Special Report | February 2011 | By Jordan Melnick

Are Mascots Outdated?

Are Ronald, Jack, Wendy, and the King right for marketing in the 21st century?

More than a decade into the 21st century, it is safe to say we are living in a brave new world. Television, perhaps the pièce de résistance of last century, has given way to computers and, in turn, desktop computers and laptops may soon give way to tablets and smartphones.

This rush of technological innovation has had a profound impact on the way restaurants do business. With so many powerful tools like Facebook and Twitter, it is only natural that restaurants have updated their marketing strategies by pouring money into social networking and cell phone promotions. But despite leveraging every new thing at their disposal, restaurants have stuck to at least one stalwart of 20th century branding: the mascot.

Just don’t call it a relic.

In fact, don’t call it a mascot—some brands consider it an insult.

“Mascot? Jack? He might take offense to that!” This was the reply of Jack in the Box spokesman Brian Luscomb when contacted for an interview regarding mascots. Luscomb was being light-hearted, but the chain takes Jack very seriously, his ping-pong-ball head, party hat, and hand-drawn facial features notwithstanding. In fact, even in the context of a brass-tacks interview, Luscomb referred to Jack as the company’s founder and revealed that he—Jack—has a reserved parking space in front of the Jack in the Box headquarters in San Diego.

“It’s for his car,” Luscomb says matter-of-factly.

If it seems as if Luscomb and Jack in the Box in general are taking things a bit far, it’s important to note that Jack was integral in helping Jack in the Box survive its infamous E. coli disaster of 1993, when tainted meat killed four children and sickened hundreds of other customers. Reeling, Jack in the Box started the “Jack is Back” campaign in 1995, giving a voice and the distinction of founder to a character that had previously been confined to company packaging and the drive-thru menu.

“We were definitely reinventing ourselves, and he was a key piece of that,” says CMO Terri Graham.

It would be impossible to figure out the extent to which the “Jack is Back” campaign helped Jack in the Box weather the E. coli disaster, but the fact that the brand called upon Jack in a moment of crisis suggests how powerful a marketing tool restaurant mascots have been in the industry.

Sixteen years and a slew of technological breakthroughs after the “Jack is Back” campaign, the question is whether mascots still have a place in a 21st century marketing strategy.

The answer, Graham says, is “absolutely.”

“What you’re trying to do is emotionally connect with guests,” she says. “With brand perception, there is a rational side and an emotional side. The rational side focuses on the service we provide. But the emotional side is where we really connect, and we’re able to connect through Jack’s personality.”

The key word is connect. Perhaps the main strength of mascots has been their ability to go where companies can’t or CEOs shouldn’t: birthday parties, store openings, baseball games, and so on. In the computer age, where connection happens as often on Facebook as it does face-to-face, mascots must now make the rounds online.

Mascots have an ability to go where companies can’t or CEOs shouldn’t.

While the terrain has changed, the role mascots play in a restaurant’s marketing scheme—that of communicator in chief of the company—has not. Jack, for example, has a Facebook page with more than 350,000 fans and a Twitter account with almost 20,000 followers. He is also there to greet visitors to the Jack in the Box website (“Hi, I’m Jack. Welcome to my web page thing.”).

“The beauty of technology is that it gives Jack opportunities to communicate out to guests,” Graham says. “It also allows us to continue to bring him to life. That fact that our customers can see him and feel his personality is very effective. So we absolutely use these vehicles as more opportunities to communicate with our guests.”

And having a mascot makes “driving” these “vehicles” a lot easier.

“With social media you have to be engaging and have a one-on-one voice,” says Beth Mansfield, director of public relations for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, whose mascot is Happy Star.

“It’s much easier to have that one voice be Happy Star instead of the marketing department of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s,” Mansfield says. “If we signed our Facebook posts ‘from the marketing department,’ that would be a little awkward.”

Unlike Jack, Happy Star does not feature prominently in Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s television spots (nor is he recognized as the brands’ founder, though his face is modeled on CKE founder Carl Karcher). Mansfield says this is because the brands are not primarily “engaging with people through television to have a conversation.”

“On TV we’re looking to tell people about a product and get them in the door to buy that product,” she says. “Social media is far more personalized. It’s about creating a relationship with your fans.”

Wienerschnitzel, which has 350 locations (mostly in California), is using its mascot, a friendly chilidog named “The Delicious One”, in a similar way. In its 50th year, the brand uses TDO as the face and voice of its Twitter and Facebook accounts, but has chosen not to use him in television advertisements commemorating Wienerschnitzel’s half-century in business.

“The spot’s we are running now are black and white and use footage and pictures from years ago,” says Tom Amberger, Wienerschnitzel’s VP of marketing.

With 500 million people on Facebook, mascots should have plenty to keep them occupied without going on television, and CKE and Wienerschnitzel’s similar strategies suggest that mascots are far from obsolete in the Internet age. It suggests, on the other hand, that their role in restaurant marketing strategies may start to grow.

This seems especially likely as mobile technology becomes more sophisticated and gives businesses increasing access to consumers. More so than the Internet and especially TV, the telephone has a tradition as a personalized communication device, and using it effectively as a marketing vehicle might come easier for a mascot with a tailored personality than a complex brand.

“The Robin from Red Robin fits easily in an app,” says Liz Goodgold, founder of RedFire Branding. “But look at it the other way: If you don’t have the Robin, then you just have hamburgers.”

If the Internet has strengthened job security for restaurant mascots, not everyone is happy about it. Critics denounce how restaurants use mascots to sell their brands to impressionable children. Industry analyst Clark Wolf sees them as a marketing tactic that is out of step with a new era of corporate responsibility.

“The purpose of mascots in the restaurant industry is the same as Joe Camel: to create a connection and sell small children bad stuff,” Wolf says. “I look forward to the day when it’s illegal or more highly regulated.”

That day may be far off, but in the meantime, Wolf says, restaurants should restrain themselves, if only because he considers marketing a mascot a bad investment in a slow economy.

“It’s misspent money and in direct conflict with good, long-term business practices,” he says.

Still, even a staunch critic like Wolf sees a use for mascots in a responsible restaurant brand. In transforming Ronald McDonald from a peddler of Happy Meals to a global philanthropist through the Ronald McDonald House, McDonald’s has found a way to leverage the power of the mascot for the greater good, Clark says.

“Ronald McDonald is a great example of a brand striking a balance,” he says.

But the clown’s effectiveness in raising money for charity underscores mascots’ general effectiveness as pitchmen. The fact that mascots make it easier to leverage emerging technologies only adds to their value and suggests they will remain crucial to restaurants in the near future. Finally, there is their allure for that all-important segment of the quick-serve industry consumer base.

“As long as restaurants want to appeal to kids,” says marketing analyst Joel Cohen, “mascots will play an important role in their marketing.”

How many get their own parking spots, however, remains to be seen.