Fast-food mascots are an endangered species

Grimace, The King and The Colonel fade away as the big, established chains ditch their legacy images to draw millennials.

By Jason Notte Jul 22, 2013 3:32PM
A man walks by a KFC restaurant with no Colonel Sanders in the sign. (© David Silverman/Getty Images)Rest in peace, Grimace, Fry Guys, The King and culturally insensitive taco-loving chihuahua. The Colonel will be joining you soon.

As our colleagues at CNBC have noted, the fast-food mascot is becoming an endangered species on the restaurant landscape. Spurred by the belief that millennials can't relate to a long-deceased Kentucky Colonel or to bones in their chicken, Yum Brands' (YUM) KFC announced last week that an "upscale" new version would ditch the Colonel and serve only the boneless version of their favorite chicken.

KFC isn't the only chain ditching its mascot and disguising itself as something other than fast food. The Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese and the rest of Ronald McDonald's McDonaldland friends have been unemployed for more than a decade after McDonald's (MCD) was accused of pandering to kids.

Gidget, the Taco Bell chihuahua, was fired in 2000 amid slumping sales and increasing scrutiny from advocacy groups. Silent Burger King (BKW) pitchman The King got the boot in 2011 for being too creepy and catering a bit too much to "The Hangover"-watching males ages 18 to 35.

Even Hooters has tweaked its wide-eyed double-entendre owl, but only after sales slumped and competitors encroached on its "breastaurant" space.

How has it been working out for everyone? McDonald's sales are flagging, while fast-casual competitors including Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) are taking off. The common belief is that millennials want nothing to do with old-school fast food and are hitting Panera Bread (PNRA) in droves.

The reality is that they like fast-food just fine, but tend to dig places with fresh ingredients like Five Guys and In 'N' Out Burger.

They also seem to be just fine with establishments that embrace their fast-food roots. Wendy's (WEN) tweaked its pigtailed mascot, but was named America's favorite large fast-food chain, thanks largely to its fresh ingredients. Taco Bell and Burger King, meanwhile, have embraced value menus, waffle tacos, fake McRib sandwiches and delivery in positioning themselves as the anti-McDonald's.

However, the folks under the Golden Arches have seen premium offerings like Angus burgers and snack wraps fail miserably and serve only to bloat its menu, while it toys with late-night breakfast and McWraps to win back customers. This continued inconsistency, coupled with phased-out mascots and rivals' brazen grabs at millennial wallets, is stripping fast-food chains of their identities and turning them into shallow husks of their former selves.

In an attempt to counter surging chains that do one thing and do it well, the old-line fast-food giants are throwing everything at the wall instead of sticking with the formula that brought them their initial success. But in killing the fast-food mascots, they could be poisoning their brands as well.

More on moneyNOW

Jul 22, 2013 4:26PM
Why was the Taco Bell Chihuahua "culturally insensitive"?  It was no more insensitive than featuring a French poodle advertising cuisine from France.  Give me a break!
Jul 22, 2013 4:54PM
Is anybody else remembering the bit from Demolition Man where Sandra Bullock tells Sylvester Stallone about the fast food wars in the early 21st century, and Taco Bell being the only one to survive?
Jul 22, 2013 5:13PM
Jul 22, 2013 5:42PM
Those slumping sales had nothing to do with the *millennials* not "relating" to the fast food characters of their childhood.  The economy went down the poopshoot, and the "millennials" were eating for free at their mom's house...where they were living in the basement.
Jul 22, 2013 6:03PM
I stopped eating ANYTHING from KFC about 10 years ago for a few reasons. It no longer resembles or tastes like the food did in the 60's or 70's when Colonel Sanders was still around-The gravy and mashed potatoes taste NOTHING like they used to when the food was prepared fresh. The Chicken is lifeless and so greasy that I could change the oil in my car with it. The people at KFC are either rude or worse at EVERY location I've ever been to-and I've bitten into a raw piece of chicken more than once. You can ditch the Colonel but whatever you do- do SOMETHING to improve your food and the employees. Popeye's may be a little more expensive-but THAT'S good chicken. Harlan Sanders would be doing back-flips in his grave if he knew how nasty the food was/is now.
Jul 22, 2013 4:29PM
Man, if I had a dollar for every time these so called experts buried McDonald's I'd be rich.  Numbers are deceiving and don't tell the whole picture.  When little piss ant restaurants that barely do $4000 a day are up $200 that is a 5% increase in sales and everyone does a happy dance.  When a McDs which averages about $8500 a day is up $200 that is a 2.35% increase in sales and the msn wheels begin to turn out the doomsday stories.  As a stock owner, I will take McDs anytime...bigger, better, and always competing even though their ideas and products are ripped off and copied over and over. 
Jul 22, 2013 5:27PM
Thank God Jack will always be with us.
Jul 22, 2013 5:48PM
Do one thing and do it well for a fair price and people will beat down the doors to get in. Ala, In-n- Out Burger.  Great fresh food and a great price and the greatest  asset of all great, service -oriented employes.  Thank you In-n-Out Burger.
Jul 22, 2013 6:25PM

