The beef with fast food mascots
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May 26, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

The beef with fast food mascots

Fast food mascots usually get slammed, say experts, noting it’s a tricky area to tackle in marketing


McDonald’s new “brand ambassador” Happy got a rough reception when he was introduced to U.S. customers last week, but the toothy, animated mascot certainly isn’t alone in the fast food world.

From Burger King’s sneering, plastic-faced King mascot to Quiznos’ guitar-playing rat puppet and Arby’s walking, talking oven mitt, the industry is littered with odd spokesman choices.

Corporate mascots are tricky at the best of times, but outside of 51-year-old Ronald McDonald — who is both loved and loathed — they don’t stick around long in the fast food business (where are Mayor McCheese and Taco Bell’s Chihuahua hiding out?).

People are just more skeptical when it relates to mostly unhealthy food marketed to children, says Jordan Fogle, chief executive officer of Toronto branding firm The Mint Agency.

“Some of these mascots, like mice (Chuck E. Cheese) and rats, are a little weird,” particularly since these companies are pushing food, he says.

He notes that industry efforts to attract the coveted young male millennials can easily backfire. Fogle points to Burger King’s King, a bearded, bling-wearing character who was retired in 2011 after a series of edgy ads some critics found disturbing; including one in which a man wakes up in bed beside the awkward mascot, who hands him a breakfast sandwich.

“It’s kind of creepy. They’re pushing the boundaries there,” he adds.

“People think, ‘That’s ugly, what’s that?’ and they forget what the company is trying to sell,” says Alan Middleton, marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “They become attention-getters for the sake of getting attention, but don’t give you any feeling about the product.”

A mascot is bound to flop if it doesn’t reflect what the brand stands for, what the company is selling or the customer experience, explains Middleton.

Mascots in fast food have run the gamut, from cartoons and virtual characters (Subway’s yellow monkey) to people in costume (Ronald McDonald, A&W’s Root Bear) used in commercials, and for public appearances at trade shows and events.

At their best, mascots are branding gold that can help people better remember a company and its products, says Fogle. And they can actually be revenue generators when their likenesses are sold as toys or collectibles.

Unlike spokespeople, mascots can be ageless brand representatives that help the target market develop a closer relationship with its products, says Middleton.

“There’s a real struggle to appeal to the target group,” he says.

Subway Canada’s ad firm, KBS+ in Montreal said last week it is shelving its monkey mascot, seen in its commercials for the last seven years, to introduce customers to new TV ad spots promoting their new spinach and avocado toppings.

“The monkey’s not dead, we’ll still use him for precise advertising,” likely related to the chain’s breakfast sandwiches, said KBS+ creative director Sacha Ouimet.

In the case of Happy, an animated McDonald’s Happy Meal box with Golden Arches for eyebrows, some customers showed they weren’t really “lovin’ it” last week and lit up social media, calling it terrifying and a “McStake”.

“They’ve had Ronald since Day One, then they 180 it with this other character,” says Fogle.

However, he doesn’t feel Happy was a sad choice for the Big Mac behemoth. The character was first introduced in 2009 in France and since then has been launched in other European countries and Latin America, where he’s mostly been embraced as a cute character.

“I’d rather hang out with him than Ronald,” Fogle jokes. “Clowns are one of those things that kids absolutely love or really scare them.

“There is value in a mascot because it adds another level of branding, and it’s fun,” he adds.

Middleton notes some iconic restaurant chains will never need a mascot because they have had great success without one.

“Tim Horton’s doesn’t need a mascot. There’s a style to Tim’s ads that look very Canadian, very boy and girl next door.”

Toronto Star

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