Brand Mascots: An Endangered Species

The Geico Gecko looks like he’ll be around a while longer. And the Hooter’s owl is getting a makeover – because, of all things, the restaurant chain that prominently focuses on the female form as an integral part of a fine dining experience wants to appeal to more…female diners. By changing the look of the owl.

The Pillsbury Doughboy, on the other hand, might be seeing his decades-long run nearing an end. Not because the Hooter’s owl has him outflanked with female fans. But because some brands are re-thinking the wisdom of using mascots to sell products people are taking more and more seriously – food that contributes to a healthy lifestyle.

Which, again, Hooter’s must be way on top of, because they’re not getting rid of the owl. Just improving its look. (Ever had the tofu onion rings there?)

Politically incorrect or just irresponsible?

The growing trend to ditch the brand mascots of yesteryear – costumed characters, furry animals and/or talking cartoon characters whose playful presence lends a spirit of fun and identity to a brand – has been gathering momentum in recent years. A CNBC report ticks off a number of cases in point, beginning with the latest mascot to vanish, the string tie-wearing visage of one Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The chain launched a new concept restaurant, called KFC eleven (which hopefully does not refer to the grams of fat in every bite), without using the Colonel’s mug. The likely reason? To be known as a more generic brand and less for its Southern fried beginnings, says one analyst.

The Colonel joins some long-departed company, such as the Hamburglar of McDonald’s fame (Ronald is still around, but only making cameo appearances now). Taco Bell retired its spunky Chihuahua some 13 years ago (and boy, is the Bell way ahead of Hooter’s, or what?), while, in 2011, Burger King finally gave the heave-ho to that plastic-faced, creepy pretend king who scared more children than a hung-over circus clown.

Marketing is serious business

Changing an image is one thing. Erasing an entire brand’s populist/institutional memory is another. What gives? A few ideas:

  1. Various crystal ball-seers quoted by CNBC indicate that mascots are disappearing because of the massive popularity of “fast-casual” operations, like Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill, which apparently are fast enough to attract all comers at all hours, but far enough away from fast-food to need the compensation of a loveable mascot.
  2. There’s evidently serious concern that hanging on to old-time mascots might translate into harboring outdated ideas – like lack of concern for issues such as childhood obesity. For several years, a nonprofit group has been trying to “Retire Ronald” from McDonald’s. “You start throwing cartoons in there and wooing children, it makes you seem less ethical as a corporation,” one analyst tells CNBC, apparently with a straight face. So a scarlet-haired clown who couldn’t get a laugh from a kid if his pension depended on it is somehow now encouraging childhood obesity? And needs to be pushed out to a funny farm? Why not just turn him into a healthy salad, called Romaine with Ronald, and force kids to buy him as an Unhappy Meal?
  3. More along those lines, and understandable to a point, are concerns about legality and image. Joe Camel, the cartoon character used by R.J. Reynolds to interest kids in cancer sticks, was finally sent away to advertorial Siberia for having done his job way too well. Ditto for Anheuser-Busch’s pup, Spuds Mackenzie, who took a fair amount of flak, including some from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. No one should advocate risky behavior in kids, but sacking Joe and a dog is a little like putting Scooby Doo and pals on notice because of the exploits of the potty-mouthed boys on South Park.

Cartoons with a reputation

Or is it? Do certain classes of consumers give certain brands a break because they use, or once used, a mascot? Does it really have as much to do with the mascot as one might think?

Mark DiMassimo, CEO of Digo Brands, explained to CNBC that American consumers don’t relate to brands quite the way they used to when mascots were everywhere. “When the mascots really burst onto the scene, branding was identified with awareness…and television was not just the primary medium but the overwhelming majority of impressions.” As that’s changed, the usefulness of mascots has diminished.

One analyst believes that companies can use mascots as long as they revamp old imagery and as long as consumers continue to ID the brand with the mascot and vice versa. Twinkie the Kid is apparently poised for a comeback. And Wendy’s re-styled the red-haired girl at the center of its logo, in both the cartoon and real-life commercial varieties.

And, of course, there’s Hooter’s, whose re-imagined owl, CNBC reports, “still has the wide eyes that create a kind of visual double entendre.”

Leave it to the company’s chief marketing officer to step into that pile of hogwash even further:

The design of the owl provides the comic relief that mystifies this great brand. It makes people smile … and what’s not to like about an owl?Dave Henniger, Chief Marketing Officer, Hooters

Good to know that a perfectly legitimate excuse for patronizing Hooter’s is to get a laugh or two. Because, of course, you’re never fully exposed to that environment without a smile.

Image via chrisjtse / CC BY-ND 2.0

Pierce Mattie

Pierce Mattie is a full-service marketing agency that interacts with consumers and key stakeholders at every stage of the journey. With a focus in beauty, health and wellness, we are immersed in the marketing landscape, able to powerfully communicate a brand’s point of difference to acquire and maintaining customers. The content team is obsessed with what's trending in the digital world, and how it intersects with consumer behavior. We are passionate about the changing landscape of the world, including how emergent technologies affect brand attachment, how diversity and inclusivity are critical to success, and where humans fit into the equation.

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