Why mascots still have brand magic

Jenn Szekely, president, Coley Porter Bell. (Photo credit: Coley Porter Bell, used with permission)
Jenn Szekely, president, Coley Porter Bell. (Photo credit: Coley Porter Bell, used with permission)

By embracing mascots as dynamic ambassadors, brands can stand and foster more emotional connections.

From sports to brands, mascots have been an integral part of brand building for more than 100 years. The term “mascot” is believed to originate from the French word for “lucky charm” and there is no sign that mascots’ magic is waning.

The rise of AI and social media have given mascots a new lease of life, freeing them from the stereotyped shackles of oversized fluffy animal costumes or graphics on cereal boxes and relaunching them as creators that can communicate directly with fans and in their own unique voice. The most successful mascots have tapped into nostalgia, while also reinventing for the social media age.

Investment in this pays off, as mascots help brand recognition and raise awareness by up to 41% in crowded marketplaces.

One of the latest brands to the new wave of mascots is Fruit of the Loom. The “Fruit Guys” first appeared in TV advertising in the 1970s and are now back for 2023, fronting a digital-first marketing strategy.

McDonald’s reinvention of Grimace captivated Gen Z and became a viral overnight sensation on TikTok, achieving a remarkable 10.3% uplift in sales across the U.S.

Where brands once strictly adhered to guidelines, they are now allowing more flexibility (within a framework). We’ve seen this with Google's evolving logo, for instance. Now, we are now seeing it in mascots. 

Wendy's recently changed its mascot's hair color to gray in Canada, in support of a CTV news anchor. This is a prime example of how a mascot can be creatively stretched to appeal and resonate with modern audiences.

As society and culture shift, brands have had to take a hard look at their mascots and in many cases, get rid of them. Recently, brands have had to reconcile with mascots that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The 130-year old Aunt Jemima brand was dropped, Uncle Ben was removed and the Washington Redskins changed their name to the Washington Commanders. (But interesting to see the push back from many in the Native American community who were not happy about the name change.)  

From B2C to B2B: A universal appeal 

What was once predominantly used by CPG and consumer-facing brands is now being embraced across B2B organizations, too. 

Mascots are no longer just for kids — in industries like financial services where businesses can find it difficult to stand out, brand mascots can cut through. The favorable Geico Gecko has broken barriers in making insurance advertising fun for its customers, while Mailchimp has Freddie as the face of its brand.

Even luxury brands are taking mascots in their stride with digital characters, such as Mercedes’ Dachshund Superdackel.

Virtual influencers: The next frontier

People have been an alternative to mascots for years, adding a human touch or stamp of approval to products. Celebrity endorsements have evolved into influencer partnerships. 

But brands have learned there is some risk in going down the “real people” route. Celebrities and influential people have a knack of acting like people — personal scandals, inappropriate comments and all. 

We have seen the downfall of this approach, whether it’s Nike ditching Lance Armstrong following the cyclist's use of illegal performance enhancing drugs, or Adidas dropping Kanye after he made antisemitic and other offensive comments. Real people create brands safety risks. But technology has given rise to some interesting alternatives. 

Virtual influencers like Lil Miquela have stepped up to the plate. Boasting 3 million Instagram followers, the 2018 Time Magazine ‘25 Most Influential People’ honoree has worked with brands including BMW, Prada, Samsung and Alexander McQueen. And Miquela is just one of many; virtual modeling agency The Diigitals has a diverse roster of influencers including Kami, the world’s first virtual influencer with Down Syndrome, in partnership with Down Syndrome International. 

Virtual influencers speak to younger consumers, with over half of Gen Z planning to seek out fashion or beauty inspiration from digital influencers in 2023. In that sense, they offer a viable alternative to the risk of using real people or the traditional brand mascot.

However, brands need to navigate the ethics around promoting their products through people who aren’t real. Ogilvy has unveiled an initiative called the AI Accountability Act, which, if implemented by the industry, would require brands to “clearly disclose and publicly declare the use of any AI-generated influencer content” to eliminate confusion over legitimacy with consumers.

Guidelines for modern mascots

Brand mascots have dramatically evolved, as AI and social platforms have caused brands to rethink their strategies. To create a modern mascot, brands should start with their personality, which will not only inform the mascot’s tone, but the type of mascot that is appropriate (e.g., object, animal, person, etc.) The brand strategy should also be used as a filter for evaluating if the mascot is on-brand. 

Give your character a good name and persona, or the internet might do it for you. A mascot is not just a visual asset; it needs a good story. Because who doesn’t love Carvel’s CookiePuss, the alien that was born on Planet Birthday. 

Consider the channels where your mascot will show up before designing it. If digital and social are key, the mascot needs to be able to move, speak and be versatile within the constraints of a smartphone screen. If out of home is important, line weights need to be thick enough to add depth and character.

Lastly, steer clear of stereotypes. As we’ve seen, history is littered with poignant reminders of the importance of mascot design sensitivity. And with the increased use of AI, we are likely to see more. 

The strategic integration of mascots continues to offer businesses an unparalleled opportunity to amplify their brand presence and connect with customers on a deeper level. By embracing mascots as dynamic ambassadors, brands can stand and foster more emotional connections. 

Jenn Szekely is president at Coley Porter Bell.

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