creative salon selects
Go Kevin: Why we all love a cute (or cringey) brand mascot
Attaching your brand to a cute character (or even an odd one: Ronald McDonald anyone?) can be a powerful lever of success, and now the brand mascot is back in fashion
As stunts go, Aldi’s teaser that it had dispensed with Kevin the Carrot – the brand mascot for the discount supermarket chain since 2016 – with a banana called Ebanana Scrooge was a suitably silly idea. And it was certainly a welcome relief from repeatedly being hit over the head with a clunky ‘purpose’ stick – something that advertising has been preoccupied with for too long.
And Kevin’s “demise”, engineered by McCann UK, managed to generate a modicum of press coverage before Aldi’s big Christmas reveal: Kevin the Carrot is still with us - hurrah - and has in fact been joined by the sainted Marcus Rashford, albeit in the guise of the vegetable Marcus Radishford. Geddit?
All good harmless fun. But the brand intent is rather more serious.
Kevin the Carrot has now earned his place in the pantheon of brand mascots – in a line that goes back as far as Bibendum (more commonly known as the Michelin Man) more than a century ago.
As shortcuts to portray a brand’s characteristics or develop an emotional connection with a consumer, they remain as popular as ever and there are clear reasons why the brand mascot is making a bit of a comeback.
Certainly their use increased during lockdown as shooting ads with real people in them became more complicated.
Equally, in an era of culture wars, where the perpetually offended can perceive slight in even the most innocuous of circumstances - and, in particular, advertising - it’s difficult to find offense from a cuddly animal (although Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima have quite rightly been dispensed with as their respective emotional shortcuts didn’t take you to a very nice place).
Mark Elwood, the executive creative director of Leo Burnett London, says that brand characters and mascots can pull emotional levers that other advertising techniques – such as music, logos or the use of a well-known celebrity – cannot. Indeed, according to System 1 research they can extend dwell time in digital by 50 per cent and increase recall by 25 per cent.
In short, they are a heuristic. Richard Nott, creative director at Engine Creative, says: “If you're looking to give your brand more meaning or relatability, than creating its physical embodiment is a nifty shortcut. Instant personality in abundance. Brand characters can also be a natural focal point for your advertising, providing likeability and memorability in spades.”
What’s more brand characters are merchandisable – this year Aldi is flogging Kevin the Carrot toys, alongside Ebanana Scrooge and Marcus Radishford, (and in a nice nod to Rashford’s campaigning to alleviate food poverty is donating unsold food to families in need this Christmas). In that respect, it is following John Lewis, which has for a long time merchandised the various brand characters it has used in its adam&eveDDB-created Christmas campaigns, from Monty the Penguin to Excitable Edgar via Moz the Monster.
Brand characters are not just for Christmas, however – the best examples can be used all year round and in perpetuity (as Bibendum, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger have shown).
Jenny Nichols, group planning director at VCCP, which created the Bubl character for O2, thinks that brand characters provide a flexibility and - unlike celebrities – they are controllable; in short, you’re never going to find an animated animal embroiled in a coke and vice scandal. “You don’t need to worry about the face of your brand behaving badly. Its destiny and choices are all in our hands,” she says.
Furthermore Neil Godber, executive strategy director at Wunderman Thompson, cites research from Byron Sharp that that shows that they are an excellent way to drive memorability and brand linkage into communications. “The fact that today’s modern marketing environment offers multiple touchpoints to develop, nurture and fulfil demand, along with increased recognition of salience, means that brand characters are increasingly valuable,” he says.
While brand mascots have been commonplace in packaged goods for some time, they are also suitable across categories that are otherwise mundane. Perhaps the most famous brand mascot of recent years has been Aleksandr Orlov, the VCCP meerkat from Comparethemarket, which has easily slipped into popular culture. Elwood says that they can “entertain” in categories that might otherwise be mundane.
VCCP’s Jenny Nichols says that they are particularly useful for service brands, particularly those who have complex and varied products to communicate and in categories dominated by apathy. “With a mobile phone network, people often only think about it when something goes wrong. Loyalty often comes from a deep inertia, not an active choice. Having a physical embodiment of your brand to carry these messages can be incredibly useful. If the character is developed with enough magic, it’ll also add a bit of joy into otherwise functional space that needs shaking up to make people care about it,” she says.
However, Dave Henderson, creative partner at Atomic London, points out that getting the brand mascot attributes to match the attributes of the brand itself is crucial. “A noble black horse, well that has all the right attributes doesn’t it? But you’re never going to use a big yellow furry monster to represent mortgages, savings and investments… he’s much better for telling em’ about the honey mummy,” he says.
Even the luxury goods category has leveraged the power of the brand mascots…of sorts. Saatchis’ executive creative director Franki Goodwin says that the designers themselves can become heightened brand characters, such as “the larger-than-life personas of Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, and even Posh Spice. Her fashion story is now a shortcut to the values of her label’s brand,” she argues.
As to the future, VCCP’s Jenny Nichols reckons that people have got increasingly cynical towards brands, meaning that mascots and characters have a future that is assured beyond the transient world of celebrities and influencers. Atomic’s Dave Henderson concludes: “There’s real, deep seated proof that brand characters can be the most powerful tool in our box and I’m still not sure why more brands and agencies don’t insist on them.”
My favourite brand mascot
Franki Goodwin, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi London
"The man from Delmonte, Mr Kipling, Snap, Crackle & Pop, The NatWest pigs - the ones that stay with me are the native ones from my childhood. I had the daunting job of retiring our most beloved Harvey Kietel as The Fixer for Direct Line last year and ‘work with’ Robocop, Donnatello and Bumblebee. When a diehard Turtles fan posted on YouTube that Direct Line had done what Michael Bay couldn’t, we knew we’d done alright."
Dave Henderson, creative partner, Atomic London
"I think my favourite brand character of all time has to be Flat Eric. A brilliant appropriation of a French hand puppet that was used to magical effect to keep Levi’s on the cutting edge of cool and at the time got everyone talking, even though he didn’t."
Jenny Nichols, group planning director, VCCP
"The Honey Monster. Sugar is bad. Honey is good. Really smart way of using a character to talk about the product. The fact it’s also slightly randomly a monster (vs. a bee or something more logical) adds to the magic. “Tell them about the honey, mummy” - makes absolutely no sense, but is brilliantly memorable."
"And, of course, O2's character, Bubl. Bubl’s scuffed appearance and characteristics makes it more relatable as a character. Bubl’s personality comes through his eyes (which is important given the 80 variants we went through). Despite being a robot, Bubl is human, reliable and deeply loyal - all the characteristics you’d look for in a brand of today."
Neil Godber, executive strategy director, Wunderman Thompson
"The Duracell Bunny. He’s an incredible brand icon inextricably linked to the benefit of the brand who has endured through the years and now better than ever with a new voice."
Richard Nott, creative director, Engine Creative
"Did I mention I'm a Creative Director for Churchill? Oh yes. Nuff said."