Creative Works Brand Strategy Agency Business

How do you solve a problem like... bringing a brand mascot to life?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

December 7, 2021 | 12 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, we look at the quest to bring a beloved brand mascot to life.

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How can marketers bring brand mascots to life for consumers?

From Kevin the Carrot to Comparethemarket’s meerkat to the Green Giant, mascot characters play a big role in some brands’ marketing efforts. But creating a character that audiences actually like (rather than merely recognize), that can carry a brand’s message to customers, isn’t easy. What do marketers need to bear in mind if they’re trying to sell a new character to consumers? What do the best ones have in common? And with marketing becoming more complex with each passing year, do character mascots actually have a place in advertising?

How do you solve a problem like... bringing a brand mascot to life?

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Emma de la Fosse, chief creative officer, Digitas UK

The role of a brand mascot is important in our increasingly fragmented marketing landscape. They can be hard-working and versatile vehicles, performing different roles across a brand’s ecosystem from TV to digital platform and from social to experiential. In commoditized marketplaces, such as insurance and energy, they are essential tools of the trade. Creating iconic, beloved characters is trickier. There is no guaranteed formula for success. Obviously it helps if the mascot is also a mnemonic, like O2’s Bubl, but who could have predicted that a cravat-wearing Russian meerkat would steal the nation’s heart? Maybe that’s where creative genius comes in.

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John Gibson and Sam Haynes, creative directors, Grey London

It’s a human truth – you listen to people you like. It’s the same with brands. If you can create a character that people love, they’ll listen. Of course, it needs to have a reason to exist and a clear connection with the brand. But the very best characters develop a life beyond the brand and make it into culture. How? By being bloody entertaining. That’s the only rule. They should make you laugh, smile or quote them in the pub. Whether it’s the writing, casting, character design or all of the above, a great character gives more than it takes.

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Lukas Grossebner, executive creative director, Europe, Virtue

Brand mascots can feel a bit like the easy way out of a brief. The best are the ones that have stood the test of time, but in a digital world, it’s increasingly difficult for them to keep up with the pace of change and remain relevant to culture.

Creating a new brand mascot is always a big risk for brands. Maybe instead let’s think about new techniques to help brands stand out that are relevant to culture today. Listening to consumers, understanding audiences and building impactful creative might be more worthwhile.

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Courtney Emery, director of cultural strategy, Sparks & Honey

If you look at the most successful brand mascots, the two key things they have in common are consistency and humor. Consumers feel like they have a relationship with mascots, sometimes built over decades. They expect the same thing from mascots that they expect from long-time friends – that they are reliable and make them feel better.

Mascots will absolutely continue to have a role in the future of branding, in part because the influencer economy is so in flux. While popular, influencers do not have the same training as traditional celebrities, which has left some brands doing damage control after a problematic influencer incident. Mascots are like influencers in that they personify a brand, but without the risk.

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Rowena Curlewis, chief executive officer, Denomination

The best brand mascots are instantly recognizable and can create real, emotional connections with people. Human beings are hardwired for relationships and we’re at our best when we have strong bonds with others, so anthropomorphizing your brand will only increase the chances of people investing in it.

Mascots also have the power to evolve sectors. We recently took Port brand Cockburn’s famous cockerel and gave it a modern makeover to attract a new audience and tell a different story, while retaining the original character of the brand. However, as the political and social climate changes, it may be necessary to update mascots, and businesses will need to think hard about how they are used to communicate sustainability and ESG intentions to persuade potential consumers of their authenticity.

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Alan Stout, head of strategy, Argonaut

Mascots work for brands because they inherently drive marketers to tell stories, and stories are what people remember. Think of these characters as increasingly important shortcuts that encapsulate larger consumer memory structures. The more fragmented and complex marketing gets, the more important mascots will become. They can serve as the capstone of an entire marketing matrix. The best mascots are those that allow us to project ourselves on to them. In order to be relatable, they should be as singular and archetypal as possible – shapeshifting symbols that evoke stories and feelings. Dimension is the enemy of an effective brand mascot.

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Jayme Maultasch, managing director, client growth, innovations and partnerships, Deutsch NY

The best characters need to be culturally relevant, and find a human connection. Like many legacy mascots, the Sleepytime Bear for Celestial Seasonings had appeared on the brand’s packaging for decades, but hadn’t engaged with fans in a modern way. While the mascot had been the subject of countless memes and fanart, Deutsch NY helped give him a voice. The bear now comments on the absurdity of today’s modern life, from bikes that take you nowhere to popular trends such as restocking and reaction videos. By integrating hyper-relevant scenarios in the right media venues with a classic icon, the mascot is evolving with the times and collecting new fans along the way.

