Anyone who follows the restaurant industry through social media channels has likely noticed the resurgence of Rooty The Great Root Bear. A&W Restaurants' mascot was demoted for about 10 years because some believed he wasn't effectively elevating the brand.
But when A&W was sold by Yum! Brands in late 2011 to a group of domestic and international franchisees, Rooty began making a comeback. Now, the "funny, goofy" bear is everywhere.
"Rooty was pushed aside for awhile, but we see things differently now. All ages connect to that mascot and we want to embrace that. He is part of our family, our history and who we are and we want to embrace all of that, too," said Sarah Blasi, A&W's director of marketing. "Rooty is a strength of ours and we are now focused on our strengths and truly trying to become world class for both our franchisees and our end users."
Since its sale from Yum!, A&W has undergone some major transitions — beyond bringing back its beloved mascot. Such changes are difficult for any brand, let alone one that's been around for 94 years. More than a year later, however, Blasi notes the company has started fresh and is on the right path.
"There is no exit plan to what we're doing; this is long term. We're not worried about our stock prices. We're trying to make sure our franchisees are making money. We are trying to become a world class company for our franchisees and our end users," she said.
Such a goal is tricky for a brand that is "smaller" than its competitors. A&W consists of about 1,100 units worldwide.
"We don't have distribution in some markets and that changes the way we have to look at things — we're not on national TV, for example, so we have to be local store and social media marketing experts," Blasi said.
That's a big part of the reason Rooty has come out of hibernation. Having an active digital and social media presence provides A&W with a competitive edge it may not have had before.
"Social media is cost effective and it's efficient and it equals the playing field between larger chains and smaller chains like ours," she said. "We've looked at all of the emerging technologies and, to stay nimble and energetic, we'll go wherever the market takes us."
Reaching out to new consumers
To help with that task, A&W selected fellow Lexington, Ky.-based Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions as its creative agency of record earlier this year.
At the time of the announcement, A&W wasn't actively looking for a new agency — according to Blasi, there were many other things on the to-do list that came first from "untangling the web of divesting from Yum!" But, Cornett was persistent in reaching out and in tailoring each message to show a personal connection with the brand. A&W's leaders were eventually won over by the agency's strong digital portfolio.
"This was a big factor for us because we are a mature brand with an older consumer in less diverse communities. We are looking for ways to get new customers, younger families with children, without alienating our loyal fan base, and the digital space is the way to do that," Blasi said.
As is Rooty: "All ages connect to him. He is a key factor in how we reach out to families and Millenials. He's not polarizing, he's loveable," Blasi added.
And so the mascot can now be found on all of the brand's marketing pieces. The chain's new website — relaunched this year to get out of the Flash setup — includes a "bear cam" that follows Rooty around on all of his daily adventures (at the time this was being written, he was fishing).
The bear has a "corner" on Pinterest and most recently, he's appeared in short clips on the video site Vine, performing magic tricks, introducing new products and embracing his "reality TV star status."
Rooty even had a LinkedIn account that's since been shut down by the site because he's "not real" (a company policy). A&W promptly launched a petition to get his account back up, but so far to no avail.
Selling the brand
Like its enhanced social media presence, the company prioritized the creation of a unique mobile app. It launched in February.
"We re-ranked the priorities based on our customers' mobile habits. When they're on their phones, they want location, hours, menu or to make a complaint. It's much of the same content as our website, it's just rearranged to be easier for someone on the run," Blasi said.
Once again, Rooty plays a central role. The "Burping Rooty" app features him encouraging users to "pour" him a frosty mug of A&W root beer so he can unleash a belly burp or burp through the entire alphabet. The interactive feature is designed with kids in mind, however it has been popular across all age demographics.
"We wanted to capitalize on something innocent, childlike and fun. Creating this app with our mascot in mind, we felt, was endearing," Blasi said. "There's already a strong emotional connection to this brand because it's 94 years old. When we feature Rooty, we're doing more than selling our food, we're selling our brand."
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Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.