question of the week
Fluent Devices: Should we bring them back?
We ask whether Fluent Devices - repetitive themes or icons, such as Aldi's Kevin the Carrot - are due a return
28 February 2023
But they went into decline in the 00s and 10s, and are only now beginning to slowly make a comeback.
System1 argues that the most successful recent Christmas and Super Bowl ads used Fluent Devices, such as Kevin The Carrot for Aldi and the M&Ms characters - longstanding elements of campaigns that take investment and time to build.
Should agencies bring back enduring brand cues (not just mascots) or have they fallen out of fashion for good?
We spoke to a number of industry insiders to find out.
Oliver Egan, Strategy Partner, The&Partnership
At risk of dating myself, I grew up at a time in the industry when Fluent Devices were decidedly unfashionable. Following many years when creative agencies intuitively understood the value of characters, jingles and consistent storytelling formats, the 00s and 10s were a moment when this appeared to go out of the window. Perhaps this was us being overwhelmed by media fragmentation and the need for our ideas to live in so many new spaces and formats.
Yet, at precisely the time when these tried-and-tested memory-structure-building-methods would have been most valuable, we forgot them. This was a time when the worst insult a peer could ever level at your shiny new brand re-launch campaign (we were always relaunching) was that it was a ‘a bit matching luggage’. Yet, as we have subsequently seen, there’s a lot to be said for a bit of matching luggage.
Thanks to the formidable minds at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, The IPA and System1 to name but a few, we have body of evidence which provides conclusive proof as to the value of fluent devices in lodging meaning into our ever more distracted minds. And from anthropomorphic carrots, to colourful ‘spokescandies’, and eyebrow-raising office workers we’re seeing new and exciting applications of fluent devices which, if used judiciously and consistently will pay back handsomely. Here’s hoping that we’re on the threshold of a new golden age of effectiveness!
Victoria Day, MD, Advertising Brand and Content, Ogilvy UK
I don’t think Fluent Devices and long-term brand building have ever gone out of fashion actually, at least not for those who understand how to make advertising that works. McDonalds, Compare the Market, and Sipsmith are just three examples of brands who are doing it right now.
In fact. I’d say that this approach is more relevant than ever given the abundance of forgettable crap that is being thrown at consumers every day via every media channel. As Marc Pritchard P&G’s Brand Officer eloquently puts it: "In our quest to do dynamic, real-time marketing in the digital age, we were producing thousands of ads, posts and tweets because we thought the best way to cut through the clutter was to create more ads. People are voting with their fingertips: they’re saying that too much of our advertising is uninteresting, uninspiring and therefore ineffective.”
It’s not a coincidence that in stark contrast to this landfill the ads we remember for years and years are the ones that have repeat elements in, that’s how brains work. It’s why I still know all the words to the R White’s song, and ‘Because You’re Worth it’ has become part of cultural lexicon. The quick fix allure of digital and social and the pressure for fast short-term results made some people forget that. The smartest ones however continued using creativity conveyed through memorable characters and mnemonics to build brand associations that are deeply embedded in the consumer psyche. Long live the fluent device.
Alan Young, Joint CCO, St. Luke’s
The debates of originality vs matching-luggage, though frequent, are essentially daft. The true battle is a creative one and that’s to be original within a consistent world and bring it to life in every scattered channel.
Think of any brand you admire, and they will instantly conjure a series of distinct shapes, colours patterns, maybe characters, perhaps whole worlds. We revere these brands because they revere themselves – they have a sense of who they are that’s so strong, so consistent you can recognise them long before you spot the logo.
Where perhaps the frustration with brand worlds, fluid assets or whatever you want to call them, begins, is when they are confused with the advertising idea. Metaphorically, we all need to remember they are not the painting, they are its frame.
In many ways, highly branded frameworks allow us to place fresh, new ideas at their centre. They give us a secure, recognisable space in which to work. Strong brand worlds free us to update, experiment and surprise with different tones, styles and tones of voice.
Again, branded devices are not so much ad ideas as brand ideas that stay consistent over time.
To suggest that Fluent Devices are "old fashioned" is to fail to understand that these devices are what all great brands are fashioned from.
Matt Lever, CCO, BMB
I think Fluent Devices are a perfectly viable and clearly often useful advertising approach for many brands. When they work, they’re massively valuable. Why wouldn’t you pull Kevin the Carrot from the ground every Christmas? Real people, you know, the ones who actually go to Aldi and its competitors, bloody love his little orange face.
And who wouldn’t want people across the country singing the advertiser’s name out loud at the end of a Snoop Dogg or Katy Perry spot (you’re doing it now, aren’t you reader?) I don’t even need to mention the brand (also, using a ‘music superstar’ every year is also a pretty good Fluent Device in and of itself, obviously).
The thing I find tricky is that often these Fluent Devices don’t seem to go through a ‘is it any good’ filter. That’s when they become damaging. Damaging to brands (stop irritating me in every ad break please). Damaging to good ads (stop putting terrible audio stings at the end of your otherwise good commercials, just because McDonald’s do it – “I’m loving it” was the product of a massive ad campaign that became a valuable asset over time - getting some mid-level composer to hit three piano keys out of the blue and thinking you’ve created something that anyone cares about is ridiculous). And damaging to our creative reputations (these devices should complement good ideas, not replace them – using A-list celebs in “you’re not you when you're hungry” was a clever and memorable way to execute an already brilliant creative idea).
So in short – use Fluent Devices, but use them wisely.
Martin Beverley, CSO, adam&eveDDB
We should bring Fluent Devices back, because they should never have gone away.
Our industry often forgets to build memories. We need more long-term campaigns that build short-cuts in people’s minds. We need more rigour around what builds recognition. We need more thought into the things that can become distinctive ‘thingies’ for brands.
For me, Fluent Devices don’t just have to be fictitious characters with aristocratic or operatic accents. They can be colours, symbols, vibes, phrases, soundtracks, jingles, stories and feelings. They can be anything that sticks in people’s minds and can be stuck with over the long term to build brand recognition. Simples, as that meerkat would say.
Pip Hulbert, UK CEO, Wunderman Thompson
However you look at it, deep down, this industry is so much about memory. Creating them, establishing them, reminding of them. And there is no better way to plant something in that memory than good old Fluent Devices. And for someone who’s been in this industry a while, I’ve seen a lot. Think of one and you’ve opened the floodgates - Compare the Market’s Meerkats, Duolingo’s owl, the KFC’s Colonel, Percy Pig, Kevin the Carrot, our very own Duracell Bunny and now our very latest First Direct Skunk.
They are now more important than ever. The explosion in channels means that a consistent and well-branded experience is harder than ever. We call this ‘fracturing’, and Fluent Devices are a smart solution because they can build instant brand recognition, tie together disparate touchpoints and maintain that all-important consistent tone of voice.
They also work really well in our new world of shorter-form media by creating associations that don’t need a long narrative to communicate. On social, where participation helps to promote sharing and build memorability, they also give audiences something to play with, tweak, copy, blend, share and imitate.
Which to choose? Well, go play and have some fun, but again and again, it just so happens, that furry animals always perform really, really well in research. Just in case you were considering one for your brand.