When a brand hires a new agency, it usually follows with a significant change in creative. Planners redefine strategy, creatives come up with new ideas and account teams look forward to the extra billings. Why change agencies at all if you don’t want to change the creative?
Hotels.com’s first work with Tombras bucks that trend. It stars Captain Obvious, the brand’s ubiquitous mascot created in 2014 by its previous agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
There’s no new look for the Captain, no new talent and no new gimmicks either. Despite his new gig as a tour guide for Resorts World Las Vegas, he's the same old Captain getting up to the same old shenanigans in entertaining 15-second clips.
Why are Hotels.com and Tombras sticking with the Captain? Are they being overly cautious or simply lacking creativity? I think they know precisely what they are doing, and that a consistent mascot can be one of a brand’s most effective assets.
Mascots have been used for decades as distinctive assets that remind viewers of the brand. The Pillsbury Doughboy shows up in Pillsbury’s ads as a familiar presence, like a walking logo. The M&M “spokescandies” drive the brand’s stories and have become a successful merchandising line in their own right.
We call this type of super-mascot a “fluent device:” they build fluency, or easy brand recognition, and they’re creatively strong. Captain Obvious is a fluent device, and a great one. He makes almost any situation funny while also delivering Hotels.com’s message. He may be less than a decade old, but he’s become a familiar figure.
Any brand needs to occasionally refresh its assets, but fluent devices work best when used long-term. A 2018 study from the IPA showed that campaigns which used fluent device characters were more likely to gain new customers, profits and market share. Well-nurtured fluent devices get more effective over time and reinforce positive mental associations with brands.
Strongly branded ads lead to effective short-term association because people know right away who you are, but they can reduce positive feelings by eroding the entertainment value of an ad. A fluent device like Captain Obvious, however, can deliver entertainment and branding in one package.
Brands can only benefit from a fluent device after its been established in culture. That's why you see brands are creating mascots or returning to their old ones, like Chips Ahoy, which brought Mr Cookie back last year.
If Hotels.com had its new agency to scrap Captain Obvious and start from scratch, it would risk all that stored-up familiarity. In that sense, keeping Captain Obvious is the most obvious decision of them all.
But it's not obvious to everyone. In his book Lemon, Orlando Wood revealed that fluent device usage has fallen to around 10% from 40% in the 1990s. In our database, just 4% of US ads use a character fluent device.
Still, I hope that brands can see why keeping Captain Obvious is one of the smartest decisions Hotels.com could have made.
Jon Evans is Chief Marketing Officer at System1