Nobody has a thicker skin in the advertising industry than a brand mascot.
Iconic characters like Cap’n Crunch, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Aflac Duck wear an absurd amount of hats. They have to constantly sell a product, but never ask for a raise, benefits, or PTO. As they age, characters like the Green Giant and Keebler Elves receive subtle redesigns and social media accounts to reach new demographics. Brand mascots are also under constant scrutiny from the public eye. This flip-flops from studies praising the longevity of beloved icons to clickbait articles reducing their years of brand dedication as nothing more but a “dying breed.”
I’d like you to try this simple exercise. Close your eyes and recall a moment where a character profoundly impacted you in an emotional way. The emotion may be joyful, like the delight of watching the giant red Kool-Aid Man burst his way into the room. It may be nostalgic, as you recall visits to Chuck E. Cheese where a kid could really be a kid. Perhaps the memory may move you to tears, like the time the Budweiser Clydesdales befriended a puppy during the Super bowl.
Brand Mascots Sell More Than Products
This is the power of the brand mascot in action. They sell a product, but they do something much more significant. They create an emotional connection with the consumer.
Characters are still having their moment, even though the overall visibility for many is dwindling to some degree. We — the ad industry, brands, and consumers — still need characters if but for no other reason than two simple words: they work. The question now is what, exactly, can be done next to keep us from forgetting their significance and reinforce why they will always matter.
Take Mascots Out Of Hibernation
A recent survey from Crestline, a custom promotional products company, unveiled the most (and least) memorable characters in advertising. Characters like the Duracell Bunny and the Chicken of the Sea Mermaid ranked as the least memorable brand mascots. Their more memorable counterparts included ever-evolving, consistently present characters like KFC’s Colonel Sanders and the GEICO Gecko.
Is it possible that the Duracell Bunny and Chicken of the Sea Mermaid can find a way to resonate with audiences? Of course. The key is to get them out of hibernation.
Case Study: Rooty the Great Root Bear
A&W Restaurants has long had an iconic brand mascot in Rooty the Great Root Bear. However, the loveable bear behind A&W Restaurants spent a significant amount of time in hibernation in the late 1990s when A&W Restaurants was owned by YUM! Brands.
Rooty didn’t ease his way out of hibernation until after December 2011, when a partnership of A&W franchisees purchased the brand from YUM!’s previous ownership. The bear, recognizable for his orange sweater and goofy personality, was back in the wild. However, the world had changed significantly while he was away. How could Rooty re-introduce himself to the public?
Sarah Blasi Mueller, VP of Marketing for A&W Restaurants, began strategically planning Rooty’s comeback. He started to appear on brand merchandise and in-store signage. Rooty received social media accounts, including a short-lived LinkedIn profile in 2013 (removed by the platform on the premise that Rooty wasn’t “real” — even though he remains the only brand mascot to ever have a LinkedIn account). Rooty even received his own GIF images, which have been viewed over a hundred million times online.
Rooty’s exit from hibernation was about more than showing the character was back. It signified a return of a refreshed brand, ready to engage and connect with fans on a deeper level.
“It may seem silly to speak about mascots and emotional connections in the same sentence,” Blasi Mueller says. “However, because we are such a nostalgic brand and so many of our fans grew up with Rooty, we do see a strong emotional tie between our fans and Rooty.”
Rooty’s Continued Evolution
Rooty hasn’t stopped evolving, either. The icon continues to be the face of A&W Restaurants worldwide. He posts regularly on Facebook and attended the 100th Anniversary Convention in Hawaii in February 2019. Franchisees and families lined up for selfies with Rooty — the Great Root Bear they’re still giddy about.
Destroy One-Dimensional Personalities
Julie Cottineau, CEO of BrandTWIST, strongly believes in the effect mascots have on brands. “They can help humanize a product, connect, and build strong relationships,” Cottineau says.
However, if a mascot wants to survive in 2019 and beyond they can’t coast on their brand recognition alone. In order to stay powerful, characters must continually find ways to be relevant.
Case Study: The Kool-Aid Man
In the 1950s, The Kool-Aid Man was better known as The Pitcher Man. The character was a literal pitcher of Kool-Aid — with a face drawn on the pitcher’s condensation — that sang about delicious five-cent packages of drink mix.
