There’s something delightful about brand mascots.
I can still picture Tony the Tiger saying, “They’re Grrreat!.” It makes me smile. The “grrreat” evokes fond childhood memories. (I even tried to audition to be a skier on a Frosted Flakes commercial. Sadly, I wasn’t selected.)
Brand mascots evoke powerful memories that can stick with you for a lifetime. Steven Heller writes, “We’re all susceptible to their lure. They infiltrate our subconsciousness, colonize our homes, and supply us with everything from food to footwear, and in return we become loyal devotees.”
Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, and Mr. Clean are all mascots that personify their brands. They provide a character that we know, like, and trust.
Brand Mascots Personify Your Brand
A brand mascot gives your brand a human face — a face that your customers can connect with at a deep, personal level.
In Warren Dotz and Masud Husain’s stunning two volume series, Meet Mr. Product and Mr. Product, they write, “These imaginatively conceived and illustrated product ‘spokes-characters’ personify the businesses they represent. Many of these businesses began small, but a good number grew to dominate their fields—in a large part due to their famous icons.”
Mr. Peanut, for example, is the brand mascot of Planters Peanuts. Mr. Peanut was conceived as Bartholomew Richard Fitzgerald-Smythe by a fourteen year old boy named Antonio Gentile. Gentile’s illustration portrays an anthropomorphized peanut with arms, legs, top hat, and monocle.
Gentile developed the character in response to a contest Planters ran in 1916 to source a new logo. (Crowdsourcing logos is nothing new. Planters was looking for a cheap logo ninety years before Crowdspring was founded.)
Brand mascots embody a brand’s selling points. They become a vessel of personality and meaning, and take on the qualities that a company wants to portray. Mr. Peanut personifies the premium positioning of Planters Peanuts, but with tongue-in-cheek irreverence. He’s healthy but fun.
Mr. Peanut is the life of the party. His Twitter profile describes him as a “Nut Mogul, Life Coach, World Record Adjudicator.” In commercials he comes across with a bigger than life personality, like Tony Robbins. He’s captivating, funny, and someone you want to know.
(As of 2022, the video referenced here is no longer available on YouTube)
Brand mascots very widely from brand to brand, but they all perform the same function. They provide a human face that we can personally connect with.
Brand Mascots Give Products Credibility
Brand mascots have been an integral part of marketing and advertising for over a century because they work.
Mr. Clean was developed in 1957 by Harry Barnhart and Ernie Allen at the Tatham-Laird & Kudner advertising agency. The duo created Mr. Clean as a muscular, tanned, bald man with a single gold earring. He is the strong silent type that’s always wiping away grime.
Since his inception Mr. Clean has always smiled. His bright blue eyes sparkle, and his eyebrows are raised as a sign of friendliness. This is a very accessible expression, and one deeply connected with the properties of the cleaning products.
With over sixty years of advertising, consumers have grown to know, like and trust Mr. Clean. And this is an immense brand asset for Procter & Gamble, owners of Mr. Clean.
In 2003, P&G introduced the Magic Eraser, a foam scrubber. It’s a neat product, but without Mr. Clean’s endorsement it’s not terribly interesting.
The Mr. Clean mascot gave these foam erasers credibility. Consumers were already familiar with other Mr. Clean cleaning products, and the Magic Eraser was a natural extension to the mascot’s range of products.
Mr. Clean’s endorsement — which is funny to say considering he’s a cartoon character — made the Magic Eraser an immediate hit. Consumers were willing to try it, because they knew, liked, and trusted Mr. Clean. And since the product worked well it stuck.
According to P&G, “Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is a perennial fan favorite, offering an easy and convenient cleaning experience for customers.” And by 2012, Mr. Clean had sold one billion Magic Erasers.
The mascot is a brand spokesperson, and it’s reputation and likability creates a halo effect for the brands they represent. The brand mascot’s credibility endorses their products, and makes them more appealing.
Social Media Revived Brand Mascots
Brand mascots fell out of favor in the 1970s. Many of the characters that I knew and loved growing up are far less prevalent than they once were.
Dotz and Husain explain, “In the 1970s, corporate trademarks were simplified, becoming more abstract. With the growth of multinational corporations and the proliferation of corporate mergers, company names were shortened, and some ad characters that had once colorfully and boldly graced product labels and stationery were modified to stark, stylized, monotoned semblances of their former selves.”
