As social stars gain influence, the brand mascot becomes an endangered species

Kevin Jonas, the eldest brother in former Disney star boy band the Jonas Brother, posted a Snapchat video where he challenged Burger King’s fiery chicken fries. He then reposted a screenshot featuring his twisted face to Instagram. “I thought I could handle the heat, I was wrong!” he wrote in the caption.

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Over the past one year, Jonas has endorsed three new items for Burger King: fiery chicken fires, chicken fries and grilled dogs. As the brand’s most recent spokesperson on social media, Jonas has taken marketing responsibilities of the King, the chain’s mascot, which was retired in 2011.

“Social influencers are becoming more and more like Hollywood celebrities, and brands started creating more exclusivity with them,” said Adam Gausepohl, CEO of PopShorts, the agency behind Burger King’s social campaigns with Jonas. “Kevin likes Burger King in real life. And the audience demographic data for Kevin and the other influencers matched with Burger King’s target audience.”

Gone are the good old days when brand mascots were in every other TV commercial. In the digital realm, they, like the King, have fallen out of favor as brands are increasingly turning to social influencers on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram.

Exclusive deals with social influencers
Businesses are making an average of $6.50 for each $1 spent on influencer marketing, according to a survey by Tomoson. And this year, more than half (59 percent) of the 125 marketers in the survey are going to increase their influencer marketing budgets.

The rise of influencer endorsements is also evidenced in the 10 to 30 applications that Joe Gagliese, co-founder of social media agency Viral Nation, receives every day. He believes that more and more brands will develop a closer relationship with the consumer via social influencers rather than brand mascots because the former are both real people who happen to be content creation experts with a big following base.

“Social influencers can produce viral content for brands that would otherwise cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Gagliese. “Influencers also have greater customer interactions [than brand mascots].”

An influencer partnership can either be one piece of a broader brand campaign or the core component of another, according to Nicole Frusci, vp of U.S. brand and digital marketing for Benefit Cosmetics. The best efforts with influencers should be designed to be ongoing, because a long-term relationship ensures that the influencer understands the brand and thus the content they create can truly tell the brand story.

For instance, Benefit has been collaborating with beauty influencers @Patrickstarrr and @MannyMUA733 since the two started out on social. Last December, Benefit worked with them on the #BenefitHAULiday campaign which was centered around giving back to their fans. The brand delivered two deserving fans not only a huge Benefit product box HAUL but also a surprise in-person meeting with Manny and Patrick.

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“Integrating influencers into a larger campaign, and building a deeper partnership comes once we know what’s important to them and if it feels authentic to all parties,” said Frusci.

To create long-term engagements, though, brands need to pay the influencer a premium so they will not endorse competing companies. In a one-year exclusive deal with a brand, an influencer gets paid somewhere between $100,000 to $500,000. The number can go up to a million for first-tier influencers who are typically athletes, musicians, actors, according to PopShorts’ Gausepohl.

Brands with big TV budgets still develop mascots
But even as social media influencers are landing bigger and better brand deals, some brand mascots are going in the opposite direction — moving from the TV screen to become social media stars themselves. Brian Friedrich, creative director for CP+B, developed Captain Obvious, a fictional spokesman for Hotels.com, with his team in December 2014. Now the character has 319,000 followers on Twitter.

“At the time, we just thought Captain Obvious was beneficial for the brand to do its TV campaign,” said Friedrich. “We didn’t expect to grow this character organically on Twitter and gain so many followers.”

In order to nurture the relationship with Twitter users, Friedrich’s team didn’t post any Hotels.com-related promotional content via Captain Obvious until the character reached 250,000 Twitter followers. His team has been trying to evolve Captain Obvious little by little each year, lately run for President on Twitter.  This enables Hotels.com to talk about a wide range of subjects beyond hotels, from March Madness to politics to fitness.

Friedrich suggested that if a company or an agency has enough resources, it should create content in house rather than outsourcing it to influencers who can interpret the brand in their own way.

After all, fictional characters can be more loyal in the long run, and social influencers may interpret the brand in their own ways. But at the same time, before those mascots become famous on social, their parent companies have already invested heavily in TV in order to make them influential. In that sense, it’s hard to say developing a mascot from scratch is more cost-efficient than hiring a social influencer.

“Some brands are doing well with social influencers, cultivating a year-long relationship with those people so they actually become advocates for the brand,” he said. “But most social influencers are simply collecting a paycheck to post something on social. Consumers are smarter than that.”