When it comes to marketing, nothing epitomizes brand identity like a figurehead, whether that be a real-life spokesperson like Wendy’s late cofounder Dave Thomas, a brand icon like Ronald McDonald, or even a mascot like Chick-fil-A’s notorious billboard cows. But in an age when multiple media platforms vie for consumers’ attention, do these lighthearted characters still prop up a brand’s narrative and drive engagement?

The resounding answer is yes. The mascots and icons—like the restaurants themselves—must simply adapt to the times and meet customers where they are.

Adrienne Ingoldt / Vice President of Marketing Communications, Jack in the Box

In 1980, Jack in the Box dramatically altered its marketing strategy by literally blowing up the brand’s symbol, the jack in the box, in television commercials. The character and mascot, Jack Box, was introduced to the public in 1994, in a commercial featuring the famous smiling clown—dressed in a business suit—detonating the company boardroom to get revenge. In this campaign, Jack Box showed the public that he does things differently.

Brand icons and mascots have long been instrumental in providing tangible personas to improve brand recognition. Consumers grew up with mascots, like the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Peanut, and the Michelin Man, who to many evoke a sense of nostalgia. They were brilliant storytellers and allowed brands to build emotional connections with their audiences. They were perhaps the original influencers.

With the advent of social media, we’re giving mascots and icons unique voices to engage directly with consumers and other brands outside of standard TV ads. More than ever before, mascots cultivate a brand personality and have a freedom in tone to resonate and engage with consumers.

It’s important for a brand to remain relevant and have a strong understanding of what it stands for in order to direct the mascot’s behavior in the right way. This applies to [real-life] spokespeople, influencers, and invented mascots. Historically, our famous mascot CEO Jack Box has always been witty, challenged the norm, and has pushed the envelope, which fits our DNA as a challenger brand.

Brandon Solano / CMO, Pei Wei

Pei Wei needed a unified brand positioning. Tiger is Asian, confident, and a quick read to help consumers and team members understand our new positioning. Good mascots resonate because they are relatable to consumers and embody relevant brand equities. They are essentially shorthand for the brand’s positioning.

We throw caution to the wind and focus on the upside of Tiger being amazing versus the downside of missing the mark. Besides, a mascot is yours forever versus renting a celebrity—which has its own risks—for the short term. Tiger has 500 times the industry average engagement rate on social media. While not as big or as old, he’s more relevant than larger and more longstanding mascots. He’s just getting started, and we plan to keep him forever.

I think social media will push more brands to utilize mascots as they look to synthesize their position and relate to their customers beyond a corporate social media account. Mascot social media accounts allow brands to be more provocative than their corporate social media accounts allow, giving them permission to be more relatable.

Sarah Mueller / Vice President of Marketing, A&W

Rooty the Great Root Bear was created by a Canadian agency in 1974. Ronald McDonald was becoming popular in Canada, and the chain wanted a mascot of its own to reach families with children.

We love Rooty and couldn’t imagine a single day without him. However, there was a time when he went into hibernation because ownership at the time did not see him as “elevating” for the brand. We think that’s just silly. Mascots allow brands to have more freedom with humor, to give personality beyond the spoken word. They allow kids of all ages to interact with the brand on another level, truly becoming part of the overall brand experience.

Rooty is part of the thought process of everything we do and the voice of the brand online. One of the more recent moves he’s made was to join the online GIF universe. In addition to the millions of GIF views he had in 2018, Rooty was featured in a “Happy New Year” GIF that had a million views only a week into 2019.

There is a lot more freedom with mascots because they aren’t meant to be taken as seriously. With that still comes a lot of responsibility. Our Rooty “operating manual” is 20 pages long and includes performance tips, protocols, and how to deal with minor crisis situations.

Business Advice, Story, A&W, Jack in the Box, Pei Wei