KFC’s secret recipe for non-endemic esports sponsorship

The fast-food chain is frying up ads in a market hungry for partnerships

A fast-food restaurant chain and esports sound like an unexciting partnership: at best there is a cool ad during breaks at a match, at worst a logo on the team uniform. The biggest challenge for non-endemic sponsorships is the mere fact that the word “non-endemic” indicates a lack of a direct link to the industry in focus. Gear manufacturers can smoothly be integrated into the system by simply placing their products as part of the team’s equipment. Although non-endemic sponsors are not new in other areas, hence the infamously expensive spots at the Super Bowl, they are relatively cautious about setting foot into the esports arena.

Sponsorships derive from the demand for the attention of an audience. It could be a large audience or an important one, or both. Esports was ignored in the early days, largely due businesses not seeing significant value in the industry. Few understood the type of audience that esports drew. Fortunately, it is no longer 2015 and companies have finally realized that the audiences are disappearing from the traditional channels. It is estimated that 60% of esports fans do not watch television in any given week.

Relevance and authenticity are more specific issues facing non-endemic sponsors. Nonetheless, this is a battle that Colonel Sanders has won. Kentucky Fried Chicken has invested heavily in the esports and gaming space, building interactions and campaigns that go beyond commercials and naming rights.

In 2018, KFC opened its official Twitter account of “KFC Gaming”, marking the beginning of its venture into esports partnerships. It did not necessarily benefit from any first-mover advantage, as McDonald’s had already become a major sponsor at the 2017 StarCraft 2 World Championship. Despite the swift shift in gear, McDonald’s has primarily focused its efforts on sponsorship at major esports events or with certain teams. Again in 2017 when it sponsored the game in Australia, McDonald’s terminated its contract with the International Olympic Committee. In 2018, McDonald’s Germany discontinued its 15-year partnership with the German Football Association but doubled down on esports integration with ESL, the German-headquartered Counter-Strike pro league.

Although specific figures are not disclosed, these endorsements typically require large amounts of capital. In contrast, KFC made impressive strides in recent years with a more cost-effective and, arguably, more engaging approach.

In 2019, KFC teamed up with Call of Duty UK to host its own tournament, “KFC Royale”, with a grand prize of 50,000 pounds and a KFC Black Card that would supply daily fried chicken. At the same time, Colonel KI entered the game in China. With the advertising agency Mindshare, KFC introduced an AI algorithm that predicted live win-loss odds of either team, among more statistics on the KFC China app, during League of Legends matches. In addition, Colonel KI also distributed coupons at highlights during the game, 100% of which were taken, in comparison to an average rate of 3% at similar events. KFC gained 70 minutes of brand exposure per day, which was 4 times of plan. On Weibo, the topic “KFC” gained 35 million organic views, twice the number of the World Cup in 2018. The huge success landed the “Best Branding Campaign” at the Digital Advertising Awards APAC 2019.

In February 2020, KFC Gaming posted a video launching an “Esports Performance Burger”, promoting its new vegan burger in a parody short film produced by Kairos Gaming, a gaming agency. Due to the pandemic, unfortunately, the campaign did not catch as much attention as it set out to. Later that year, KFConsole made its debut as the brainchild between KFC and Cooler Master. The console was allegedly able to run games in 4K, 240fps and use the excess heat to keep your fried chicken warm in a built-in drawer. It is still unclear whether this is a hoax, as a landing page explains all the features under the domain of Cooler Master, a company that specializes in CPU coolers and other heat-related parts in computers. But more importantly, the unconventional combo off the menu earned free press from reputable mainstream media outlets, such as BBC, Forbes, and CNN.

KFC has also taken the activities offline. After the pandemic in China, KFC resumed its “KFC Esports Fest” across the country. Restaurants are turned into esports cafes for League of Legends. In March 2021, locations were decorated with Genshin Impact posters to promote KFC’s collaboration with the Chinese action role-playing game. Customers who would like to claim the limited-edition merchandise for free could do so by calling out a “secret” phrase to the staff when ordering. These game character buttons have reached a resale price of USD $77 at online gamer forums.

In conclusion, throughout the past few years, KFC has adopted a global strategy of interactive esports fan engagement instead of boring team or tournament endorsements. It aims at keeping up with a younger generation who is trying to establish a separate identity. Gen Z and millennials, whether they are gamers or not, recognize that online gaming and esports mark the difference between them and their parents. They also grew up with such floods of information that simple paid media fall short at connecting with them. KFC has excelled at understanding these two traits and leveraged earned, shared and owned media channels to provide an immersive and memorable brand experience for the audience. The cost of the strategy, however, could become exponentially higher as the industry booms or if the company decides to scale the campaigns at a more global level.