Does Your Company's Mascot Need to Be Taken Out to Pasture -- Or Euthanized?

Last Updated May 24, 2011 6:33 AM EDT

Adam Rauch is the president of One Line Sports Agency, a sports and entertainment marketing company in Bayside, NY. With the fate of Ronald McDonald hanging in the balance during the last few days -- it's not his first brush with destiny -- I wanted to ask Rauch about corporate mascots and their effects on customer service.

Here's our interview:

Since this is a customer service blog, I want to start with an obvious question: What, if anything, does a mascot have to do with customer service?
I think a mascot is typically an extension of the brand and corporate culture. If it is a well-run company that instructs all of its employees to live up to a creed or motto represented by the mascot, then it can work and translate to better service.

We've been following the Ronald McDonald case for the last few days. What do you make of it?
Childhood health and obesity is a major issue in the United States. But this is just another case of a group of activists looking to point the blame at external factors such as mascots instead of taking meaningful actions to prevent the causes of the plight.

The same has held true in the sports industry for the past decade which has led to prominent sports teams changing their names and mascots.

Can you give me an example?
In the 1990s the Washington Bullets were looking to rebrand their image due the high crime rate that was prevalent in Washington. The owner at the time did not think Bullets was an appropriate brand message. A vote was held and the team decided on using the name Wizards.

Wizards are typically considered benevolent in nature and evoke positive feelings. However, even then, activists in the community were outraged due to the fact that the name Wizards were once associated with a position in the KKK.

Point being, it is very difficult to please everyone as opinions are prevalent everywhere you turn.

Interesting. How would you define an inappropriate corporate mascot?
An inappropriate corporate mascot will ultimately be judged by the bottom line. If the majority of consumers or fans reject the notion of the mascot, then it will not survive. Similar to Super Bowl commercials, the immediate consumer response is evident immediately which lead some brands to rerun the spots time and time again. The ones that bomb are immediately pulled from the air never to be shown again.

I ran a poll on my site yesterday, asking readers to vote on the most evil corporate mascot. Joe Camel easily beat the mascot du jour, Ronald McDonald, by a 3-to-1 margin. Yet both of those mascots were successful by your standards. Is there a public perception issue to consider, too?
Public perception is extremely important, but in an age of digital technology where options are immediately shared, it is much more difficult to accurately gauge public perception over time. Mainly, brands need to better understand what is a sustainable belief or just a fleeting thought or reaction.

In your example, we have been taught for the past 20 years that smoking is bad for you and Joe Camel is solely aligned with smoking. The childhood obesity conversation is really just in its infancy and Ronald McDonald is associated with many good things too such as charitable giving.

So keeping Ronald McDonald -- good move?
For now it is a good move, but over time, McDonald's will likely have to shift his role to more of an educator and an ambassador to aid its philanthropic efforts.

OK. So let's say your mascot doesn't work -- it's either offensive or unpopular. What are your options?
Unpopular mascots can likely be faded out over time without many announcements. Offensive ones would need to be more public as you want to communicate that you listened to the concerns and have taken immediate action.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.