hello kitty

The Art Of Being Cute And Why Brands Love It

Irresistibly cute or insufferably naff? There's a line between cuteness and kitsch but brands that traverse it find cute can be compelling

By jeremy lee

The current exhibition Cute at Somerset House, celebrating "the irresistible force of cuteness" in contemporary culture, should pique anyone working in the creative industries.

The show, which embraces artworks and cultural phenomena such as music, fashion, toys, video games and social media, also coincides with the 50th anniversary of Hello Kitty - an icon of what some consider cute.

There's no doubt that cuteness is one way to the hearts of consumers, of all demographics. Others, of course, see sugary cute icons as kitsch and unbearably naff - you pays your money you takes your choice (or you find something else to do instead). But advertising since its dawn has embraced the cuteness/kitsch of highly stylised animal characters - to varying degrees - as a way of giving personality to a brand.

One of the most famous 'cute' campaigns from recent times is Grey London's work for McVitie's, based around the 'Sweeter Together' brand platform. It was praised at the time for its bold and tongue-in-cheek approach to sugary cuteness.

And just earlier this month Just Eat launched a new brand positioning - 'The Joy of Everything' - featuring cute animal characters that are meant to personify customer cohorts.

The animated characters, created by McCann London, are Wes Anderson in style and include a 'cute' family of squirrels, student rabbits, a suburban beaver and otter couple, and city-living moles that would be perfectly at home on the front of the collectible plates that advertise in the pages of downmarket TV supplements.

The ads attempt to delve into the lives of the animal characters, while also representing real people and their experiences with a different array of food.

As a way of using the emotive charge of cuteness within art the campaign might not trouble Jeff Koons, who is famous and has become obscenely wealthy for his balloon animals (one of which sold for $91 million in 2019). But it's an innovative approach to a sector that traditionally relies on the ease of 'delivery' in its comms.

Moreover, art has imitated life - Just Eat and McCann London even went as far as to work with Diversity Standards Collective, a global research company and collection of consultants, to ensure the animated animals chosen were 'representative'.

Cuteness in ads is a serious business and comes with all the casting trapfalls of more traditional advertising formats. So how best do you use apply this thin coating of sugar: what qualities does it imbue your brand with; and is applicable to all sectors? And, most crucially, how do you avoid caking it on so much that it crosses the line into the sickly saccharine?

Regan Warner, executive creative director, McCann London

In the ever-evolving landscape of advertising, the enchanting allure of 'cute' stands as a formidable cultural force. From the unforgettable McVitie's kitten cookies (ok, biscuits...but that didn’t roll off the alliteration tongue) to the return of the e-trade babies this past Super Bowl, ‘cute’ has repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness. But what exactly does it accomplish? Well, 'cute' possesses a unique ability to evoke feelings of joy, warmth, and connection, serving as a versatile tool for brands seeking to forge genuine connections with their audience. This charming aesthetic transcends age boundaries and resonates across diverse demographics, cementing its status as a go-to strategy for brands striving to win hearts and minds.

But what precisely does it achieve, you might wonder? Well, apart from melting hearts like an ice cream on a sunny day, cute advertisements tap into our primal instincts to nurture and protect. Witnessing something adorable, such as a fluffy puppy or a chubby baby, triggers a surge of feel-good chemicals in our brains, ahhhh, glorious dopamine. This emotional bond not only fosters affection for the brand but also fosters a positive association that endures long after the advert concludes.

Now, let's differentiate 'cute' from its close relative, kitsch. While 'cute' tugs at heartstrings with its genuine charm, kitsch often veers into the territory of exaggerated sentimentality. Nonetheless, both can be equally effective in eliciting emotional responses from consumers.

In the realm of social media, 'cute' reigns supreme, captivating audiences with its irresistible appeal. Whether it's itty-bitty teacup Pomeranians or miniature kitchens creating tiny adorable culinary delights, the proliferation of cuteness shows no signs of waning. Looking to the domain of AI-generated images, it’s overwhelmed with cuteness, such as cats strutting the catwalks or indulging in noodle-eating with knit caps. Admittedly, I may harbour a slight obsession with cats hence the cat references, but who can resist such endearing feline charm?

