Why Are So Many Fast-Food Characters Coming Back From the Dead?

A hipster Hamburglar, a creepy Colonel Sanders, the Burger King lurking at the Belmont Stakes: all hungry for growth

Why Fast Food Companies Are Bringing Back Mascots

How do you advertise enormous hamburgers and buckets of fried chicken when that's just going to remind people that they're not supposed to eat enormous hamburgers and buckets of fried chicken?

You get a funny mascot to do it for you.

It's a hard world for a fast food chain. Meals once considered quick, convenient, and delicious are now salted with guilt. Americans have finally started to eat less fast food than they used to, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. McDonald's has seen a 4 percent drop in same-store sales in the U.S. this year. Last year, Chick-fil-A surpassed KFC in sales, even though it has fewer stores and closes them all on Sundays.

"It's not just about the cheapest price anymore," says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at research firm NPD Group. "People need another reason to visit a fast-food restaurant."

In May, McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC all resurrected characters they hadn’t used to sell their food in years, or decades. 

The Hamburglar, a character used by McDonald's Restaurants Ltd for advertising purposes, is seen in this undated handout photograph, released to the media on May 14, 2015.

The Hamburglar, in a McDonald's handout released in May.

Source: McDonald's Restaurants Ltd via Bloomberg

First, McDonald's pulled its Hamburglar character out of a 13-year retirement and remade him into a bearded hipster in a trench coat who prefers to steal the chain's new Sirloin Burger (perhaps because he can't crack Shake Shack). He's part of a McDonald's campaign to be seen as "a modern, progressive burger company," as Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook put it in a May conference call with investors.

Less than two weeks later, Burger King released a fresh batch of commercials featuring its plastic-faced King, who hadn't been used since 2011. It paid to put the King in Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s entourage for his fight against Manny Pacquiao. On Saturday he was seen standing behind American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert, at the Belmont Stakes. 

"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."

KFC, which is owned by Yum! Brands, completes the trifecta with its brand-new version of Colonel Sanders, played by Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond to creepy effect. The original Colonel, who was a real person, had a Southern, grandfatherly persona. He'd seat young children on his lap in commercials and explain to them that his "always fresh, never frozen" Kentucky fried chicken was dipped in "milk and egg wash" before it was seasoned and fried. KFC hadn't used his likeness in ads since 1994. Now it's boasting that Sanders dropped out of grade school and once shot a man.

"Did you know he used to be a lawyer until he punched one of his clients and got disbarred?" says Kevin Hochman, chief marketing officer of KFC in the U.S.

All three ad campaigns appear to be mainly going after the 18- to 34-year-old male who is urban, educated, and would—much like the new Hamburglar—probably rather eat a gourmet burger. "Young people right now like the idea of doing one thing really well—craft beers, DIY videos on YouTube, stuff like that," KFC's Hochman says. "So we explain to them Colonel Sanders does that one thing—he makes fried chicken. It makes us relevant again."

In honor of Colonel Sanders' birthday, KFC surprised those waiting in line for the iPhone 6 with KFC chicken and the Colonel's signature string ties, on Sept. 9, 2014 in New York City.

KFC surprised people on line for the iPhone 6 in September in New York.

Photographer: Charles Sykes/Invision for KFC via AP Images

"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," as in Wendy's current campaign, in which its redheaded namesake talks about how fresh the strawberries in her summer salad are. "But separate from that, there's also the preference for slowly cooked, higher-quality food," he says.

KFC now boasts a 25-minute wait for freshly fried chicken and is revamping 70 percent of its U.S. stores to look more like a sit-down fast-casual restaurant such as Chipotle. McDonald's and Burger King aren't going that far—at least, not yet—preferring to stick with their hipster thief and photo-bombing lurker.

The only national fast-food chain that's not relying on a mascot is an additional Yum! brand, Taco Bell. Maybe that's because it doesn't have to. After all, it recently turned Fritos into a taco shell. 

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