With the rise of social media we’re seeing a resurgence in brand mascots. Social media has broken down the constraints of mass advertising and marketing, and provides personal mass communication. As individuals, we can connect with and communicate with brands and celebrities at anytime. We don’t need to simply consume what’s fed to us over the TV or radio. We have direct access.
The two-way dialogue of social media is an ideal playing field for brand mascots. Brands need to be more human than ever before, and companies are responding accordingly. Well-established, historic brand mascots like Mr. Clean and Mr. Peanut have been updated and revitalized for the social media era. You can connect with these characters on any of the social networks.
Travelocity is a modern brand that is effectively using a brand mascot to humanize its brand. In fact, the mascot outlived the company. Expedia acquired Travelocity in 2015, but Expedia is maintaining the brand and mascot. Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of Expedia, said, “Travelocity is one of the most recognized travel brands in North America.”
In 2004, Travelocity introduced “The Roaming Gnome” voiced by Harry Enfield. He’s described as “The official globetrotting ornament. Nabbed from a very boring garden to travel the world.”
The Roaming Gnome has become a cultural icon, because he connects with people directly on social media. He engages with travelers online with hashtags like #IWannaGo, #GnomeWisdom, and #MondayMotivacation.
This personal interaction has elevated the Travelocity Gnome’s status, and made it a valuable brand asset. The Roaming Gnome has over 80,000 Twitter followers and 9,000 followers on Instagram. And this is for the mascot alone. The Travelocity corporate sites have even more followers.
A well crafted character stands out in social media. It elevates the brand, and creates a focal point for its content and social media marketing. And this creates a lot of freedom for the brand, because it doesn’t have to rely on a few strategic individuals or spokespeople to build its social media presence.
Repetition Wins Hearts
Brand mascots are like fine wines, they get better with time.
A brand mascot isn’t like other marketing and advertising campaigns. They have longevity, and that’s where their real value is derived. The more your customers interact and engage with a brand mascot, the more they know it, like it, and trust it.
When you think of some of the most popular brand mascots in North America, many have been around for decades. Mr. Peanut was released in 1916. The M&M’s characters were created with the product launch in 1941. Tony the Tiger first appeared in 1951. Mr. Clean hit the airwaves in 1958. The Pillsbury Doughboy was created in 1965.
These mascots aren’t just cute, creative characters. They are characters that we have grown up with. They are characters we’ve been exposed to again and again. This is their real source of power and influence. Individual experiences with a brand mascot aren’t of much value, but the more often you interact with the mascot the more meaning it absorbs.
Companies have to create mascots that are not only cute and accessible, but interesting and likeable. An annoying mascot will grate on consumers, and they’ll eventually tune it out. The more likeable the character the more people will want to see it.
For example, one of the most endearing brand mascots is the Pillsbury Doughboy. He’s a cute, lovable “boy” with a delightful laugh. When you poke his belly and he giggles, “Hoo Hoo!” It’s an infectious little laugh that ties the physicality of the product with a character we like.
The Pillsbury Doughboy has grown into a cultural icon for three reasons:
- Likeable: He’s cute and easy to like.
- Interactive: Poke his belly and he giggles.
- Repetition: He’s been an integral part of Pillsbury brand for 50 years.
Pillsbury has done such a great job with its mascot that it has transitioned into pop culture. The Pillsbury Doughboy has made appearances on The Simpsons, South Park, Glee, and The Big Bang Theory. He even appeared in a GEICO commercial!
(Click here to view the video if it’s not visible.)
Working with a brand mascot means playing the long game. You’re deliberately incorporating the mascot into your brand strategy and drawing on it again and again. The more you can connect the mascot with your desired brand attributes, the better.
Brand Mascots Are Linked to Brand Strategy
Not all brand mascots have the staying power of the Pillsbury Doughboy.
As you flip through the pages of Meet Mr. Product there are dozens of examples of brand mascots that did not last the tests of time. Did you know 7UP had a mascot? Before reading Meet Mr. Product I didn’t.
During the 1950’s Fresh-Up Freddie was the 7UP mascot. It was a rooster dressed in human clothes. In commercials he gave viewers advice on how to plan successful parties and picnics by having plenty of 7UP on hand.
