George the bear Hofmeister

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Can old brand mascots resonate with new generations?

We're republishing some of our most popular stories just in case you missed them the first time round. Here we ask if reverting back to old brand mascots is a bold creative strategy.

By Creative Salon

George the Bear was one of the most famous brand icons ever and his return earlier in the month for Hofmeister sparked a wave of nostalgia among audiences who remembered him fondly from his 80s and 90s advertising reign.

But frankly you have to be of a certain vintage to understand the "I'm back" reference. We all know that nostalgia has a fundamental appeal and it's a trend that the industry is keen to manipulate. Brand icons such as - Smash Martians, Beanz Meanz Heinz kids, the Honey Monster, and more recently, the Churchill dog - have a familiarity that's been built up over the years with huge media investment. With a refreshed brand and product, Hofmeister and its agency BBH reckon George the Bear has become more suited for modern day audiences. But can revived brand mascots resonate with new generations? Or do they rely on their past reputation for credibility?

Nick Gill, partner and creative director at BBH

Leveraging brand mascots from the past could be a risky strategy. To be successful, I think you need a good reason to bring a character back. You need a story that connects the past with the present. George The Hofmeister Bear was created by the late, great John Webster (I know. I was working a few offices down the corridor). Loosely based on The Fonze from Happy Days he was loved by punters. But he was also very much a product of the laddish 1980s. To bring him back he would have to evolve to meet the tastes and values of a modern audience.

Fortunately, we had a story to tell that gave us license to go back to him. Decades on, the beer had gotten dramatically better. It's now brewed in Bavaria, it's winning awards and is generally a classier product. So we came up with a classier George. One who wouldn't feel out of place in the pages of GQ. Hopefully, this new campaign will resonate with older punters who remember George with affection but will also appeal to younger drinkers who accept these funny and disarming portraits at face value.

Neil Godber, executive strategy director at Wunderman Thompson

Brand mascots are perfect for what we know about how brands are built, how communications work and the fractured communications landscape we find ourselves in today.

In a world where brands and communications occupy tiny amounts of people’s time and attention, mascots can catch the eye, entertain and convey the features, messages, benefits or values of the brand. Just look at the Duracell Bunny, he’s instantly recognisable alongside the Duracell black and copper batteries, stands for longevity with his running and drumming and connects the superior performance of Duracell with the end user.

More than that, given the need to engage consumers across a multitude of channels - both official advertising and more playful social content - brand mascots can be flexed in a way that’s consistently distinctive, allowing brands to build memory structures where other creative approaches would struggle. Think about the great work for the KFC Colonel who has been younger, older, a wrestler, a cartoon and more. In addition to this, the flexibility of mascots can roll into collaborations, merchandise (think meercat) and promotions.

Conversely, when faced with the dynamics of channels where conventional narratives aren’t an option, where you have the impossibly short 2-3 seconds of attention, mascots loaded with meaning help to communicate in a flash.

All of this this shows that when deployed well, it’s the right move to follow the bear.

Matt Waksman, head of strategy UK at Ogilvy

Brand mascots? They’re grrrrrreat!

In TV, film and literature, once producers and writers see they’ve got a character that can strike a chord with an audience they keep them going for decades, even centuries.

It’s only us flighty ad folk that get bored and chuck away our valuable assets.

Don’t just take Hollywood’s word for it, made up characters are proven to be one of the strongest ways to build brand salience AND one of the tools most ignored by other marketers. Double win!

Yes ok, you might have more specific brand needs than salience but the great thing about mascots, rather than a particular ‘idea’ is that they aren’t tied to one message. They’re like a celebrity that doesn’t die, renegotiate their fee, or get cancelled. They’re a controllable and safe mouthpiece that can land different stories depending on the needs of your brand.

So if you’ve got a character or mascot who worked for your brand before, unless they were an offensive sign of their times, they’ll probably win hearts again. More so if you have latent memory to build on. So bust open your archives, let the love, and ROI, roll in.

Kate Nettleton, head of planning at VMLY&R

Brand mascots have an inherent power to be iconic and enduring, but only if they are emblematic of a timelessly appealing quality that really differentiates the brand. In short, if done well, they should have been built on what makes the brand credible, earning them a timeless reputation.

Whether it’s the expertise of KFC’s colonel, the heritage of Wendy’s (the daughter of its founder), to the ‘simples’ rally cry of a meerkat, these mascots marry a quality of the brand and a universal desire of the consumer, no matter what generation they come from. From expertise in battering a chicken, to ease of comparing insurance quotes, they have a power to carry powerful messages through generational and cultural shifts.

What’s more, with the proliferation of brands and comms channels, a physical form to identify brands is also becoming more and more necessary in our increasingly visually instantaneous world. Not only do they aid cut through, mascots can also give increasingly mistrusted business entities an approachable, likeable, characterful form.

But the cult status of a character is only re-earned through great advertising ideas that surround it and reasserts the role of that brand in popular culture. I’m not sure it can just be bought with a fresh pair of kicks and a leather jacket.

Jenny Nichols, head of planning at VCCP

Characters are developed by brands with three clear benefits.They’re memorable, they’re flexible and they’re in our control.

Despite being one of the most effective ways to create distinctiveness and salience for brands, they’re relatively underused.

There are some who have stood the test of time (Meerkats), some have enjoyed a rebirth (George the Bear), and some have been developed out of new needs (O2 Bubl).

Nostalgia is a key component to a long-standing mascot. However, the real question is whether dogmatic consistency is more valuable than coherence.

For brands to thrive and speak to the generations of the future, it’s imperative that the changing context in which it exists is not ignored. That could be about where their audience resides, the evolving narrative in which the character plays a role, or a way of revitalising existing brand assets.

Creating a mascot can allow brands to reach audiences they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to and thereby maintain their distinctiveness.

In a world where people are looking to actively avoid advertising where they can, there is an immeasurable value in having a ‘thing’, creating the shorthand for people to talk about and actively demonstrating the personality you may not be able to express through your product offering.”

Neil Henderson, CEO at St Luke’s

There’s a lot to be said for a great mascot in alcohol advertising today. The Famous Grouse is still going strong and the Old Mout kiwi continues to appeal to 20-something drinkers. So it’s great to see George the Bear back, particularly so in the capable hands of BBH who have been responsible for some of the best beer campaigns of all time. His past will be of little help to today’s audience though; he will live or die by his appeal and relevance now. I for one hope he works. Bringing humour back to the category would be great for the industry.

Jason Cobbold, CEO at BMB

Mascots can be incredibly powerful for businesses. Done well, with the right commitment, brand mascots present clever and memorable ways to embody an organisation’s meaning - and they’re usually worth holding on to for the long term.

The bunny lasts longer, the laughing cow moos delicious, and the tyre man keeps on selling tyres for a certain tyre brand. They’re powerfully recognisable and can increase customer loyalty.

Not all mascots stay the course of time. Some can fall out of step with a business, society or culture more broadly. There are, without doubt, moments to retire certain characters. But a marketer’s job is to keep one of a brand's biggest equities relevant for new audiences where possible. Some mascots are easily refreshed and relevant for today. The striding man meant progress for Johnnie Walker in the 19th century, and it means the same today, the Churchill dog meant loyalty before and it does today.

The trick is to find the voice, the look and the behaviour that hooks a new audience. Be self-critical rather than self-referential and do the thing that sticks in today’s culture. Nostalgia and novelty can powerfully co-exist - just ask Spiderman and Wonder Woman.


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