For Portsmouth, N.H.-based Margaritas Mexican Restaurant, 2010 was the year of the cockatoo, specifically Hector, the 22-unit brand’s wisecracking papier-mâché spokesman.
The bird not only starred in broadcast and social media for the chain, but he also served as the basis for several systemwide events, including a sales-driving “Dia del Hector” event in the fall, said Dawn Perry, Margaritas’ former chief marketing officer. The company and its advertising agency hatched Hector last April as a way to spice up the chain’s advertisements as part of its expansion in Massachusetts.
“The question was: How do we create brand awareness that’s going to cut through the noise, and be who we are, which is warm and fuzzy but edgy?” Perry said. “We settled on this Mexican artifact and named him Hector, and we gave him the Margaritas style with our look, feel and attitude.”
Ready for his close-up
Margaritas featured Hector — whose voice sounds like a caricature of Antonio Banderas — in radio spots and several online videos with humorous lines like: “Some people tell me I’m crazy. I tell them, ‘You’re the one talking to a bird.’” The casual-dining chain also created a Facebook page for the bird, on which he threatened to give customers’ phone numbers to Mel Gibson if they didn’t “like” him on their profiles, among other irreverent touches. Hector had gained more than 1,800 fans by the end of 2010.
During the radio campaign of summer and fall, same-store sales at Margaritas rose by an unspecified amount, some of which the brand attributes to increased awareness of the character-centric branding efforts, Perry said. Sign-ups for Margaritas’ e-mail club, which Hector advertised as a tag on his radio spots and on a tab on his Facebook page, also increased significantly.
Perry said that Hector needed to be a complex character capable of speaking to all the chain’s different customer groups, from the young adults and singles in the lounge area of each restaurant to the older diners and families with young children who frequent the dining rooms.
“Between the two different environments, we cover a lot of demographics,” she said. “We needed a raving fan that would be able to speak to all those audiences. He had to have an edginess that’s fun for the young adults and students but also a playfulness that’s meant for our family target.”
Jim Hardison, creative director for Portland, Ore.-based Character LLC, a branding firm specializing in the use of characters, thought Hector hit several interesting notes because his papier-mâché construction “reads more adult than an animated version and is more appealing than a live cockatoo” and because he has enough complexity to be intriguing.
“A cockatoo is an interesting bird to start with,” Hardison said. “It’s a medium-size bird, but cockatoos have attitude, so they set up the inherent conflict between being fragile and being tough guys.”
The artistic rendering of a cockatoo in papier-mâché also insulates Margaritas from being stereotypical of the Mexican dining experience, Hardison said, noting that using a Mexican actor or animated character would have made it harder to pull off that task.
“One of the frequent uses of characters is [as] a way to represent the audience without representing any single one member,” he said. “If you have a tiger character, for instance, you don’t have to worry about not reaching African-American boys or Asian-American girls. You’re in a situation where using a character might be charged to start with, so this one neatly threads the eye of the needle. Hector allows the brand to be Mexican without carrying over negative qualities.”
Hardison added that the inanimate character of Hector follows a rise in deconstructionist characters that are popular in advertising right now, from Geico’s stack of money with eyeballs to Burger King’s mascot, The King, whose face never moves and who never speaks.
It’s a celebration
During the Oct. 13 Dia del Hector systemwide event, same-store sales rose 30 percent compared with a year earlier, Perry said. She added that Margaritas sold 290 Hector-branded appetizers and 260 Hectoritas, plus dozens of commemorative T-shirts.
Margaritas plans to capitalize on Hector’s popularity in 2011 with more radio and video assets, events and continued social media branding, which a Margaritas staffer manages from the headquarters office.
“It’s multifaceted when it comes down to physical events we’ll do in 2011,” Perry said. “And as far as media, he’ll be integrated into some cable-TV advertising, some Web-based, some social-based and radio and print. We’ve gotten a lot of nice positive public relations around Margaritas and Hector.”
The brand has big plans for the bird for Margaritas’ anniversary bash and Hector’s first Cinco de Mayo, Perry said.
“He is definitely Margaritas’ best fan,” she said. “Not our mascot, our No. 1 fan. He makes people laugh, and he makes people remember.”
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].