For as long as advertising has existed, brands have used stylized characters as the 'face' of their brand on posters and packaging. When adverts began in cinemas and then especially on TV in the 1950s, it was inevitable that these characters would make the leap to the moving image.
Today, animated characters have evolved into a sophisticated industry, merging art and business.
In this blog we look at why they work so successfully and then offer up some of the best examples.
The classic advert has a simple formula for how it works: grab the attention, highlight the problem, provide the solution. The first part is always the hardest and so all possible tricks in the toolbox are pulled out to help achieve this. One such trick is the use of the animated character, or mascot as they have come to be known. People can identify images in 13 milliseconds, and process visual information 60,000x faster than text. These statistics are clear proof that visual language is crucial for successful commercials, no matter what the message is, and especially at the beginning of a commercial when engagement is the key goal. A Mascot creates an instant visual focal point that the audience can connect with. A character grabs the attention and allows a conversation to begin in which the viewer is a participant. Successful mascots are visually interesting, relatable and can be understood quickly.
It's interesting that most mascots are not human. They can be a genie or a tomato or a furry animal but a human is considered uninteresting whereas a talking non-human character is immediately more unique and attention-grabbing. Emphasising their emotional traits and making them cute or rude or funny or cool also makes them stand out. What's more, cartoon characters tap into the nostalgia factor, reminding us of the cartoon characters we watched during our idyllic childhoods and a more innocent, care-free time.
There's a similar psychology at work here as to why emojis are so popular - they are fun, instantly visually recognizable and can convey emotions quickly without the need for words. There's a misconception that mascots don't work for serious brands or serious subjects. The reality is that serious often equals boring. An animated character humanizes a brand, making it relatable and identifiable. In a world of diminishing attention spans, where similar brands are often jostling for attention, a mascot is an easy and immediate way to make a brand stand out from the crowd.
A successful mascot will not create a successful brand on its own but needs to be part of an overall strategy and identity. The ultimate goal is brand recall and a mascot has all the attributes to help achieve that like brand personality and brand story.
Animated characters are also key elements in explainer videos. Their role in these is slightly different to that of commercials. Here they play the role of narrator, creating a narrative link to convey the information in the video, or they become an extension of the viewer, interacting with the story. But the same psychological rules apply. If the viewer is emotionally engaged with the video, they are more likely to watch it and retain the message. This is more easily done if the interaction is with a visual character rather than a faceless voice or plain text.
The most successful mascots can last for years or even decades. They become part of popular culture and can be reinvented for each new generation, creating a self-sustaining feelgood factor of comfort, nostalgia and familiarity.
Tony The Tiger
Some of these most iconic mascots first appeared with the advent of domestic TV, drawing inspiration from children's cartoons and aimed squarely at children.
Tony the Tiger first appeared in 1952 to sell Kellogg's Frosties with his famous catchphrase 'They’re Gr-r-reat!'
Kellogg’s were at the forefront of brand marketing, and working with advertising agency Leo Burnett, they revolutionised the industry. Burnett cleverly took a product that was formerly pretty bland (dry wheat flakes) and turned it into something every kid wanted to eat. Tony the Tiger was the friendly mascot of the brand, used in commercials and on the packaging itself, embodying strength and dynamism and making the cereal feel healthy (even though it wasn't).
Tony evolved over the decades, becoming even more vigorous and muscular but with the appeal of sugary cereals waning, the writing may be on the wall for Tony.
Other cereal brands extensively used animated characters such as Snap, Crackle and Pop, the Quaker Man and the Lucky Charms leprechaun.
Not all characters have to be cute and likeable. Sometimes the opposite can be true and it works just as well.
The Peperami Animal first appeared in 1991 and has been the snarling face of the brand since then. It has a brilliant tagline “Peperami, it’s a bit of an animal” which succeeds in being a bit rebellious and also gives a defiant finger to vegetarians everywhere. As advertising becomes increasingly safe and politically correct, it's sometimes nice to see some unashamed punk attitude that breaks the rules.
Friendly, bouncy and white… or terrifying.
The Michelin Man has been around forever and is one of the longest existing brand mascots. It was first conceived in 1894 by the Michelin Brothers who saw a pile of tyres and thought it looked like a man. The first drawing appeared four years later, then he began appearing in adverts and the first animated commercials started in the 50’s and he is still going strong today. His image has changed over the years, evolving from a slightly sinister cigar-chomping, champagne-guzzling character to the friendlier, bouncy one today as the times changed and Michelin wanted to project an image of reliability and trustworthiness.
Poppin Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, was first introduced in 1965 as a clay stop-motion animation and could have been the Michelin Man’s cousin. He featured in over 600 commercials over the next 40 years for the brand, evolving into a CGI version.
Both these characters were clearly inspiration for the fictional Stay Puft Marshmallow Man when the concept of a benevolent cartoon mascot went fully meta in the iconic scene from Ghostbusters.
What's better than one mascot? A whole family of them! Tetley Tea in the UK introduced us to the Tetley Teafolk in 1973. They were symbolic of the friendly, down-to-earth working class image of Northern England which the brand tried to evoke… and they were hugely successful.
With each character having a different personality, audiences were able to choose their favourite according to who they related to the most.
Tetley tried to modernise their image and retired the Teafolk in 2001 but sales plummeted and so the much-loved characters were triumphantly brought back to life.
The graveyard of failed brand mascots is a large one. Thousands have been created and then discarded and forgotten, for the simple reason that they didn't achieve what they set out to do. Usually this is because they weren't engaging, likeable, or distinctive enough - qualities that successful mascots all need.
Sometimes, as times change, a formerly successful mascot will be seen to have outlived its purpose and no amount of reinvention can save it so it's quietly retired. This might be because the brand wants to change its image or from controversy arising from acceptable perceptions of racism, sexism etc.
And then sometimes a mascot will succeed and endure even though it really shouldn't. Here in the Czech Republic, we have a great example. Alzak, the little green alien, has been the face of e-commerce giant Alza since 2006 and immediately polarised the population. A huge percentage couldn't stand the grating, high pitch whine of this bizarre blob, including the owner of the company himself who allegedly wanted to get rid of it after a year. It's certainly distinctive and has helped maintain the profile of the company, but it's also spawned many 'Death to Alzak' social groups as well as some great memes. Often in advertising, controversy can be a good thing.
There is a timeless quality to animation. Fashions and styles move quickly so that live action commercials become quickly dated and redundant. But animation, like a fine wine, can even improve with age, taking on new meaning and perspective.
Animation possesses key unique qualities that, when combined together, set it apart from other mediums: its artistic history and roots. the sense of limitless imagination and creativity. the simplicity of it's visual style. its ability to tap into nostalgia and childlike enthusiasm.
Together they create a medium that is effortlessly iconic and that can create a unique, easily recognizable identity for a brand. In the advertising industry, this is a priceless commodity.