A Question of Character: Branding with Mascots

Dropping a bomb

Bomberman costume circa 1982. Courtesy of Mary Pitti.

I’m proud to be an Ithaca Bomber. For four years, I cheered for Ithaca College‘s football team, with the help of “Bomberman”, a pep squad member dressed as a World War II bomber pilot.

Imagine my horror when I read of recommendations to replace Bomberman with an incinerated bird, a flying small nervous prey animal, or a monster that hides in a swamp. Apparently a task force deemed Bomberman politically incorrect as it tied its hands with requirements that “war-related proposals will not be considered” despite being called the Bombers. Needless to say, suggestions for a pacifist mascot bombed.

Within 24 hours of the announcement, a Facebook group dedicated to “Save the Bomber” launched and quickly grew to over 1,800 members, an online petition was started, the Syracuse Post-Standard took notice, and even Ithaca’s rival Cortland State has urged the school to “Bring on the Bombers! We don’t compete against rodents!

Character assassination

This fiasco made me reflect on mascots and characters in general, as it’s been tough to be a brand character lately.

Rumors floated that McDonald’s was moving away from Ronald McDonald to appear more upscale with its new lattes, a claim that was later refuted.

Quaker Oats assured fans that seafaring sugar peddler Cap’n Horatio Magellan Crunch – AKA Cap’n Crunch – was not retiring by creating a web page for him to assure fans that he “was out on the seas, but…back and not going anywhere.”

Gilbert Gottfried is out as the voice of the Aflac Duck for tsunami jokes on Twitter. The company leads the Japanese insurance market and will hold a casting call for a new voice.

The Burger King made a comeback, but the company has abruptly split with ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which had been responsible for resurrecting the character with their creepy “Wake Up With the King” ad.

Protect mascot to protect your brand

Perhaps because of their lighthearted nature, companies and organizations don’t see mascots or characters as the extension of their brand and identity that they are.

Many are finding this out the hard way by not taking ownership of their brands online, as Chef Boyardee and the Pillsbury Doughboy have become victims of identity theft on Twitter by not staking out their online presence early.

Mascots and characters can be extremely effective communications tools, but they come with their pitfalls too. Should a mascot or character be a part of your communications plan, consider the following:

  1. Make sure the mascot or character resonates with your target audience, reinforces your key messages and achieves your communications goals. The Ithaca College Mascot Selection Task Force set itself up for failure by pursuing a course that fit their desires, ignoring their target audience. The Pets.com Sock Puppet was so popular that it outlasted its company. Born at the height of the Internet bubble, he appeared at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and during the Super Bowl, but popularity and recognition didn’t translate into sales. The compelling advertising failed to compel customers to buy pet supplies online. By the time the company realized it needed to scale back, it was committed to further advertising, contributing to a downward spiral some blamed on the character. Eventually they were forced to liquidate and the perky pooch was sold to an auto loan company.
  2. Use your mascot or brand intentionally. You may not know the National Crime Prevention Council, but it is likely you’ve heard of McGruff the Crime Dog. While embodying his famous “Take a Bite Out of Crime” motto, McGruff has not been used intentionally and consistently over the years. Initially targeted at adults in the 1980s, in the 1990s the character was primarily used for the organization’s children’s materials. Going to McGruff.org takes visitors to a web page for children only while adults need to go to NCPC.org for general crime prevention information. In contrast, the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters don’t seem to mind taking a back seat to their character, Smokey Bear. They have fully embraced their brand of over 65 years, showing consistency in their communications whether it is on the web (SmokeyBear.com), Facebook (Facebook.com/SmokeyBear), Twitter (twitter.com/Smokey_Bear), YouTube (YouTube.com/SmokeyBear), and Flickr (Flickr.com/groups/SmokeyBear).
  3. Protect your mascot as you would any other aspect of your brand. Even if you don’t currently intend to jump into social media, lay claim to your brand’s name on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr before a squatter or impostor does. Trademark your mascot or character and have a good trademark attorney to enforce it when needed. Use Google Alerts to monitor your brand online. When picking talent to portray your brand, consider the risk should they misbehave. Gilbert Gottfried had a history of tasteless jokes, so Aflac shouldn’t have been surprised that he might be tasteless again.
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7 Responses to A Question of Character: Branding with Mascots

  1. Tessa Rickart says:

    Great post. Very interesting to see how mascots have fared, especially with the shift to social media. People really do get quite attached to mascots– I’m partial to the Geico Gecko. At the same time, however, I feel like a poorly planned mascot could be incredibly detrimental to a company. Anyway, great and thought provoking post.

  2. commscrum says:

    What happened in the end to the High Fliers of Ithaca? Or did they just bomb?

    Mike Klein,
    Copenhagen

  3. Eric Hyman says:

    Nice write up. But one thing you neglect to mention you work for the FAA, so you have a natural bias towards aircraft. :-)

    It’s funny that before Bomberman there was another unofficial mascot, which a friend of mine made up since we essentially lacked a mascot. In 1980-1981 (I was IC ’83), a friend of mine from the crew team was “Melvin,” a laughable character who somehow convinced the football program to allow him on the sidelines. He wore a silly rubber mask and a Bomber jersey with his name and numbers “00″. I can still recall seeing him sitting, dejected, on the sideline when we got crushed on national TV/ABC in the stag bowl in Phoenix City, AL (the Div III national f’ball championships) by U of Dayton, something like 63-0.

    I say bring back Melvin instead!

    Have to say I like the idea of a bird carrying the ball but that execution makes me think of what a bird like that recently did to my car, and it wasn’t pretty. ;-) If they went back to the drawing board on that one, they might come up with something people might like. IMHO.

  4. Thanks for the insightful blag about branding with mascots. I’ve reposted it on the national mascot association facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/NationalMascotAssociation
    Cheers! jennifer prez@nationalmascotassociation.com

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