Every day, every minute, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of clever advertising people toil away in a never-ending search for brand differentiation. What makes us unique? What can we own? The answer is often an animated brand character. In an industry built on slivers of difference, a branded character is like a 2 x 4, something only you can own. No one else can take it, and that equals instant differentiation. But only if you know how to use it.
The numbers don’t lie. According to a November 2022, 87 percent of marketers claim that using animations increases traffic to their websites – not just because animations grab people’s attention, but creative and original animated ads are highly sharable and even have the potential to go viral.(Wyzowl)The report notes, “animation may increase TV advertisement effectiveness in terms of consumers’ affective, cognitive and conative responses, thus, having a positive and significant impact on their attitudes, including brand awareness and preferences, products’ choice, and intention to purchase.”
Often characters have no clear purpose, so they flounder undefined and bring very little to the brand party. If you’re using a character or thinking about using one, here are a few things to consider.
Having a character readily associated with your brand as the name, logo, or something else integral makes it easier to use. Manufacturing one from scratch presents a bigger challenge. You must unequivocally know what this new character has to do with your brand and establish a clear, undeniable connection to the product or service. You must also make sure you don’t force a character where one doesn’t make sense.
There are many examples of manufactured characters that had nothing inherently to do with the brand assets that crushed it; the E*Trade Baby, the Energizer Bunny, the Geico Cavemen, the Maytag Repairman, the Dos Equis beer’s Most Interesting Man in the World. There is also the vast purgatory of characters who are there but don’t break through creatively or add much. And don’t forget the graveyard of characters who died an ugly death because they just didn’t connect. Does anyone remember ‘Herb’ for Burger King?
Unless you’re a niche brand, which most character brands are not, or you are consciously establishing an anti-hero, work hard to give your character universal appeal. Create a lovable character and you create brand love. Think Spuds McKenzie, Keebler Elves, the Pillsbury Doughboy, likeability is one of the main advantages of a character. It counters the inclination people have to hate advertising. Don’t get me wrong, many characters polarize the audience. I know many people who love Flo the Progressive lady, and many who hate her. That said, take a shot at lovable.
It’s hard for a product to have personality. It is a thing. The root word of ‘personality’ is ‘person.’ Personifying a brand with a character immediately makes it easier for your brand to have personality because it is no longer just a cleaning product – it is Mr. Clean and everything he stands for.
Our work for Parrot Bay Rum featured the brand’s hero character – a parrot – but the assignment made us ask some key questions; we have a parrot, but what is its reason for being? What does it do in any given situation? What is its defined role?
We worked from its position as a tropical-flavored rum that helps you escape to a tropical world to turn the parrot into the ‘Birdtender’ who instantly transports you to a colorful tiki bar and then drops some tropical wisdom on you. The bird is the Yoda of the tropical lifestyle.
I’ve had the experience of working on numerous iconic characters; Captain Morgan, the E*Trade Baby, Mr. Pringles, the Frontier Airlines animals, and Mr. Clean. In every case, brand characters need to have clearly defined roles. For example, the E*Trade baby started as a demonstration of how easy it is to trade stock online but ultimately became a day trader in a diaper. Captain Morgan always added that spark of roguish irreverence, the spice is thrown into any drink or situation. Mr. P represents the signature wink of approval at the end of any Pringles ad. The Frontier Airlines animals were the tarmac sitcom filled with a lovable ensemble cast to endear people to the brand.
Those clearly defined roles became a lens all work went through, motivation for all ideas and actions. If you don’t know your character’s role, the poor thing will wander aimlessly.
A character can kill it for a brand on many levels but don’t just use it for the sake of using it.
Ask yourself some probing questions:
Characters are fun, colorful creatures who present unique opportunities for a brand, but also distinct challenges. Understand those challenges and you can unlock a singular, ownable marketing wellspring. Quite an achievement in an industry striving to break free from perennial parity.