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The Real Reason Fast-Food Companies Are Bringing Back Mascots May Shock You

By Daniel B. Kline – Jun 14, 2015 at 12:10PM

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Hamburglar, Colonel Sanders, and the King have returned, but that might not be a good thing.

When Burger King's (QSR -2.23%) plastic-faced King mascot appeared behind legendary horse trainer Bob Baffert during American Pharoah's historic Triple Crown win at the Belmont Stakes, it became official that a fast-food mascot revival was under way.

The King, a character that had not been used since 2011, has been brought back for a series of social media-friendly appearances that started with his bizarre appearance as a member of Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s entourage for his fight against Manny Pacquiao.

The BK icon joins McDonald's (MCD -1.56%) new hipster take on the Hamburglar -- this time he's both a real guy and a husband who just happens to steal hamburgers -- and Yum! Brands (YUM -0.81%) subsidiary KFC's fresh version of Colonel Sanders, played by Saturday Night Live veteran Darrell Hammond. (Sanders, of course, was a real person who actually founded the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand).

The new Hamburglar is less loveable than his predecessor. Source: McDonald's.

"There seems to be a real resurgence of icons and mascots in the fast-food industry right now," Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, told Bloomberg. Bringing back the iconic characters is not just about publicity; it is also a way to "get people to reconnect with them," Rucker said. "They're quite literally personifying their brand."

There's also a more practical reason that these fast-food brands are putting attention back on their mascots: It takes the attention off their food, robble robble.

Forget how fried and greasy our meals are
Price used to be the key factor that drove the quick-serve restaurant market. Now, companies such as Chipotle and Panera Bread have changed the model, pushing quality and the ability to customize your meal over pure pricing plays. These fast-casual eateries are still relatively affordable compared to full-serve, sit-down restaurants, but their appeal does not come from offering dollar menus or the most food for $5.

"What you're seeing is companies who're facing different kinds of competition," Kevin Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business, told Bloomberg. "There's the healthiness trend, of course. ... But separate from that, there's also the preference for slowly cooked, higher-quality food."

Using a mascot allows McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (oddly enough, the brand is using that name again) to focus on something other than their menu. All of these brands plan to offer higher-quality, slower-cooked food, but changing a menu takes time.

The reintroduction of the mascots buys the chains some of that time by using nostalgia to appeal to older customers and a hipper take on their iconic characters to lure in millennials. It might not work, but it's a better tactic than pushing price or quantity of food at the moment.

Will it work?
It's too early in the new life of these mascots to see if they will help push sales in a positive direction. Early results, however, have not been good for McDonald's, which reported a 2.2% drop in U.S. comparable sales in May that it said "reflected negative customer traffic and ongoing competitive activity." The company did not address its advertising in its press release, but it did acknowledge that it was in a time of transformation.

"To address its current challenges, the U.S. is working to enhance the customer experience with exciting limited-time menu and value options while testing opportunities to expand convenience, personalization and daypart availability to modernize the business," according to the press release.

KFC is also making some changes, redesigning many of its stores and introducing fresh-made fried chicken that requires a 25-minute wait. Burger King has been transforming as well, trying out healthier menu items and adding customization options.

While those changes are being tested and implemented, the U.S. consumer is likely to get more of Hammond's take on the folksy Colonel, along with the King popping up in public places. And, of course, the Hamburglar will continue his thieving ways, just daring Mayor McCheese to catch him.

It's hard to see how mascots are a long-term solution to offering lousy food, but as a short-term nostalgic fix, they might help.

Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He is partial to Grimace. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Panera Bread. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Panera Bread. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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