Spuds MacKenzie, Mr. Whipple, Joe Isuzu, the
California Raisins … the list of images, people or
creatures that have been used successfully in advertising
is a long one. We love them (or love to hate
them), we mimic them, but most of all, we believe
them—or we wouldn’t buy their wares. Certain
characters—the ones we remember from childhood—have a way of defining the era we grew up
in, just as our remembrance of them reveals our
age. While Baby Boomers will likely recall the Ajax
White Knight, Speedy Alka-Seltzer and Mr. ZIP,
their offspring grew up with ties to Frank Bartles
and Ed Jaymes, McGruff the Crime Dog and Vince
and Larry (the crash-test dummies).
Lots of emotions and memories are wrapped up
around a large pool of product-hawking personas.
But there is an elite tier of personage—the platinum
members of the brand character crowd—that have
outlived, outranked and outsold even the luggage-mauling
American Tourister gorilla. These are the
notable mascots, characters and icons that have, in
some way, become the brand itself. Their personalities
are memorable, effective and timeless, and numbering
in their ranks are the likes of Aunt Jemima,
the Pillsbury Doughboy, Elsie the Cow, the Morton
Salt Girl and others.
WHAT MAKES THEM WORK?
While characters whose vocations revolve around
pushing cigarettes or liquor are different animals
from those endorsing breakfast cereal, some common
denominators exist among the longest-lived
brand personas. Although your next project may
not be for a major player like the examples cited here, just thinking about your own experiences with
brand mascots puts you in a better position to make
good recommendations. So, let’s take a trip down
Memory Lane and review what exact factors have
made certain brand personalities last so long.
They are identifiable and custom.
Each successful brand character has something to
make them distinguishable from the sea of product-
icon wannabes. In the case of illustrated or animated
characters, they might have been developed
in a unique style. If the character has a voice, it is
typically memorable and identifiable. If movement
is part of the character’s repertoire, more than likely the range of possible motion will be tailor-made and
well-thought-out. All of these elements become part
of the brand identification, just as consistent color
and font usage combine to create a memorable corporate
identity. The GEICO Gecko is a present-day
popular icon that exemplifies the characteristics of a
highly identifiable character.
They are appropriate.
While a goofy cartoon character can aptly sell snack
cakes and cookies, a similar approach would not
be as effective in the luxury auto category. Many
brands have appropriately adopted no-brainer mascots—like Borden’s Elsie the Cow for dairy products—while other goods such as Energizer batteries
take a seemingly unrelated image—the Energizer
Bunny—and make it work. In nearly all instances,
the successful mascot or character is carefully
crafted, so as not to conjure up offensive images of
the brand or its category.
They are timeless.
It is important not to confuse “timeless” with
“never-changing.” Indeed, many successful icons
have developed or been updated over time. Some
characters—like the Jolly Green Giant and Betty
Crocker—have been around for more than 50
years, with each evolving to fit the times. Betty has
had no fewer than eight facelifts, while the Giant
adopted his sidekick Little Sprout in 1973. Even
the Ad Council’s Smokey Bear has modified his
original (1947) message “Only You Can Prevent
Forest Fires” to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” When developing a new brand spokesperson or
mascot, avoid being too trendy or potentially
dated—unless continual evolution is part of the
They are engaging.
In the 1970s, many of us watched Hawaiian Punch’s
mascot Punchy deliver his long-time catchphrase
“How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?” which would
then be followed by Punchy literally punching his
unsuspecting cohort. Despite being subsequently
dropped from television ads after pressure from
parents, research in the late 1990s found that
teenagers “remembered” the first version of the
character and his signature line—even though both
had disappeared from television before they were
born. Obviously, Punchy was a valuable brand asset.
Although he’s still the brand’s mascot, Punchy has
abandoned his violent tendencies. Lesson learned: A
great mascot/character is a knockout!
They keep it simple.
Tony the Tiger pronounces his Frosted Flakes are
“Grrreat!” the same way every time. The Maytag
Repairman is predictably sullen—and lonely. The
Coppertone Girl will never grow up—although the
image has been frequently parodied, often using
older female models duplicating the pose. While
characters can successfully display depth of character,
they are not overly complex or multifaceted.
Their mission is simple: Sell the product.
They evoke emotion.
I don’t know about you, but I trust the Dutch Boy
to sell good paint, just as surely as the Gerber Baby
wouldn’t let anyone buy tainted baby food. The
number of enduring items featuring a brand’s mascot
proves an emotional connection to the brand
exists. On the day I made final edits to this article,
there were 393 items for sale on eBay under the
category “Mr. Peanut,” and I found two websites
dedicated to Reddy Kilowatt history and memorabilia:
Both of these advertising characters made their
debuts in the WWI era.
If there was a simple formula for the creation of
memorable and durable characters, there would be a
lot more of them in the branding world. With some
foresight—and a little luck—maybe your next brand
mascot will keep going and going and …