Mcdonalds is going down the tubes because they serve bad food, have reduced the size of their nasty processed burgers to not much more than sliders, only fill French fry containers half way up, don't offer super size anymore to those of us who want to choose how much we eat, hire rude ghetto punks and stoners who don't know the meaning of customer service, or Mexicans who can't understand English.

I really doubt it has anything to do with the McDonaldland characters.

Jul 22, 2013 6:25PM

Bob's Big Boy, don't remember what the burgers tasted like but I remember the big statue of a boy holding a giant hamburger.

Jul 22, 2013 7:01PM
I'm sorry to say that the customer service in these fast food joints stinks (I'm being nice here)!  My first job 40 years ago was in a fast food place and although we were paid peanuts (just as the fast food workers are today), we were expected to (and did) be decent to our customers.  We couldn't act apathetic or rude or shuffle around and act as if we were doing our customers a favor.  That would have been a reason to "get the boot" back then.  Seems now any kind of behavior must be tolerated.  Damned shame.
Jul 22, 2013 5:15PM
Meanwhile, In-N-Out, FiveGuys, Habit and Smash Burger are kicking everyone else's rear because they have fresh ingredients, nothing fake, simple menus and are reasonably priced.  When was the last time you had a line to the door at McDs?  It's like that EVERY TIME you go into one of the Boutique Burger shops.
Jul 22, 2013 5:53PM
Let's see, the mascots are fading because... what? How about the fast food places are failing because THEIR FOOD TASTES AWFUL. Could that possibly the reason "millennials" (and everyone else) are abandoning them for places like Five Guys? I used to love KFC; now, I wouldn't go in one unless they paid me $5,000 per bite, assuming, of course, I could choke down more than two bites. We have a Five Guys here, and as someone else said, it's always busy.
Jul 22, 2013 6:18PM
Jul 22, 2013 6:12PM
Does anyone remember the ORIGINAL Taco Bell mascot?? It was a Mexican boy taking a siesta on a blanket and wearing a sombrero. The Mexicans thought that was reinforcing the stereotype that Mexicans are lazy, so they got rid of it about 25 years ago, I think.
Jul 22, 2013 5:23PM
Thank God for Jack in the Box. Now just bring one over here in East Tennessee.
Jul 22, 2013 6:14PM
Hey mascots, say hello to Tony the Tiger when you get to mascot heaven.
Jul 22, 2013 5:47PM
From what I've seen on the tube lately all you need to do is mix everything half and half with chili powder and soak it with ghost chili pepper sauce. It doesn't matter if it's fresh or dead for six months, there's a whole class of people who will claim it's delicious..
Jul 22, 2013 7:32PM

I think the problem is the service.  I refuse to go to Burger King for this reason.  The last time I went to Burger King, I had to wait twenty minutes for a hamburger and fries.  There was only one car ahead of me and no customers in the restaurant.  Another time at BK I had to wait ten minutes to get a soda.  The workers looked slovenly, lazy, and dirty.   I only go to a couple of McDs where they have hired older workers who greet you with a smile and some courtesy.

Jul 22, 2013 7:10PM
I'd rather pay a  bit more for food that resembles something natural, rather than the pink slime and horse meat you get at McD and Taco Bell.  Mascots have nothing to do with it.
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