Character Branding – There’s Room For More As the Internet Opens Up New Opportunities

The Pillsbury company is no doubt very fond of its adorable Poppin’ Fresh doughboy mascot, so too the public. The character not only inspires feelings of affection, with that endearing little giggle and cuddly appearance, it encourages brand loyalty. We know we’re safe with Pillsbury’s products, we certainly trust the doughboy (how could you not?) and this comfortable feeling of reliability and warmth is exactly what the company wants to stir in its consumers. And it does this perfectly and has been doing so since the mid 1960s. Of course Pillsbury is not the only company to use a mascot for the purposes of character branding. Think Tony the Tiger, Ronald McDonald, the Jolly Green Giant and the Michelin Man – all are examples of successful brand imaging. But McDonald’s Ronald and his associates are pure invention. In other cases the brand character is one based on reality. Take the friendly face of KFC, Colonel Sanders, for example. No invention here, he was the actual founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken company, Harland David Sanders. By contrast, the UK’s Aunt Bessie brand of roast food products uses a fictional character but one that nevertheless chimes in with our idea of the sort of person who would be a fine aunt and a dab hand at good home cooking. That’s why we trust the Bessie products and identify them as dependable.

A powerful ‘mascot’ or character brand marketing campaign can:

Generate publicity and new interest in a company and its products or services.
Engender feelings of goodwill and even affection.
Allow the company to express itself through the mascot’s voice and attitudes.
Present associative identification opportunities in the retail world with merchandizing – enhanced point-of-sale potential
Grow a company’s potential client bank. Character mascots usually appeal to a fairly wide audience, from children to adults alike.

From a commercial viewpoint it doesn’t seem to matter whether the icon is drawn from real life or purely invented. And with mascots that are clearly ‘human’ like Colonel Sanders and Aunt Bessie, it’s hard to say which is factual and which is fictional. Both are equally successful, irrespective of their origins.

Talking tigers, drumming bunnies and happy green men of nephilim proportions, obviously, are the birth things of imaginative ad men and women. Again, whether we like them or not, the brand’s image is so strong as a result of them that we know immediately we see them respectively that we’re with Frosties, Energizer and Green Giant.

Often it’s the larger corporations we associate character branding with, although there is great scope for smaller businesses to embrace elements of a character branding campaign. While this may not necessarily extend to animation of the icon or television advertising, in which the character brand really excels, there’s much to said for having a character logo to use in print media or packaging. It’s certainly an aspect that can be put to great use in the online environment. Making a character mascot a main feature of a business website creates interest and recognition. And it opens up opportunities to incorporate games or activities that involve the character and the visitor.

Emotional response in the consumer is what a character mascot is designed to create – think of the Pillsbury Doughboy and you’ll think ‘ah’. On a more analytical psychological note, character mascots are often devised to attract the attention of children. Although kids don’t entirely control the purse strings they do have an impact on their parent’s purchasing behaviors. If a mascot makes a product a ‘must have’ in the eyes of the child, then it has done its work. Win the hearts and minds of children and the adult consumer is yours.

Designers given the task of creating character brand icons or mascots on behalf of companies often ask a series of questions in order to build a picture that they can work from.

Is the character to be male or female, or androgynous?
Will the character be recognizable as human?
What are the five main character traits of the character?
Where does it or he or she live, if anywhere?
What is the character’s main purpose?

Some writers of fiction often say that they create every possible detail of their invented character’s lives prior to writing the story around them. Most of those details are never used and certainly never revealed to the reader of the resultant story. But they provide a point of reference for the writer and consequently the character comes across as more well-rounded and believable. It is much the same with the designing of a brand character. However outlandish the mascot may be it needs to be rooted in some truth or at least have rules it adheres to – even if that truth is invented by designers!

Another technique that is used when conceptualizing is that of envisioning the character in different ‘life’ situations. As an exercise this allows the designer to see and feel how the character would react and therefore build a deeper understanding of its personality. Again, there may never be call to actually put the character into these situations when representing the company but it serves to give the design team a clearer idea of what the character is about.

In some cases company mascots are afforded a sidekick, and this works well as a way to revamp a company’s image. While mascots that have been a round since the dawn of time engender feelings of comfort in an audience, there’s a risk of stagnation. Introducing new characters into the company icon’s world can have the effect of livening things up and placing new emphasis on the company’s image. The Jolly Green Giant, for example, was given a little helper in 1973. Known as Little Green Sprout, his job was to help the giant with the growing of the vegetables in the valley.

But why stick to one character, or even one with a little sidekick, when three can be had? Snap, Crackle and Pop, the elves who have been the mascots for Rice Krispies since 1928 are amongst the most famous in the world. Because there are three of them, this allows for lively interaction between them.

Where camaraderie alone, as in the case of the three aforementioned elves, won’t do then adversaries are sometimes called in to create interest. Ronald McDonald is often required to thwart the evil Hamburglar, giving the whole McDonalds character branding campaign a storyline and an ‘it’s behind you’ pantomime feel. In Ronald’s world there are many other characters to interact with.

Ronald McDonald
Birdie the Early Bird
The Hamburglar
Iam Hungry
Fry Kids
King Gonga
Mayor McCheese
Uncle O’Grimacey

Although character branding has been around for a long time, the technological age we live in, which is ever-advancing, takes the concept to a new level. Some mascots actually have their own Facebook and MySpace pages creating further elements of consumer engagement, brand recognition and familiarity.

Previously it was believed that more serious products or companies would not benefit from mascots or icons, however a casual and quirky approach has stood many in good stead. Although insurance is considered a more serious subject or product than say cereals that make a noise or hamburgers, that didn’t stop the UK’s Churchil Insurance Company using a jowly-looking bulldog as a mascot, and with much success. It’s believed that the dog, named Winston, was based on Winston Churchill the Prime Minister who was known as The British Bulldog during the Second World War. Devised to given an impression of dependability, the Winston dog is very much a part of the UK’s collective consciousness – good news for the company. This particular mascot proves that serious subject matter can be combined with a supposedly frivolous icon, provided that the icon portrays an underlying feeling of reliability and endurance. Clever stuff.

The neighborhood of corporate mascots is a crowded and bizarre one but there’s always room for new kids on the block.

Dennis Moore is Vice President of Little Jimmy’s Italian Ice

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