Ronald McDonald is still around, but the Hamburglar, Grimace and the rest of the crew have been gone for about a decade now—and even Ronald is much less visible in McDonald's marketing today. Taco Bell parted ways with its catchphrase-spouting chihuahua in 2000, and Burger King ditched its mask-wearing king in 2011.
One big reason why mascots are no longer cool is the exploding popularity of so-called fast-casual chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. "People seem to like that better now," said Kathy Hayden, a food service analyst at Mintel. "People are more serious about food," so that's where marketers are focusing their efforts.
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In KFC's case, dropping the Colonel from its new KFC eleven format is part of an ongoing bid to be a "more generic brand" and distance itself from its Southern roots and fried chicken, said Joseph Szala, founder and creative director of Vigor Branding. In the same vein, the brand changed its name to KFC from Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1991.
The concern over childhood obesity also plays a significant role. A nonprofit group has been waging a "Retire Ronald" campaign against McDonald's for a few years now. "You start throwing cartoons in there and wooing children, it makes you seem less ethical as a corporation," Szala said.
"There's definitely reputational and even legal concerns," said Mark DiMassimo, CEO of Digo Brands. "Joe Camel worked all too well," DiMassimo said of the character R.J. Reynolds tobacco company retired in 1997. "He sold a lot of that product to kids. That's why he's gone."
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Likewise, DiMassimo said Anheuser-Busch probably saw the writing on the wall and retired Spuds Mackenzie after coming under fire from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "I imagine the same thing is going on in the restaurant business," he said. "This whole issue of obesity is a top reputational priority."
As American consumer media has evolved and fragmented, so too has our relationships with brands. "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," DiMassimo said. Today, that's no longer the case.