2011 March: Mascot Marketing

A mascot can help you boost sales, but you have to create the right mascot and use it effectively. Whether it’s a costume that an employee wears or a cartoon character on your logo, the mascot can help you differentiate your­self from competitors.
“A mascot adds personality to the brand and helps you to connect with customers for the long term,” says Arjun Sen, president of Restaurant Marketing Group in Centennial, Colorado. He points to one of the giants in restaurant mascots, Chuck E. Cheese. The mouse celebrates birthdays with kids, poses for photos, and gets people to think of Chuck E. Cheese’s as a fun place to eat pizza.

It helps if the person inside the costume has the right personality, says Jim Fox, president of the 300-location Fox’s Pizza Den, based in Murrys­ville, Pennsylvania. The fox mascot interacts with customers at grand openings, and also appears at high school games throwing miniature footballs, soccer balls, or basketballs with coupons into the crowd.

Some Fox’s Pizza Den locations offer home birthday party packages. Customers can choose a three-, four- or six-pizza package. “We have little t-shirts done up with Happy Birthday from Fox’s with our logo,” he says. “The mascot goes into the house and kids get their pictures taken with him.”

A mascot can serve as the restaurant’s ambassador at community events. Dave Krolicki, marketing manager for the 500-location Hungry Howie’s Pizza, based in Madison Heights, Michigan, says Howie was a grand marshal at the Shrine Circus and Parade. The Shriners invited Howie to participate in an autograph session where kids could meet circus performers. “Little kids came up screaming for Howie and hug­ging Howie at the knees, and parents would say, ‘Can you take a picture with my son or daughter?’ ” Krolicki says.

Dee Ann Bowen, whose family owns Signs & Shapes International, says off-premises appearances can pro­mote goodwill. “If Joe’s Pizza is always out at community events and Sam’s Pizza is never there, people associate that with the brands,” she says. The Omaha, Nebraska-based company makes WalkAround inflatable mascot costumes. She says restaurants that buy the costumes do everything from hav­ing the character stand in the store and hand out coupons to traveling to local tourist sites and posting the videos on YouTube.

She cautions against overdoing it. “Everybody thinks the best thing is standing outside your place and waving,” Bowen says. “That’s one use, but it’s not the only use. I’m not sure if you did that every day it would be effective.” She suggests hosting mascot nights, and offering free photos with the mascot at the restaurant.

If the mascot appears at a local game, the character doesn’t have to stand on the sidelines for the entire game. The mascot could instead appear during breaks in the action, throwing t-shirts into the audience. Krolicki says at foot­ball game halftimes, Howie hosts kids’ running races, with the winner earning a free pizza.
Sen points to another giant of the mascot realm. “At Disney World, you don’t see Mickey and Minnie every­where. They rotate the characters because overexposure is never what you need,” he says.

Bowen suggests designing a mascot costume based on a character and/or the business’s logo. Meanwhile, Carol Flemming, whose Avery, California-based company created the Fox’s costumes, says a mascot should be kid friendly. It should also be larger than life, and have bright colors. “People don’t see signs, but they do see a mascot in front of your restaurant,” she asserts. “If you put a mascot costume on a five-foot, two-inch person, the mascot will be six-foot-two because — the head is a foot tall.”

Also, she says, don’t forget to put your restaurant’s logo on the costume, front and back, so it will appear in photos.

Fox says some franchisees own a fox costume, and others rent the costume from those franchisees. A costume can cost several thousand dollars, but he says the new materials are more comfortable and cool than the heavy, heatstroke-inducing costumes of old.

Some mascots exist only in logos. Hideaway Pizza, based in Tulsa, Okla­homa, has Kahuna, a cartoon character that has big hair, wears a bow tie and carries a pizza. Marketing director Janie Harris says Kahuna has been around for decades, with slight changes over the years to his apron and other details. “Our mascot is what people think about us,” she says. “It’s a complete and simple way to communicate what our restaurant is about — hot, fresh pizza.”

Kahuna appears on the menu, pizza boxes, kids’ coloring sheets and the Web site. Kahuna’s wife, Karma Fiona, and son, Junior, also appear on materi­als. Some of the newer locations of the nine-unit Hideaway have six-foot rep­licas of Kahuna. Harris says the figures have never been stolen, but sometimes they are vandalized. “One time his hair was stuffed with tennis balls, and another time he was wrapped in silly string,” she says.

There are no plans for a costume. “He is not coming alive,” she says. “We want to leave in the mystery.” u
Nora Caley is a freelance writer special­izing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

TIP: It’s a good idea to create trade­mark protection for your mascot to make sure no one else can use that design. A trademark is a word, name, or symbol that identifies your business.
“The first thing with any logo, mascot, or cartoon you want to protect is, is it confusingly similar to someone else’s?” says Gerry Norton, a registered patent attorney with Fox Rothschild, LLP in New York. He suggests doing some research.
You can search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site to see if anyone has registered a trademark similar to your mascot. However, the search will not necessarily mean the mark is clear for your use, says Susan Neuberger Weller, a trademark
attorney with Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Fer­ris, Glovsky and Popeo P.C. in Wash­ington DC. “That might mean no one is using the identical name or design mark,” she says. What’s problematic is a similar name or design. Consider hiring a lawyer, because law firms have access to databases that consumers don’t have to conduct broad trademark searches.

Then file a trademark application with the USPTO. Be sure to list the ways you plan to use the mascot, such as on t-shirts and pizza boxes, and all the services you will provide using the mascot design, such as entertainment services by an individual in the mascot costume. For more information, visit www.uspto.gov.

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