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Brand Personality and the Role of the Modern Mascot

by Rowena Curlewis on 11/19/2021 | 5 Minute Read

Mascots have played a significant role in our relationships with brands for many years, from motoring (Michelin Man) and food (Borden Dairy’s Elsie the Cow) to bubble bath (Mr. Bubble). 

The drinks industry is no different when it comes to understanding their special powers. Think of Johnnie Walker’s Striding Man, who marched into our lives at the start of the 20th century. Or the Guinness Brewery Toucan, which was created in 1935 and enthralled audiences well into the 1960s. There's even the Bacardí Bat, a symbol of good fortune in Cuba synonymous with the rum brand since 1862.

For decades, brand designers imbued products and services with "personalities," hoping consumers will connect and become devotees. And it’s no less critical a tool for marketers today. 

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When you look at the figures, it’s easy to see why. According to a white paper by UK production group Moving Picture Company, the creative force behind The Lion King and many advertising characters, brand mascots can increase profit and emotional connection with customers by up to 41%. The same study found that campaigns without a mascot were only 29.7% likely to increase market share. 

So, it’s no wonder that we see new mascots popping up all the time or even older ones getting modern makeovers to appeal to new audiences. Johnnie Walker provides a case in point; so familiar as a 2D graphic form, he has been transformed into a 3D character for a TV advertisement. Owner Diageo even launched a female iteration in 2018 called Jane Walker (more of which later). 

Making a Connection

As human beings, we’re hardwired to connect. We’re shaped by our social environments and feel so much better when we have healthy bonds with the people around us. In fact, our well-being depends on it. It’s no surprise that brand designers and marketers want to tap into that sensibility to make a connection.

The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words rings true here, too. Any visual mnemonic will aid memory and recall, but by anthropomorphizing your brand, you’re increasing the chance that people will relate to it. 

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Keeping Up With the Times

As well as forming new and stronger relationships with consumers, mascots can evolve sectors. Australian wine range Yellow Tail has not stopped growing since its inception 20 years ago. The New South Wales brand is quintessentially Aussie and unique in its Aboriginal-inspired illustration style. 

The namesake Yellow Tail Rock Wallaby mascot on the label conveys that proud New World heritage, which has proved so popular globally. It was the perfect mascot for the Casella family, which founded Yellow Tail. Instead of competing with French or Italian wines, the approach presents it as fun and approachable and targets a new wine consumer. 

As brand designers, we’re always looking to the future and want our creative inventions to flex and grow with their brands. Napa Valley’s Duckhorn is a great example of this. The wine brand has an instantly recognizable mascot in its Pintail duck, which has allowed it to have the spinoff Decoy brand—still using a duck, but this time as a man-made object. When you see the bird, in whichever form, the recognition is instant. 

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Moving With the Times

As products and services and their target consumers evolve, it can be necessary to update mascots. It’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though—a redesign should not be so radical that you lose hard-won brand equity and awareness. Port brand Cockburn’s famous cockerel demonstrates how you can take a brand mascot and inject modern dynamism and intrigue to attract a new audience and tell a different story. The latest "Tails of the Unexpected" sub-brand still has a connection back to the much-loved original, but now with a freshness that befits current positioning. 

Sometimes evolution is called for because the social and political landscape changes, and inequities need addressing. 

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The Jane Walker limited-edition whisky wasn't met with enthusiasm by all parties, however. It launched as "another symbol of the brand’s commitment to progress," a statement of its support for female empowerment causes, with $1 from every bottle produced donated to relevant charities. But many felt it was patronizing "gender-washing." Outside of the drinks category, food brand Uncle Ben’s came under fire for perpetuating racial stereotypes. In 2007, the brand tried to reimagine Ben as a chairman of the board for the company, however, the damage was already beyond the brand's control. Owner Mars Food is renaming the brand Ben’s Original and introducing new packaging this year.

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Mars Food is doing the right thing, but it would have been so much better if it had been more sensitive to cultural trends and continually assessed the impact of its mascot. If you see a problem looming, you should do something about it before your brand is damaged. Take the lead rather than be forced to change through negative publicity.

Supporting a New Agenda

The key to creating an enduring mascot is like creating an enduring brand. You need to think about the product or service’s "personality." Why will consumers connect? What difference will it make to their lives? What do your target consumers care most about today? 

So, what does the future hold? As we move into a more purpose-driven era, we’re likely to see old mascots modernized and new ones created that speak to upcoming audiences differently. It’s not just about brand recognition anymore. Businesses will need to think hard about how they use mascots to communicate their sustainability and ESG intentions and persuade potential consumers of their authenticity. A significant role for brand and mascot designers like us will be to tell a company’s story the right way; that way, consumers have the tools to make better choices.