Sick of human influencers? KFC's Virtual Influencer proves 'fake' ones work too

The inside story on KFC's CGI influencer.

Company: KFC
Campaign: Virtual Influencer Colonel
Agency partners: Wieden + Kennedy (creative agency), Edelman (PR)
Duration: April 2019

The rotating Colonels took a different turn last month when KFC, instead of hiring a comedian to play the part, created a CGI version of its founder and brand ambassador Harland Sanders.

Over the company’s history, Colonel Sanders has taken many forms, "all of whom were meant to capture some aspect of the Colonel’s spirit," said Steve Kelly, KFC’s director of media and digital.

For the latest iteration, the company wanted to celebrate his "eternal hustle" by turning the Colonel into a CGI influencer.

From April 8-22, the Virtual Influencer Colonel took over the company’s Instagram account, generating a series of posts that showcased his jet setting and meditation-packed lifestyle in between sponsored posts promoting brand partners, including TurboTax, Casper and Dr. Pepper.

The company’s goal was to have fun and make an impression with fans. More specifically, it aimed to counterbalance the hyper-targeted ad experience on Instagram.

"We aspire to show up in unexpected ways to bring some levity," Kelly said, rather than serve ads based on users’ specific search histories.

Planning for the campaign began nearly a year ago, and included lining up partners and working around their launch dates and schedules. For example, the Colonel partnered with TurboTax, which meant his takeover needed to coincide with tax season.

View this post on Instagram

#ad On the eagle aka the big chicken aka my private jet. Just finished my taxes... And got a refund! Thanks to @turbotax ?? Tax day is coming up, so you better get on yours too. I used TurboTax Live and so should you. Real CPAs and EAs help you with your taxes from basically anywhere. From the comfort of your couch or if you’re waiting for a private jet. Lol. They’ve got tax experts ready to answer all your tax questions. That got me and my media guy Brian thinking that we should do an AMA ‘cause I’ve got all this time on my hands now thanks to TurboTax Live. My AMA will kinda be like how TurboTax Live answered my questions about my taxes. But I can’t help you with taxes. I can just answer important questions about chicken and life. Being willing to take good advice from experts is part of the #secretrecipeforsuccess. #adultingwins #taxday #heresyourchance #ama #secretrecipeforsuccess #turbotax #taxes #friedchicken #friedchickentattoo #advice #success #entrepreneur #behindthecurtain #keys #jetlife #thebigchicken #respect #inspiration #positive #positivethoughts #artistatwork #brian #guru #worktravel #workfromanywhere #influencerlife

A post shared by Kentucky Fried Chicken (@kfc) on

Once the takeover began, however, content was being "produced in real-time," Kelly said. KFC leaned into Instagram influencer tropes, including a heavy use of hashtags, well-executed humble brags, envy-inducing travel shots, and brand partnerships as well as posts featuring famous people and other influencers.

View this post on Instagram

At Joshua Tree and feeling so spiritually awake. Being out here really has me connected with not only nature but myself. I find myself looking inside to see what’s really important. How can I be a better Colonel to not only the whole world but myself? That’s something we all should be doing—finding ways to spiritually connect with ourselves. Especially by making pilgrimages to beautiful places that put us in touch with ourselves. I encourage all of my fried chicken fam to take some time to really do this, ’cause getting spiritually in touch with your true self in a beautiful place is a big part of my #secretrecipeforsuccess. #itsallformyfans #humble #blessed #friedchicken #advice #success #entrepreneur #behindthecurtain #keys #respect #inspiration #positive #positivethoughts #artistatwork #workhardplayhard #inspired #meetandgreet #fanlove

A post shared by Kentucky Fried Chicken (@kfc) on

Before the campaign launched, PR partner Edelman sent media outlets the Colonel’s media kit, which included a headshot and a detailed breakdown of his reach and audience.

The campaign was covered by a wide range of outlets, including Mashable, Food & Wine, Eater, The Daily Mail, Yahoo News, Jezebel, Esquire and Inc.

"What we were most interested in was engagement," Kelly said.

The Colonel’s Instagram takeover generated 500,000 likes, shares and comments. Posts with brand partners, such as Casper, TurboTax, and Old Spice, received an additional 700,000 likes, shares and comments, a valuable metric, Kelly said, because "you’re talking to someone else’s audience with your product."

At first, many fans were confused by the campaign - who was this hipster Colonel, and was KFC making fun of influencers?

The reaction wasn’t unexpected by KFC.

"It’s typical of any time you are charting new territory," Kelly said.

As the virtual Colonel kept pumping out posts, consumers started getting in on - and enjoying - the joke, said Kelly.

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