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Can Colonel Sanders revive KFC’s sluggish sales?

KFC resurrected Col. Harland Sanders Tuesday as the folksy centerpiece of its Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranding campaign.

"Howdy folks, it is me, Col. Sanders," former "Saturday Night Live" impressionist Darrell Hammond says with a cackle on new promotional spots that Yum Brands! debuted Tuesday on Twitter and Facebook. " I've been gone for a while and boy howdy have things changed.

"But what you don't always seem to have these days is my Kentucky Fried Chicken," he intoned. "Well I'm here to change all that."

Sanders' comeback from his long-held status as a caricature on the bucket of fried chicken to main spokesman for the brand may herald KFC's yearning for its mid-century glory days.

In 1999, for example, KFC stores in the U.S. held 39.7 percent of market share in the limited service chicken segment, compared with just 8.7 percent for Chick-fil-A. Fast forward 15 years and Chick-fil-A's U.S. market share has soared to 27.8 percent, while KFC has shrunk to 20.2 percent, according to an analysis by Technomic and Janney Capital Markets.

A KFC spokesperson did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday on the new marketing campaign.

Analysts say attention for the brand is long overdue in the U.S., where consumers have gravitated to healthier fare, even if they pay a little more at outlets like Chick-fil-A and Chipotle.

Using the familiar face to sell more fried chicken on the bone appears to be "a half-hearted way to re-examine the quick chicken business," Janney analyst Mark Kalinowski said in an interview Monday. Other Yum concepts, he added, like a Super Chix near Dallas, Texas, focus on the Chick-fil-A formula of a chicken breast sandwich on a bun and frozen custard.

Super Chix "seems like a better way to examine the market that doesn't involve the KFC brand," he added. "It allows you to do things from a totally fresh approach."

KFC in China has long powered Yum's double-digit annual growth in shareholder dividend payments. As a result, Kalinowski said, "investors focus on China. I've had some clients tell me they don't even care about the U.S. business. This is a China stock for them."

KFC recently closed its KFC Eleven concept store on Bardstown Road in the Highlands. The relaunch of Col. Sanders appears to be part of a brand makeover promised by new Yum CEO Greg Creed last fall.

Some fans responded to the new KFC campaign with nostalgia.

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