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The Hamburglar, Colonel Sanders, and the case for reviving the corporate mascot

May 20, 2015, 12:41 AM UTC

Earlier this month, McDonald’s brought back the Hamburglar after a 13-year hiatus. The new live-action burger thief received—ahem—mixed reviews. The consensus was that he was half hot suburban dad, half creepy neighborhood peeping tom. Missing from many of the social media reactions was any indication that the new Hamburglar would achieve the company’s goal: to get people to eat more McDonald’s food.

On Tuesday, KFC launched an ad campaign featuring a new Colonel Sanders, the character that represents the real-life founder of the fried chicken chain, who’s been dead for 35 years. So far, responses to the Colonel’s rebirth are positive. Perhaps that’s because KFC enlisted Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond, best known for his Bill Clinton impersonations, for the role.

NEW Colonel Sanders KFC gif
Courtesy of KFC
Courtesy of KFC

In an era in which there’s a premium on branding innovation, what’s the point of resurrecting a dated mascot, especially when the downside, a la the Hamburglar, can be so very low?

Fortune posed this question to Allen Adamson, chairman of the North American division of brand consulting firm Landor. He says it all comes down to achieving authenticity.

When asked what brands can do to engage or interest them the most, baby boomer respondents listed “be authentic” third after standing behind their product and rewarding loyalty, according to a Boston Consulting Group survey. Millennials put “be authentic” second, behind rewarding loyalty.

“Who a brand is is becoming more important because product differentiation is much harder to achieve,” Adamson says. “There’s a sea of similarities across categories.”

For many brands, exhibiting authenticity means going back to their roots and finding a piece of its history to reinvigorate. “The trick,” Adamson says, “is to re-imagine it in a way that’s relevant versus retro and dated.”

Corporate mascots may be a particularly hard sell these days because so many newer brands have shied away from putting a face on their products.

In, say, the 1950s, personifying brands with characters was all the rage. Famed ad man Leo Burnett, creator of Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, the Marlboro Man, and the Pillsbury Doughboy, used the strategy as a way to make brands more approachable and memorable; brands could use mascots to communicate not only the products they offered but also their identity as well.

But it takes a lot of media money—such as appearances in multiple TV ads—to bring characters to life. In today’s fragmented media market where brands are chasing viral, shareable content and are telling their stories on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, that’s a tall order. “You don’t build characters through social media. The budget [to create characters] is no longer there.”

That challenge is compounded by a sophisticated consumer base. Today’s customer has grown up in such an oversaturated media environment, “they’re able to smell inauthenticity faster,” Adamson says, “They’re trained to be more jaded and skeptical.”

It’s no wonder a company would rather nip and tuck an existing, established character than create a brand new one from scratch.