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Natalie Redford, creative strategist, Robot Food

The best mascots are those that help communicate a brand’s purpose. For our rebrand of dairy-free dessert range Over The Spoon, we asked: “What would cows do if they weren’t being milked all day?” This set in motion our movement for cow liberation, and the creation of the brand’s fearless leader, Daisy the Cow. Daisy’s adventure-filled brand world sees her defying the label of ‘dairy cow’ – a playful narrative aimed at reaching new audiences beyond the labels of ‘vegan’ and ‘veggie.’ Daisy gives the brand the power to be both a fun, exciting alternative while communicating a strong message around sustainability and animal welfare. It’s something that consumers can really engage with – she’s an icon.

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Andy Jex, chief creative officer, TBWA\London

Brand mascots are mega powerful. And I don’t see them ever going away. They’re a shortcut for a brand and they elicit an immediate emotional response from the customer. Done well, they’re a vehicle that can deliver any message you choose to throw at it. Done badly, and they’re seen as too random, unforgettable and not attributable to the brand.

It’s essential that in their development they derive from a truth or a place in the brand’s heart. The trick is to find just enough familiarity in them for them to be accepted and just enough of the unfamiliar to make them sticky and loved.

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Tom White, chief strategy officer, AMV BBDO

No doubt, it’s always a high-risk endeavor to nail your brand’s colors to a make-believe character. Just as for every Iron Man there’s a Green Lantern, for every Aleksandr Meerkat there’s Quizno’s Spongmonkeys. And now, when brands take on more weighty subjects – say, their eco credentials – a mascot might seem just too reductive a delivery method. As always, we should also beware our biases. The Geena Davis Institute found that male mascots outnumber females by two to one, and that female mascots are more prone to stereotyping. So it takes both nerve and nuance.

When most studies though show mascots’ benefits in creating uniqueness and even reducing price sensitivity, yet only one in 10 brands now employ a character (down from four in 10 in 1992), we should think twice before putting the boot in to the brand mascot yet.

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Grant Parker, creative partner, Harbour Collective

I hate mascots. They’re just thin ideas in a fun-fur disguise. A bit pony. Or bunny. Or meercat. Now, Orlov would say ‘a creative stupid I am.’ After all, he and his mob have boosted their brand by squillions. So mascots are clearly something I should, begrudgingly, embrace (Covid restrictions notwithstanding).

For me the ones that work are woven into the idea, rather than simply being the idea. Like the fuzzy ball of knowledge for Fox Sports or Flat Eric for Levi’s. Cute, but a bit weird. And not simply a mouthpiece for the brand. Get it right and mascots can’t be ignored (which is another reason I hate them).

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Neale Horrigan, executive creative director, Elvis

A great brand mascot’s primary job is to entertain. Whether it’s a puppet monkey making the tea, a good looking half-naked man on a horse or Flat Eric hanging out of a car window, they all manage to encapsulate an attitude or ambition and raise a smile in doing so. And most of the time, they actually feel more connected to the audience than to the brand itself. Get the balance right and that audience will be with you all the way. It’s the beauty of successfully making someone feel that they aren’t being sold anything.

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Mark Elwood, executive creative director, Leo Burnett London

At Leo Burnett London, we have just given ‘Marvin the Mole’ his first outing for Vision Express, and guess what? It is its most successful campaign to date. The Meerkats, Kenny the Koala, Churchill The Dog, The PG Tips Chimps, The Smash Martians, Tony the Tiger and The Cresta Bear are all characters burnt into our brains by brands (depending on your age). For good reason, as recent research shows that brand mascots and characters can increase profit and emotional connection with customers by up to 41%. The power, when executed well, is enormous and can help liven up any category (and bottom line).

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Jason Berry, global creative director, Wunderman Thompson

Brand mascots can be crucial for driving memorability and differentiating brands in a crowded category. That’s true of the Duracell Bunny, who has been effectively pushing Duracell for nearly 50 years. But all enduring brand personifications must express a funny, likable personality and not behave as a mere client puppet. While some mascots may appear to belong to a bygone era of ad jingles, many ‘old-fashioned’ characters from video games to comic books have been successfully repackaged for modern culture. It’s a question of keeping things fresh and ensuring that your mascot displays self-awareness and ironic fun along with their salesmanship.

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Greg Ricciardi, president and chief executive officer, 20nine

Brand mascots work best when you can connect with the consumer through empathy and humor. For example, 20nine created a mascot for an energy company that provides services to make your house more efficient to save money. We simply called him ‘House.’ House embodied the persona of a house behaving badly and, therefore, frustrating the homeowner. This empathized with the homeowner’s situation, sprinkled in some humor and created a memorable engagement with the consumer on an emotional level. In the services-based business, memorable marketing when the need arises is invaluable.

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