Cartoon Culture: Have Brand Mascots Reached the Point of Low Return?

Posted inBranding & Identity Design

Sports teams, colleges, the military, Hollywood, states, government agencies, and the Olympics have used mascots as part of their public and brand identity, but nowhere has this visual device been more pervasive than in the mass marketing of consumer products. 

The Michelin Tire Company introduced their mascot, named Bibendum initially, in 1894. It eventually became known as simply the Michelin Man and is still in use today. I grew up with black & white TV, sponsored by  Speedy Alka-Selzer, the frosty Kool-Aid pitcher, the “G-R-R-EAT” Tony the Tiger. That might be why I’m from the “beware of the mascot” school of design and have rarely employed this device in my career. I’ve created plenty of symbols and logos but distinguish these simple marks from cartoon characters. As a consumer, I will buy Burt’s Bees, Mrs. Meyers, and Ben & Jerry’s, but after I know what’s in the product. Too often, I see the mascot as an attempt to soften the edge of an overt sales pitch, commercial ambitions, legal protections, disclaimers, questionable services, and harmful ingredients.

As a “boomer,” my perception of brand mascots will differ from other generations, so I invited a few brand-conscious consumers to offer their perspectives on the topic.

For Jonah, the forty-ish, Co-founder of Aether Apparel, his feelings are less critical. “I don’t have any positive or negative feelings about brand mascots if they are done well and are entertaining.” However, he does draw the line with luxury products. “For the most part, I feel mascots cheapen premium brands and are more suited for mass-market companies, i.e., the Geico Gecko is a perfect example. Who really remembers or cares about the insurance pitch, but this little lizard makes it a fun conversation”. 

In her mid-twenties, Savannah, an interior designer, sees Ronald McDonald, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and the Morton salt girl as memorable mascots from her younger years, but contemporary brands that command the same resonance escape her. “Brand mascots were perfect for the days before streaming, back when everyone watched live TV with commercials,” she states.

“If every McDonald’s ad was just a picture of a hamburger, what would distinguish it from Burger King or Wendy’s? Not much,” she adds. That suggests that brand mascots help in distinction among commodity products. However, Savannah also recognizes competitors in the internet age who have found other ways to market themselves without using a brand mascot. “Take Shake Shack, for example, also a burger and fries chain, with no brand mascot in sight,” she says. 

Nick, 26, a computer engineer for a leading tech giant, is not swayed by a friendly mascot. “I don’t think that a brand mascot adds too much to contemporary brands; it could help deliver a targeted narrative, but it may not necessarily add to consumer trust. Tony the Tiger may bring me to the cereal aisle, but I will buy the organic frosted flakes sweetened with cane sugar in the end.”

And what happens when an actual person stands in for an animated one? 

Nina, a theater artist in their early 20s, and Sean, a painter ten years older, share a similar point of view. “When a funny mascot promotes a product, I’m more aware of being sold something. When it’s an actor or celebrity that I like, it feels more like a conversation”, says Nina. 

“When a known influencer is promoting a product, they are also tying their reputation to it, which elevates the expectation of quality,” adds Sean. 

However, the risk is that both “brands” can get tarnished based on consumer response. For example, Nina cites the promotion of Lady Gaga’s last album, Chromatica. “Gaga partnered with Nabisco to make custom Oreo cookies. They weren’t very good, but I gave them a try because I love and admire Gaga.” 

When I asked if this experience in any way diminished their feelings about the superstar, Nina replied, “Not at all; it’s a win for both brands.” Lucky that, in this case, a fan’s devotion buffers any risk in the co-branding. 

However, when a celebrity gets accused of criminal behavior, it creates a public relations crisis for a brand— think Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, or Maria Sharapova. That is one reason an adorable mascot may prove a safer strategy for specific brands. It’s unlikely we’ll see Geico’s Gecko or Mail Chimp in court anytime soon. 

Using brand mascots is undoubtedly not just an American phenomenon. It’s a widespread practice in every country on every continent. Yes, including Antarctica. For the bloated industry of agencies and freelancers who specialize in mascot design, this is good news. It’s also creative commoditization on steroids with highly discounted services, DIY bundled packages, and sponsored competitions ready to help any startup get started. Just add a nice dollop of cuteness wrapped in an anthropomorphized critter, and you’re good to go.

Is the brand mascot a tried-and-true strategy or one that is truly tired? 

Hyperconnectivity is shrinking the world daily. Now each consumer’s “brandscape” is atomized into tiny impressions and a vast array of offerings in every imaginable category. Marketers need every possible tool to meet this demand and or risk marginalization. Is a mascot central to this mission? Some studies show that a brand mascot can increase sales. But in the US, only 4% of ads use this device. I contend that this model is additive but not central and will continue to lose relevance with the further splintering of media channels. Consumers yearn for information-rich and purpose-driven brand messages without the sugar coating.

Based on my limited survey, it appears there is an ambivalence toward mascot marketing. I got a sense from Jonah, Savannah, Nick, Nina, and Sean that they were not just speaking for themselves but were reflecting a broader generational sentiment. They are a fun-loving, intelligent, ambitious, and media-savvy group. They also represent a growing community of young consumers who won’t just drink the brand marketing Kool-Aid.

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.