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How Chains Create Memorable Brand Mascots The fast-food industry has invented some of the most memorable brand mascots in history, such as Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, and Chuck E. Cheese. But fame doesn’t guarantee survival. While many of these characters are still almost universally recognized in consumer surveys, their life stories show how difficult it […]

June 12, 2024

How Chains Create Memorable Brand Mascots

The fast-food industry has invented some of the most memorable brand mascots in history, such as Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, and Chuck E. Cheese.

But fame doesn’t guarantee survival. While many of these characters are still almost universally recognized in consumer surveys, their life stories show how difficult it can be to create a mascot that syncs with the cultural zeitgeist over time.

McDonald’s famed clown, Ronald, was the face of the hamburger chain for decades, but he fell out of favor with many consumers in the early 2000s for encouraging children to eat unhealthy food. The killing blow came in 2015 when numerous stories of creepy clown sightings around the country transformed Ronald’s image from jolly to sinister and threatening.

Fast-food giant Taco Bell elevated a sombrero-wearing chihuahua named Gidget into a cultural phenom, airing ads that made popular buzzwords of such phrases as “Yo quiero Taco Bell” and “Yeah, drop the Chalupa!” Taco Bell dropped Gidget in 2000, however, after Latin Americans criticized the mascot for perpetuating stereotypes and a civil rights leader threatened a boycott.

Also benched was Burger King’s creepy “The King” mascot. The company decided in 2011 that the King, who wore an oversized grinning plastic mask and kept popping up from behind walls and doors, was scaring women and children. The King still ranks among the 25 most widely recognized mascots, however, based on a survey of 1,630 consumers by Crestline Custom
Promotional Products.

Among mascots that have managed to evolve and survive, Chuck E. Cheese has the most checkered past. Intent on starting a chain called Coyote Pizza, the pizza chain’s co-founder thought he was buying a coyote character when he ordered a costume at a trade show in the late 1970s. Only after the outfit arrived did he realize the creature was actually a rat. Undaunted, managers changed the chain’s name to Chuck E. Cheese and forged ahead. Over time, the mascot evolved from an abrasive, cigar-toting rat into a gentler, more lovable mouse.

KFC’s Colonel Sanders, still the face of the chicken chain and ranked No. 2 among memorable brand mascots in the survey, got new life in 2019 when KFC reinvented him as a young, stylish influencer — still outfitted in his trademark white suit but with far better styling.

Chick-fil-A also has stuck with its subversive cow mascots — black- and-white Holsteins urging consumers to “Eat Mor Chikin.” Widely recognizable among consumers since 1995, Chick-fil-A’s bovines are celebrated annually on social media on Cow Appreciation Day.

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