David Billing: from tea-swilling chimps to robot meerkats – why brand mascots will never die

A decade of meerkats. A century of Gio bloody Compario (well it feels like it). Monkey. That strange orange poo for EDF.

In an age when even Dos Equis didn’t find the Most Interesting Man In The World all that interesting anymore and packed him off to Mars, you could be forgiven for thinking that brand mascots are over.

But you’d be wrong.

Rewind a bit.

Humans have had a historically long love affair with brand mascots. After all, if you were a tenth century Northumbrian choosing between Thor or Jesus, what else were you doing except expressing brand preference? And what were those religions doing apart from selling you a better life?

So no wonder, a thousand years later, brands dreamed up a bunch of fictional spokespeople to sell to post-war consumers. Tellies were full of them: cuddly, tea-swilling chimpanzees (before Attenborough outed them as mass murderers), trombone-playing butter men, pre-killer, burger-selling clowns, and more.

That was then. A golden era for brands, with captive audiences glued to TVs. The perfect environment in which to birth a brand mascot, feature them in your ads for a few decades and watch them slowly bleed into popular culture. Grrreat.

This is now. And what worse environment is there than now? Channels have proliferated, behaviours have changed, attention spans are short and distraction is rife. Such an environment, so the thinking goes, is positively toxic for a brand mascot.

This thinking is wrongheaded. Now is the perfect time for brand characters.

I read today that Friends is the most popular TV show with 5 to 16 year olds in the UK. A show which stopped being made in 2004. A show that isn’t about much. Except its characters.

In our delivery, efficiency-obsessed world, we forget the inconvenient human truth that characters are potent. Characters are magnetic. They anchor us, they give us something to hold on to when all around us is chaotic and uncertain.

We need characters more than ever.

The fact is, they didn’t even really need brand mascots in ‘the old days’ – they were just the cherry on top at a time when brands had all the cake, and ate it too.

The pre-internet era was primarily a physical age. An age where, outside of ads, you’d most likely come into contact with a product or service by physically experiencing it: in a supermarket, in a branch, in a showroom.

Our age is primarily non-physical. We interact with brands through screens. Many of our favourite brands are little more than websites. Digital ghosts. Ones and zeroes.

In such a world, well-written brand mascots with compelling backstories bring physicality, character and narratives to distant, sometimes interchangeable products and services that don’t really exist the physical world.

They offer a way of experiencing, on a human level, what can’t otherwise be experienced.

This accounts for the success of the Meerkats. The truly unique property of what was once just another aggregator. Great characters work across all channels, from advertising to experiences, partnerships and merchandising, tying together the sea of disparate channels that every CMO is drowning in, and turning it into something coherent.

Because great characters are glue. And as martech marches on, the opportunity for mascots grows too. AutoSergei points one way to that future. Voice promises another interesting avenue. And why should we limit our thinking to what’s achievable in thirty seconds? Great characters can drive episodes, seasons, even power whole universes. Just ask Marvel. Or Netflix.

Even in a future where brand characters can speak to you via Echo, star in a TV show, or crawl the web to find you your perfect holiday, you may still just find them annoying.

But that’s because, as well as sales, the most effective brand mascots may cause irritation.

David Billing is CCO at The Beyond Collective.

Back to top button