Ronald McDonald brand mascot

Brand mascots: avoiding the pitfalls of advertising characters and visual properties

A brand’s unique property may include its logo, a jingle or sound mnemonic (called sonic branding) a font, colour, tag line or a brand mascot. Surprisingly, not many brands work with a long-term view to create a distinct brand property. The way a ‘product window’ (industry speak for the cut-way segment in an ad which shows ingredients or how they work) is shot or the use of a celebrity cannot be a sustainable, unique property. Marketers would agree that it is almost impossible to create a product or service with a meaningful advantage over competition for a long period of time. It is worth repeating that not all brands can be unique but they can be distinctive.

We all have images of various brands mascots embedded in our minds. Depending on where we grew up these could include Duracell’s bunny, Amul girl, 7Up’s Fido Dido, KFC’s Colonel, Michelin’s Bibendum (the Michelin Man), Pillsbury’s Doughboy, McDonald’s Ronald and more. The most obvious aspect of these properties is endurance – they have been around for a long time and used consistently as an investment by the company. Some, like Fido Dido, may have been dropped for a few campaigns but were brought back later.

Ad agencies also create characters in their campaigns which can also work as distinct brand properties. Examples include ‘The most interesting man in the world’ for Dos Equis, ‘Captain Obvious‘ for Hotels.com, Ramesh-Suresh for Cadbury’s 5 Star, Lalitaji for Surf come to mind. Each of these had a rationale:

Dos Equis: to up the cool quotient and build intrigue for a brand which had dominant players in the category

Ramesh-Suresh: to dramatise the ‘lost in the taste of 5-star’ a set of bumbling characters who ‘forget’ things

Lalitaji: to drive home the value proposition of a slightly more expensive Surf in comparison to a price warrior in Nirma

And then there was Mr. Murthy – the South Indian who gets transferred to various climes of India only to have his Voltas air conditioner work in any of those – to show versatility and efficacy. Years ago, the luggage brand Aristocrat chose a coolie (played by Harish Patel) as the face of their campaign to drive home sturdiness.

The trouble with such characterisations is that they cannot last decades because (a) they were created to tackle a short-term tactical problem or (b) practical issues like the actors getting old (c) fatigue setting in the execution of the campaign.



Brand properties may also include colour (Kodak yellow), an element of the brand identity (unique bottle shape or the waves of Coca-Cola), the arch of McDonald’s and more.

The National Geographic iconic gold border is distinct and instantly recognisable. Source.

The National Geographic golden border is so familiar that it helps other brands too.

There is also a difference between advertising characters and visual properties such as ‘kids dressed and behaving like adults’ – made famous by Flipkart. In my mind, Flipkart and the agency created that visual to convey the need of the hour back then: buying stuff online is child’s play. It is another matter that simply sticking kids dressed in adult costume in all communication is not going to bring a smile or make the brand endearing. Yes, the visual imagery of ‘kids as adults’ could be strongly associated with Flipkart but without the story or the context of a funny TVC, just placing them at every opportunity (even Valentine’s Day social posts) seems forced.

Flipkart

Compared to advertising characters brand mascots are timeless. It is a bit like interacting with popular characters from shows such as The Simpsons or cartoon strips like Dilbert. Both The Simpsons and Dilbert were launched in 1989. The former has gone on for 30+ seasons and the latter is still going strong. But we never question why Bart hasn’t grown up or how come the pointy haired boss and others are still in the same roles even after decades. The characters have been moulded to adjust to the changing times. This timeless, flexible quality can also be applied to brand mascots if handled well – that’s why the Amul girl can comment on current affairs forever.

Any brand property – be it a mascot, tagline or visual identity is likely to pay dividends only if used consistently over time.

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