Consumer Trends | September 2015 | By Judy Kneiszel

Playing the Part

Whether promoting the brand or enlivening a birthday party, brand mascots drive engagement.
QSR brand mascots give restaurants marketing tool for connecting with young generations.
Banking on nostalgia, McDonald’s unveiled a newly reimagined Hamburglar earlier this year. McDonald’s

The limited-service restaurant industry has a legacy of colorful mascots, from clowns to kings, walking hamburgers to cookies with faces, and cartoon bears to a certain Chihuahua with a penchant for Mexican fare.

In its simplest application, a mascot can make a child’s birthday party more memorable. In more complicated terms, the return of a beloved mascot can cause consumers to, if not increase their spending at a particular fast-food restaurant chain, at least sit up and take notice of a brand they may not have thought about in a while, research indicates.

In May, McDonald’s Hamburglar, Burger King’s King, and the KFC Colonel all re-appeared in marketing campaigns after lengthy absences from the public eye. The King stood near Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s trainer at the Belmont Stakes. The new, improved, and buff Hamburglar returned to his life of food crime. And the Colonel, now played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Darrell Hammond, pitched chicken across the airwaves.

Consumer perception research service YouGov BrandIndex studied how the return of these mascots resonated with consumers. According to YouGov, from mid-May through mid-June, McDonald’s ad awareness among fast-food eaters increased from 50 to 54 percent. KFC, after the Colonel’s return, increased from 34 to 41 percent, and Burger King moved from 33 to 36 percent.

“As soon as the campaign and rebrand launched in late May, we began closely monitoring consumer sentiment around the campaign elements, from the Colonel being front and center again in commercials to the store redesign and updated packaging,” says KFC CMO Kevin Hochman via e-mail. “We saw overwhelmingly positive sentiment in the weeks following the campaign launch and have continued to monitor consumer comments on social media in order to track if and how this potentially changes over time.”

While public sentiment may be positive, when it comes to consumers actually walking through the door, results are not definitive. YouGov reports that Burger King and KFC each increased purchase-consideration scores 1 percent from mid-May to mid-June, but McDonald’s consideration scores decreased slightly from 49 to 47 percent.

“We have a variety of metrics available to measure the success of Hamburglar’s return and the introduction of Sirloin Third Pound Burgers as a limited-time offer,” writes Tyler Litchenberger, communications manager for external relations at McDonald’s USA, in an e-mail. “We’re pleased to see increasing awareness and favorability for both the mascot’s return and the burger’s introduction.”

Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov, says part of the reason for bringing back a mascot from the past is nostalgia, and the return of the Hamburglar might make some people who remember him from their youth more open to visiting a McDonalds’s.

“When we saw this interesting trend that three major brands resurrected old [mascots] around the same time, we wondered if anything was happening,” Marzilli says. “We can’t say this is cause and effect, but we can say this is when they launched and here’s how consumer perception is changing around that time.”

While the King, the Colonel, and the Hamburglar are busy with national campaigns and social media, other mascots are working ribbon cuttings and birthday parties, visiting schools, and walking parade routes. One of those hard-working mascots is Culver’s 6-foot, 1-inch smiling custard cone, Scoopie.

“It’s amazing the impact a mascot has on people,” says Mary Schluter, Culver’s marketing and communications manager. “Adults and children respond with huge smiles and curiosity.” She adds that Scoopie, who is often recognized by kids, parents, and grandparents, works well with Culver’s family-oriented values.

Franchisees have the option to use Scoopie, and Schluter says the majority of the 547 Culver’s restaurants own a Scoopie costume. While cofounder Craig Culver promotes the company as its spokesman, Scoopie serves as a brand ambassador.

“For a brand to successfully utilize a mascot, there need to be guidelines in place,” Schluter says. “For example, Scoopie doesn’t talk—many mascots don’t—so Scoopie communicates through actions, and we recommend always having a team member with Scoopie to answer questions. And because he’s such a big guy, having an individual with Scoopie lets children know he is friendly.”

Non-human brand ambassadors have certain advantages. For example, Scoopie is not at risk of sparking controversy in the way Subway’s Jared Fogle did in July. Mascots can also be easily updated. Schluter says in Scoopie’s 20 years as Culver’s mascot, his appearance has undergone some minor tweaks. “We try to keep him fresh, and we hope he’ll be around for a long time,” Schluter says.

Brand ambassadors who are around for a long time often have an emotional resonance with consumers. For example, Litchenberger says that although the McDonald’s characters (with the exception of Ronald) have been out of the spotlight for a number of years, they still hold a special place in the hearts of consumers.

“We realize that these iconic characters are loved by customers of all ages and continue to resonate and build an emotional connection with our brand,” Litchenberger says.

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