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Can Old Mascots Make the Connection with Today’s Consumers?

Ah, the good ole days. Those times past that always seem to illicit recollection of simpler, more carefree memories far removed from the manic, gritty sights and sounds of the present. If only we could escape back to those times where every day seemed easier and better than today. The truth is that the ragged edges of any period in history is often softened by the passing of time, a fact that peddlers of all things from music to hula hoops artfully tap into every few years in hopes of revitalizing sagging sales or polishing a tarnished brand. It is a powerful ploy which often works, at least for a while.

The leaders in established fast food franchises are once again feeling the aches and pains that come with age. It’s inevitable that a brand will start to feel old over time as new entrants to the market tweak the most successful formulas and tap into new consumers tastes. McDonald’s is experiencing stiff competition in the burger segment from brands like Shake Shack, Sonic and Whataburger. The undisputed fast food mega star is seeing same store sales decline by more than 2 percent so far this year, prompting nervous executives to resurrect their iconic Hamburglar mascot from more than a decade ago.

But the team at the “Golden Arches” is not the only fast food purveyor to reach back to the past in an effort to advance their sagging market positions. Burger King is dusting-off and touching-up their crazy “King” as KFC performs a more difficult task of reincarnating their southern fried founder, Colonel Sanders. Both efforts have so far solicited a “creepy” reaction from consumers whose ultimate response is yet to be determined.

Remaining relevant in a rapidly changing marketing environment is a challenge even in the best of times. Some brands embrace the shifts and smoothly transition but others have a difficult time accepting that their years in the sun have faded, and that hipper, trendier brands are taking over. “There seems to be a real resurgence of icons and mascots in the fast-food industry right now,” says Derek Rucker, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It’s an easy way for companies to gin up publicity, of course. But it’s also a way to “get people to reconnect with them,” Rucker says. “They’re quite literally personifying their brand.”

All three ad campaigns appear to be going after the 18- to 34-year-old male who is urban and educated, but attracting today’s millennials to old fashioned brands who are struggling to remain relevant in the new-age healthier marketplace can be tricky. “What you’re seeing is companies who’re facing different kinds of competition,” says Kevin Keller, professor of marketing at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business. “There’s the healthiness trend, of course, but separate from that, there’s also the preference for slowly cooked, higher-quality food,” he says.

While social media outlets are well suited for popular mascots from the past, making a connection with tomorrows trend setters with a poorly scripted and portrayed message can easily lead consumers to the perception that the effort is an attempt to distract them from the negative aspects of the food and service.

The reintroduction of the mascots may just buy the lumbering chains the time needed to make more dramatic adjustments to their formats by playing the nostalgic card once again. But in the end success in the future will be more about the quality and relevance of the food and it’s delivery than the character and cuteness of the brand’s mascot.

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