Thanks to their near mystical power to create affinity between a business and its customers, I’ve long been a fan of creating cartoon mascots for marketing purposes.
According to Stephen Heller, in an article that appeared in the Atlantic, “We’re all susceptible to (a mascot’s) lure. They infiltrate our subconscious, colonize our homes and cultivate images of wholesome goodness.” https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/theyre-grreeaat-the-enduring-charm-of-advertising-characters/396233/
To “wholesome goodness,” I would add the qualities of charm, sex appeal, power, and even magic. When done right, mascots can become embedded of our culture in ways well beyond their original purpose of hawking goods.
The term, mascot, comes from the French word ‘mascotte‘ which means lucky charm and is a derivative of the word ‘masco‘ meaning sorceress or witch. From its origin, the term is associated with good luck spirits and animals. As Exhibit A, I submit Sir Charms the leprechaun who’s been shilling Lucky Charms marshmallow sprinkled breakfast cereal since 1964.
Advertising mascots have been around for a long time. One of the first was Buster Brown. Originally a comic strip character created in 1902, Buster Brown was adopted as the mascot of the Brown Shoe Company in 1904 along with his sweetheart Mary Jane, and his pit bull, Tige. The brand’s slogan – burned into my cerebral cortex from the age of three – is, “I’m Buster Brown. Look for me in this shoe. That’s my dog, Tige. Look for him in there, too.”
Despite exposure to countless advertising mascots since toddlerhood, my hands-down favorite mascot today is the Energizer Bunny®. An indication of the staying power (pun intended) of the manic, pink, lagomorph in flip-flops is that Energizer Bunny is now a common description for any hyper-active person. The apex of public recognition occurs when the brand name merges into the everyday language in the fashion of Cadillac, Xerox, Jet-Ski, Jacuzzi, Chapstick and Zamboni, to cite some of the brand names that have shed their product specificity to become common nouns, adjectives and verbs.
Brand purists will argue that in becoming generic terms, brand names lose their selling power. Personally, I contend that every time someone uses “Cadillac” to describe a product that sits atop of its marketing niche, that usage constitutes free advertising for General Motors and reinforces the value of the Cadillac brand.
Since their origin, advertising mascots have been used by image-conscious brands. So effective are they in burrowing into our collective conscious some are recognizable by their first names alone: Charlie, Tony, Ronald, Betty and Mr. Peanut. Thanks to their memorability, longevity, and cultural impact, well-thought-out and carefully designed characters have helped many small businesses grow into the dominant brands within their fields.
To give credit to where it’s due I have to tip my hat to a Chicago adman, Leo Burnett. Burnett is credited for changing typical 1960’s advertising from lengthy product descriptions with complex buying arguments to mascots that personified easily-understood benefits. His impact on the American culture was such that Time Magazine cited Burnett as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you know his creations. Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, Charlie the Tuna, and the Raid insects are only a few of the original brand mascots created by the Leo Burnett agency.
If you’d like to benefit from this phenomenon here are some basic Do’s and Don’ts:
- Mascots are not Halloween Costumes. Unless you’re a high school football team, your mascot should NOT be someone in costume pajamas wearing a papier-mâché mask. Sports team mascots really belong in the category of fan entertainment and are akin to the human occupied cartoon characters in theme parks, also known as “walk-arounds.”
- Mascots are NOT your adorable child, favorite pet, or college nickname. And unless your name is Colonel Sanders, your mascot is not you. Children and pets were common images on the fruit crate labels of the 30’s and 40’s. Likewise, nicknames. As a rule, graphics on fruit crate labels weren’t conceived as true brands. They were more akin to store signs and their purpose was merely to differentiate the origin of the produce.
- Your mascot should NOT be created by you or an artsy relative. The rule here is that in order to be seen as a professional enterprise, a business needs professional looking trade dress, e.g., logos, graphics and mascots. See #3 below.
- Your mascot should NOT be derivative of a well-known character. Imitation may well be, “the sincerest form of flattery” but in the world of marketing, copying another company’s brand will land you in court. Tweaking the imitated design or changing the color are not enough to save you. And they miss the point – and value – of having a unique mascot.
- Focus on your most important product or service benefit, NOT your generic business category. When used correctly, a mascot personifies the most unique or greatest benefit of your business to its customers. To use the Energizer Bunny as an example, he is not just a dancing battery. He’s a character that tirelessly demonstrates “superior” staying power the brand of batteries. Even though all the top battery brands are essentially identical, the bunny and the slogan suggest that Energizers are the better alternative without actually making a factual claim that could be disputed in court.
- Your mascot may not be your actual product. The memorable mascots of Raid® insecticide were not the brand packages personified, but the bugs who screamed “RAID!” before keeling over. Starkist® Tuna’s mascot was Charlie, a slightly vulgar tuna who repeatedly failed meet the Starkist criteria because he lacked “good taste.” (That the rejection meant he didn’t end up dead in a can seemed to elude him.)
- Hire professionals. Usually a well-done mascot concept is the product of a team often comprised of a writer, designer and a cartoonist. In addition to the training and experience that most business owners lack, the “mascot” team has another – even more important – asset: they are able to look at the business, or the sales proposition, objectively and without bias. Many, if not most, businesses are so focused on achieving their goals that they tend to become “legends within their own walls.” This phenomenon is similar to the “echo chamber” that many politicians occupy. In other words, the business owner or politician believes in his or her superiority without reservation. Customers inundated by marketing messages from competing brands tend to be more skeptical. They need to be won over – not by the loudest or most-often repeated message – but by simple devices that are appealing, original and convincing. In other words, a good mascot.