When I look at the brand today, 7UP is still a party brand. But it has transformed to cater to the tastes and expectations of a youth market. In 2015, teenagers don’t think of picnics as parties. Naturally 7UP has evolved their brand and marketing to engage its target market
The Fresh-Up Freddie mascot fit a moment in time, and was abandoned by the 1960s to cater to a new youth market. 7UP’s brand strategy will continue to transform every decade or so to reach a new youth market.
Since 2014, the 7UP brand tagline is “Live it up.” The campaign is focused on targeting fans of electronic dance music. There’s no brand mascot to be seen, and that’s ok. Maybe the next generation will gravitate back towards the ideals of a mascot.
What makes brand mascots iconic is their relevance to their brand. The better a mascot can personify a brand, the more consumers will embrace it. But a mascot becomes a liability when its not effectively linked with the brand strategy. A mascot that doesn’t personify the brand is less relevant and less likable. If the mascot doesn’t fit, abandon it.
Mascots Are Characters, Not Cartoons
Brand Mascots come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. They’re as different as the brands they represent.
Mr. Peanut has a very different personality than the Jolly Green Giant. Dotz explains, “[The Minnesota Valley Canning Company] wanted to publicize the fact that it had developed an uncommonly flavorful and tender ‘giant’ -size pea … the buff Jolly Green Giant is the personification of the link between vegetables and good health.”
We don’t know the Jolly Green Giant as the life of the party. We know him as big, strong, healthy, and natural. He’s more like Mr. Clean than Mr. Peanut.
Brand mascots also transcend cartoons. You can build brand mascots with human beings. The Maytag Repairman, known as Ol’ Lonely, has been sitting idly by since 1967. He personifies Maytag’s brand promise, “reliably dependent.”
Other brands like Old Spice and Dos Equis are effectively using human mascots in their advertising. Millions of people watch the Old Spice Man, Isaiah Mustafa, and his antics. Dos Equis created “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” portrayed by Jonathan Goldsmith. These characters don’t fall into the classic model of cartoon mascots, but they are no less effective than the Jolly Green Giant or Mr. Peanut.
Companies that grow iconic brand mascots breathe life into them. The mascot isn’t just a drawing or a spokesperson, it’s a character. This requires developing its personality, its likes and dislikes, how it interacts with others, its story, and what it stands for. Without a personality, a brand mascot is simply a brand symbol.
A Mascot to Know and Love
What’s so remarkable about the two volumes of Meet Mr. Product is seeing the history of brand mascots.
Every marketer should own both copies. These illustrations are our roots, but they also highlight the power brand mascots have to pull on your heartstrings.
The books have rekindled my interest for working with brand mascots. While building the LEAPJob brand, my family’s former business, we developed “Leapy the Frog.” Leapy was born out of a desire to differentiate our brand visually from other recruiting agencies. Most agencies use bland and predictable brand imagery: smiling models, people shaking hands, puzzle pieces, nautical imagery, and other cliches.
We created Leapy, a red-eyed tree frog that was always in motion, to demonstrate the energy and excitement of advancing your career. Our guidelines for the mascot were he always had to be leaping, he could never be touching the ground, and he had to be smiling and having fun.
It was a ton of fun developing the character, and we ran internal discussions and competitions to come up with new scenarios for Leapy to leap. He jumped his briefcase. He was shot out of a cannon. He was catching butterflies above a field. He practiced his pole vault. He even drop kicked a city.
Thumbing through the pages of Meet Mr. Product brought back all the memories of developing and using the LEAPJob mascot. I am working with my design team to create a mascot for Sticky Branding. The theme for the brand is “Attracting Customers Like Bears to Honey.” We’ve decided we need a bear to represent this theme. Hopefully we can groom him into our mascot.
These projects are the fun parts of branding. This is where you get to really let your creativity fly and find fun and innovative ways to personify your brand. It’s the kind of project that makes you smile, because you’re building brand assets that will connect with your customers at a personal level. So much of marketing is sterile and numbers driven, but working with a brand mascot brings the human side back into marketing.
But more importantly, brand mascots move the sales needle. When you can connect with your customers at a deep, personal level — a human level — they’ll choose your brand first. The mascot is your tool to demonstrate your brand’s values, and a focal point for your customers to know your company, like it, and trust it.