"This is a brand that has a history really unlike any chain," Maynard explains, "so we leverage the Colonel's story and remind people that he was a real person, a real cook, and a real entrepreneur with an amazing story, and this is the man who took a recipe for fried chicken and a Social Security check and built a business that now has 17,000 restaurants around the globe."
In June, KFC released on Facebook the exclusive autobiography and recipe book, written by Colonel Sanders in 1966 and discovered accidentally in 2011, for fans to download and read for free.
The manuscript, Colonel Harland Sanders: The Autobiography of the Original Celebrity Chef, was launched on the KFC Facebook page, which has more than 5 million fans, because the brand wants as many people as possible to be able to read the "unique" story, says Maynard.
He adds that a big push right now is an internal campaign focused on getting employees to read the book to "make sure people who work for the brand understand the history."
While the company tries to stick to its roots as much as possible, Maynard says KFC has also shifted in certain areas to adapt to changing consumer demands, such as creating grilled chicken for healthier diners and offering more social media customer service for tech-savvy consumers.
McDonald's, which has been around since 1940 and revolutionized the fast-food space with new technologies and food products, also has a deep connection with its history.
"There are aspects of our brand that are timeless," says Ben Stringfellow, VP of US communications for McDonald's. "We have a rich heritage that is built on the reputation of the local business owners that own and run our restaurants."
Much more than just fast food
With their rich histories and longstanding consumer relationships, fast-food chains are much more than drive-throughs and late-night menu options.
Ronald McDonald House Charities, founded in 1974, has collected more than $200 million at its in-store donation boxes as of 2011.
KFC's charity program, Colonel's Scholars, provides college scholarships up to $20,000 to high school seniors who show entrepreneurial aspirations and financial need. So far, it has given 525 scholarships to students.
Sonic's Limeades for Learning program provides grants to both teachers and students in Oklahoma.
Focus on nutrition
GolinHarris has been the PR AOR for McDonald's for 55 years and Denise Paleothodoros, executive director at the firm and the client relationship lead for McDonald's global and US business, says the company's increased social media presence has opened up the opportunity for consumers to access nutrition information from registered dieticians. Staying true to its innovative nature, the brand also launched a downloadable mobile app containing nutrition facts last summer.
The "increased focus on nutrition" has been McDonald's biggest change over the last few years, says Paleothodoros, and she believes the future communications trend in fast food is going to be on "dimensionalizing the story around quality food," including focusing on where the food comes from and how it's prepared.
Sonic, a drive-in restaurant chain that has been in business for almost 60 years, has a nostalgic feel among baby-boomer customers, and has a quirky, fun element with younger generations because of its unique environment, says Nancy Love Robertson, VP of communications.
She adds that the reminiscent quality of the business allows it to be more "playful and joyful" in its PR tactics than its competitors.
As a case in point, Sonic, has proclaimed itself the "official sponsor of the sun." The summer-long promotion includes a broad slate of product and gift card deals and giveaways, new menu items, events, and the return of former spokespeople the Two Guys, who were "hired back" after an effective social media campaign.