Burger King retires mascot "The King"

By SARAH SKIDMORE | August 19, 2011 | 7:10 PM EDT

FILE - In this May 18, 2006 photo, Burger King CEO John W. Chidsey, background center, watches as"The King" mascot of Burger King Corp., arrives at the New York Stock Exchange in New York. Burger King's spooky "The King" mascot is retiring so the struggling burger chain can refocus its marketing to reach new customers. The mascot has been around for years, but recently has become a more prevalent and somewhat creepy presence in ads. The fast food chain, which has suffered declining sales, will roll out a new advertising campaign this weekend sans "The King" that will focus on its burgers. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The King is dead, but the burger lives on.

Burger King Corp. on Friday said it is retiring "The King" mascot, a man with an oversized plastic head and creepy smile who in recent years has been shown in ads peeping into people's windows and popping up next to them in bed.

The move is an effort by the struggling fast food chain to boost slumping sales by focusing its marketing on the freshness of its food rather than the funny-factor of its ads. It's rolling out a new campaign on Saturday sans The King to tout its fresh ingredients and new products like its California Whopper, which has fresh guacamole.

"We won't be seeing The King for a while," Burger King spokesman BJ Monzon said Friday.

The new focus is a departure for Burger King, which long has targeted its ads to young male teens who like to chomp its chargrilled burgers and gulp its milkshakes. The economic downturn has battered its core customer __ young males have been particularly hard hit by unemployment __ and Burger King is looking to boost declining sales by appealing to the mothers, families and others that rivals like McDonald's Corp. have successfully courted.

"I think it's great they are doing something as opposed to just withering away," said Joel Cohen a restaurant marketing consultant. "They are taking an approach that is like not that much different from what McDonald's is doing and growing up."

The new focus comes as Burger King attempts to regain its edge. While competitors have grown by updating their offerings, Burger King largely stuck to its menu of burgers and fries.

McDonald's, for instance, has worked to portray itself as a healthier, hip place to eat, offering wireless access in restaurants, updating decor and introducing smoothies, oatmeal and yogurt parfaits. And Subway has grown quickly by emphasizing fresh, quick and affordable food. The company also has faced competition from other burger chains, like Sonic and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

As a result, Burger King, which was once in a neck-and-neck competition with McDonald's, has had slumping sales. In 2010, the top three U.S. restaurant chains — McDonald's, Subway and Starbucks — all reported strong revenue gains, while fourth-seat Burger King's revenue fell 2.5 percent.

And in the second quarter, Burger King's net income fell more than 13 percent to $42.8 million. Its revenue fell 4 percent to $596.2 million. During the same quarter, McDonald's profit rose 15 percent to $1.4 billion and its revenue rise 16 percent to $6.9 billion.

"Whatever they are doing isn't working, so it's time to do something different," said Bob Goldin, analyst at Chicago-based food consultancy Technomic. "There is a sense of urgency to get back on their feet."

That Burger King is looking to its mascot for change is not surprising. Other restaurant chains recently have begun to use their longtime mascots less __ or ditched them completely __ to freshen up the brand.

McDonald's, which has faced tough scrutiny of its marketing to kids, has moved away from its emphasis on Ronald McDonald, its clown mascot festooned in red wig and shoes. And the Wendy's chain no longer plays up its Wendy character, which has red hair and matching freckles, in its marketing.

Cohen, the marketing consultant, said a chain's mascot should give a brand a better sense of identity by connecting the brand better with consumers while entertaining them. The King, he said, did not do that. Cohen said others, such as Jack In the Box's ball-headed "founder" and Jack or Chik-Fil-a's black and white cows that encourage people to "Eat Mor Chikin," do.

"When you think of it, the difference between the two, The King was creepy," Cohen said. "There is a cool factor to the cow and there is a cool factor to Jack. They both come off with a wry sense of humor which is appealing."

Burger King has used The King mascot since 1955 when his image appeared on the sign at its first store in Miami. He's taken various forms since then, including going animated in ads and running with a crew of other food-themed royalty like "Sir Shakes a Lot."

This is not the first time The King has gone on hiatus. The company had him step down in 1989 to let a "Kids Club Gang" have a try. He returned in 2004 when the company hired a new advertising agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky which is known for its edgy work, to breathe new life into the brand.

Since then, The King had become a more central part __ and decidedly creepy __ part of ads in more recent years. The mascot showed up in a variety of odd scenarios in ads, including lying next to a man in bed. But as sales fell, the company looked in a new direction.

Miguel Piedra, a spokesman for Burger King, based in Miami, said the decision to get rid of The King came as the company began looking at the business as a whole after it was acquired by investment firm 3G Capital last year.

As part of that, the company switched advertising agencies from in July to mcgarrybowen, which referred calls seeking coment to Burger King officials. Piedra said the company and agency decided to make its ads food-centric after finding that the reason people love its brand is because of the quality of its food.

"This is just the beginning of our journey a reintroduction of burger king brand to consumers," Piedra said.

Burger King said their mascot may not be banished from the kingdom forever. He may come back at in the future in a different form. In the meantime, the company will still carry paper crowns in stores.