In essence, 'cute' transcends fleeting trends—it embodies a timeless strategy that continues to captivate and enchant audiences worldwide. And it's safe to say that the world of cute is here to stay—and it's only getting cuter by the minute!

Jack Walker, head of art, FCB London

It's not a matter of taste; it's woven into our DNA. Evolution wired us to adore those big eyes and tiny noses, ensuring we care deeply for our young. This instinct, shared across the animal kingdom, extends its influence far beyond nature and into culture, fashion, and yes, even the brands we love.

Cute can be a powerful tool for brands to create emotional connections. It's a strategy that's not limited to the obvious choices like toys or sweets. Unexpected companies, from insurance to B2B tech, have tapped into the "cute" aesthetic to soften their image and draw us in. Compare the meerkat is a hugely successful example of how leveraging cuteness can make even the most mundane services engaging.

This appeal of cute isn't about diminishing a brand's seriousness but enhancing relatability. A cute mascot or a heart-warming animation can transform something impersonal into something approachable, something that stirs warmth and affection in our hearts.

Artist Eva Cremers collaborates with a range of companies, from tech giants like Samsung, Hyundai, and Apple, to high street brands like H&M and Nike. Her unique approach of weaving cuteness into products not only elevates a brand’s appeal, but also deepens the emotional connection with consumers, creating a sense of loyalty and affection. At its core, cuteness is a feeling. A delightful, warm, and fuzzy sensation that resonates with audiences.

Brands that inject just the right amount of cuteness into their messaging, find a way to stand out. They remind us that at the heart of every transaction is a human emotion, a longing for connection. In leveraging this they don't just sell products; they evoke feelings, create memories, and, sometimes, even make us smile.

Matthew Waksman, head of strategy, advertising, Ogilvy UK

If you’re in the restaurant trade and need feet through the door, there’s a simple rule to follow “If you want to sell it, bread it.” No matter what you’re cooking up, coat it in breadcrumbs and they will come. Katsu anyone?

For brand people, our equivalent of breading for success, is coating in cuteness. If you up the adorable factor, you grab eyeballs and pull on heart strings all the way to the checkout. Scrub Daddy disrupted America’s sponges with a big smiley face. A young chap called Henry like King Cnut has kept vacuum innovators at bay, and we at Ogilvy took on the big gin boys with an irresistible talking Sipsmith swan. (watch on YouTube here)

Some will say it’s powerful because of dark times. Others will point to new social trends (felt cute might delete later etc.) Really, cuteness has always been a great way to build a brand. Humans are inherently social and nurturing. These characteristics have helped us survive. And cuteness is a direct appeal to these instincts.

Andre Sallowicz, creative partner, AMV BBDO

The endearing charm of cats and dogs is widely acknowledged as a source of immediate uplift in mood. Their innate ability to captivate our attention and evoke feelings of warmth and contentment within us is incredible. The presence of these charming companions in advertisements often establishes an instant connection with the audience. Our neurological response to encountering such delightful creatures is deeply ingrained, eliciting sensations of pleasure and gratification.

Consequently, the appearance of these beloved animals in an ad effectively stimulates a positive response within us, prompting heightened engagement with the associated content. Whether sharing cute videos featuring furry companions or by fostering a desire to buy products endorsed by them, it is evident that these delightful creatures possess a remarkable ability to evoke joy in us.

Ross Neil, deputy ECD, VCCP

We live in the post internet age, where everyone has grown up on line. Cuteness was once reserved for cartoons at 3.30pm on a weekday or saturday mornings. Now cuteness has saturated so far through the media vernacular that Snapchat filters now make you cute, whether you are or not.

The big eyes and whiskers vision of Hello Kitty made flesh are everyday now. Cute characters in advertising have always been used, from Tony the Tiger to the Energizer Bunny all the way to VCCP’s own Aleksandr Orlov. I think the reason cuteness works in advertising is because we all try to resist being sold to, it’s natural. You are your own person, no ones telling you what to do. But introduce something cute, something harmless, something that is so irresistible in its damn cuddliness and well, it’s hard to argue against it.

Make something big eyed and baby-like, and not only do they get under consumers’ ‘anti-sell’ radar but consumers actively invite the harmless little buggers into their lives. It appears advertising’s secret actually has enormous eyes, disproportionate pupils, whiskers and fully paws.


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