Cottineau was part of the account team at Grey Global in the 1990s. The Kool-Aid Man had finished making a significant transition in the 1980s from a conservative drink pitcher into a contemporary, kid-friendly, larger-than-life character that smashed through walls and bellowed “OH YEAH!” at the top of his lungs. (We have to tip our cap to former Grey alum Robert Skollar for leading the charge on the character’s evolution.)
The Kool-Aid Man was on the cusp of making his next transition. Cottineau was helping the character swap out his juicy fat suit for a new look using CGI animation. The change was about more than shifting animation trends. It enabled The Kool-Aid Man to become more adventurous.
“Instead of busting down walls, he was busting moves on snowboards and mountain bikes,” Cottineau says, noting that the popularity of the X Games inspired a more active version of the character.
It also wasn’t too dramatic a departure from the character’s overall personality. Skollar cites that The Kool-Aid Man was always considered to something of an oversized kid himself. Kids related to The Kool-Aid Man when he had the wacky, superhero ability to break into a room, and they related to him when he was using moving and shaking as an budding athlete. The Pitcher Man would never have attained that kind of relatability due to having such a one-dimensional personality.
Take Creative Risks — But Don’t Stray Too Far From A Mascot’s Original Appeal
Manny Galán, Executive Creative Director at Grey Group, has spent years in the orbit of characters. He previously worked alongside Danger Pigeon Studios’ Creative Director Pat Giles at Saatchi & Saatchi, overseeing cereal characters like the Trix Rabbit, Lucky the Leprechaun, and the Monster Cereals for General Mills.
While Galán believes there are several reasons why classic mascots are declining, he reflects on the problem that what characters originally represent is becoming outdated. Galán recalls moments throughout his career where he tried to convince clients to hit refresh on certain characters. Many wouldn’t budge in moving the needle. They had been doing what had proven to work for so long that failure wasn’t an option.
In Galán’s words, “They just want to rotate on, keep the train moving, then pass it off to the next person like a game of hot potato.”
Case Study: Charlie The Tuna, Mr. Clean, The Kool-Aid Man, and Green Giant
Not that there’s anything wrong about wanting to be protective of a brand mascot’s identity, of course. The biggest problem becomes less about the character and whatever pedestal it’s mounted on and more about the brand’s fear of not experiencing immediate success.
Galán points to the characters listed above as examples of characters that have taken various degrees of risk and had it pay off. Deutsch New York brought a more lifelike Green Giant back to the Valley in 2017. StarKist’s Charlie the Tuna ran a fun alTUNAtive Presidential campaign in 2016. And Mr. Clean has proven he, well, knows how to clean up nicely in cheeky Super Bowl spots. Each has become a little more modernized visually, but remain very much the same character they have always been.
The real win, according to Galán, is when an original character is adapted in one of two ways. The brand mascot may embrace modern day sensibilities or become meta and allow its self-awareness to resonate with modern audiences. In either scenario, they are still able to remain true to their origins.
Charlie The Tuna’s Human Touch
John Gilbert is the Group Creative Director at quench, the ad agency that helped bring spokesfish Charlie the Tuna into the digital age. In addition to his tongue-in-cheek political campaign, Charlie stars in commercials with actress Candace Cameron Bure and celebrates “Sorry Charlie Day” a holiday dedicated to his beloved catchphrase each year. Charlie has a full persona, and it’s that kind of human touch that allows the Beatnik spokesfish to thrive.
“Characters are at their best when they bring a human touch to a brand,” Gilbert says. “The key to working with them now is to make sure they have a full and modern perspective. Ask yourself what they would binge watch on Netflix, the kind of transportation they would use, and whether they live on the beach in Malibu or a hollowed-out tree trunk. Characters can ignore rules humans can’t. When you build a full persona around the character — thinking beyond a 15-second video — you can use their unique point of view to open creative doors human actors can’t walk through.”
“It’s a fine line between reverential modernization and total lack of understanding of what actually makes a character or brand appealing,” Galán says. “Move too far from the core essence of what made the character popular to begin with and you distance yourself from the fan base. Don’t move it enough and no one notices and everyone wonders why you bothered at all.”