After four years as the marketing mascot for Cheyenne, Wyoming–based quick-service chain Taco John’s, Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey is saddling up and riding off into the sunset.
Last week the border-collie-riding Capuchin monkey, known for dishing out Taco John’s food in the chain's television advertising spots, was replaced by new character TJ DJ, a disc jockey who claims to be the brand's No. 1 fan.
"We just literally wanted to go on to something new," Renee Middleton, marketing director for Taco John’s, says of the change. "After four years, Whiplash is still very much on top of his game, but we just felt that it was time to freshen up our advertising."
Developed by Minneapolis-based ad agency Kerker (now called Preston Kelly), Whiplash was brought on in May 2004 to reenergize Taco John’s customer base after a year of soft sales in 2003, says Mark Jenson, vice president account director for the agency. The goal, he says, was to drive sales and transactions as well as set Taco John’s apart from competitor Taco Bell.
"I think every seven days they spend more than our media budget for the entire year," Jenson says. "We needed something that would be a little different and appeal to a broad range of people."
That, it turned out, was Whiplash's specialty.
"The one thing he has proven in the last four years is that he connected with customers from six to 60," Middleton says. "He really brought people together, and he was somewhat iconic. When people saw Whiplash, they really did think Taco John’s, and that's everything you want your icons to do."
Whiplash proved he was capable of tackling diverse roles—from the classroom to the barbershop—but Middleton says TJ DJ will give the chain more flexibility in its marketing message.
"There were limitations," she says of working with an animal. "TJ DJ can be more interactive with our food, whereas with Whiplash, he couldn't touch the food. [TJ DJ] brings that element back to our media."
The TJ DJ concept will also lend a synergy to the chain's advertising that wasn't possible with Whiplash, Middleton says. New television commercials will feature TJ DJ traveling the country in his van, sharing his love of West-Mex food and music, which will afford a bridge to radio spots. The campaign will include outdoor, online, print, and guerilla marketing elements, too.
"We'd like to see this grow into TJ DJ being able to go on location," Middleton says
Like Whiplash, this new character is intended to have a broad appeal.
"He's just kind of quirky but believable," Middleton says. "He really is Taco John's No. 1 fan. Our research shows we have very loyal fans. When they go on family vacations, they stop at Taco John’s. The idea [for TJ DJ] was really kind of born from that."
But at least one marketing expert says replacing an iconic mascot is never a good idea.
"Unless there is a strong negative image by the public of the restaurant's mascot, retiring it is a huge mistake, as all the money and years spent branding that mascot will be lost," says Peter Geisheker, CEO of Green Bay, Wisconsin-based marketing firm the Geisheker Group. "Having a new image and a new mascot is basically the same as starting your marketing and branding from scratch."
Jenson, however, sees it differently. Over the past year, Taco John’s has ramped up its re-imaging campaign, with more franchisees adopting the chain's new exterior and interior design. As the restaurants are changing their image, Jenson says it was only natural to take the advertising campaign in a different direction as well.
"Times change, you have to keep fresh, new things up," he says.
"Quick-service is an extremely dynamic and moving field," she says. "In this tough economy, we're doing more to reach out and to draw customers in. We feel that this is just one way of staying ahead of the curve."
The TJ DJ campaign was launched July 7, in conjunction with the chain's Stuffed Grilled Taco limited-time offer. New videos and music downloads are available at www.tacojohns.com.
But what's next for Whiplash?
Jenson and Middleton both say there currently are no plans for the monkey to make any cameos, but neither would rule out the possibility in the future.
"You never know," Middleton says.