Characters helped brands tell their story rather than sell their product, observes Faris Yakob; though they have fallen out of favour they remain the engines behind some of the most memorable ads people have seen  is it time to reconsider the character?

A few years back I had a speaking gig at the Advertising Icon Museum, which is in Kansas City, which is in Missouri. The museum is the passion project of Bob Bernstein, co-founder of KC advertising agency Bernstein-Rein. Mr Bernstein may not be a famous advertising name today but he does have a significant claim to such fame – he is the creator of the McDonald’s Happy Meal. Being responsible for turning the world’s biggest restaurant into the world’s biggest toy distributor would make an impressive effectiveness case study. But I digress, at least slightly.

The museum is stuffed with some of the most famous (American) advertising ideas of all time: the Jolly Green Giant, Keebler Elves, Tony the Tiger, Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Michelin Man. Forgive me for another ad geek digression but I cannot not tell you that the Michelin Man’s name is Bibendum, which comes from the aphorism, “Nunc est bibendum” (Horace), which means “Time to Drink”. He was a cigar-smoking heavy-drinking bon vivant but they dialed that aspect down when drink driving became less culturally acceptable. He is also, you may have guessed, not American, but French.

All of the above-mentioned brand mascots (apart from Bibendum, who is much older) were created by Leo Burnett in Chicago in the mid to late 20th century. In the UK we had John Webster at BMP, who conceived of the Smash Martians, Honey Monster, Cresta Bear and the (problematic) Kia-Ora crows. George the Hoffmeister Bear, another Webster creation, is currently being resurrected by a new agency, for the first time since 2003. Truly, the icons of advertising are not Ogilvy and Bernbach but Snap, Crackle and Pop. We all remember the cartoons and characters that personified brands from our youth.

Advertising is a complex business, for lots of reasons, but part of it is because we often confuse the ultimate objective of marketing, making more people buy more things for more money, with what advertising itself does so very well, which is to get things stuck in your head, someway, somehow, explicitly or implicitly. Despite reassuring exhortations like “we sell or else” from former door-to-door Aga salesman David Ogilvy, advertising does not sell things. Retailers, and salesmen, sell things. Manufacturers make things and sell them to retailers, for the most part. Advertising tells, rather than sells, people things.

Now, today, this is obviously confused by the collapsing consumer journeys made possible by ad platforms that directly incorporate third party retailers, like the current incarnation of Instagram, and could even be stretched to include “as-seen-on-tv” teleshopping, but you get my point. Most advertising doesn’t work that way, it increases the ongoing ‘sellability’ of a product over time.

Stephen King was clear about this at the outset of account planning. He explained that the role of advertising is to contribute “directly” or “indirectly” to the marketing of a brand: “it can directly affect people’s intention to buy, their buying, or their using of a brand. It can do this by reminding them of a brand’s existence and its relevance to a want or a need; by maintaining a habit; by giving new information; by offering some incentive to direct action.”

It can also contribute “indirectly, over a much longer period, by helping people to build the total impression that people have of a brand. It can do this by emphasizing the functional values of the product, by adding non-functional values – making it more valuable to buyers and potential buyers, by promoting word-of-mouth recommendation (from users, salesmen, service men, retailers, etc).”

He goes on to point out that the “primary role for advertising is increasingly the indirect one”, which might be surprising considering the current vogue for performance, or direct response, advertising. (JWT Planning Guide, 1974).

A key need for any brand is to be recognizable so that people can find it to buy it and that is achieved by using distinctive creative assets that make the product and its communication easy to identify. This is more important than ever since we now have so much advertising and so many brands clamoring for a share of our attention and wallets. The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute came out in support of distinctive brand assets as part of their argument against conceptual differentiation and there is a strong body of evidence that supports their efficacy.

In some ways, distinctive assets are the very foundation of a brand. Brand identity design grew out of creating a consistent look across elements so that each could easily be recognized as part of a whole. Verbal, visual and auditory cues engage our senses and, once established, make it easier to acquire attention. According to research from Ipsos (The Power of You: Why distinctive brand assets are a driving force of creative effectiveness, 2020), as an industry have an inverse correlation between the most used asset – the logo – and those that have the highest impact in attracting ‘branded attention’ (attention with brand linkage and recall) – the sonic device and the character. 

The brand character is a specific type of asset, known as a fluent device. This creative conceit, which doesn’t need to personify the brand but often does, makes advertising easier for us to decode. Hence the name, because so much advertising effect is based on the following simple cascade: familiarity increases fluency – things we have seen before are easier for our brains to process – increases favorability – because our brains are lazy (or energy efficient cognitive misers, if you prefer). This makes ads that feature fluent devices 23% more likely to achieve market share and profit gains.

Since the heyday of advertising icons, they have fallen from favor for various reasons, seen as too childish, too annoying, and perhaps too difficult to sell to clients, since they require taking a long term view. Agencies may no longer have much muscle memory in creating them, which makes them less likely to be proposed. Too often in advertising we have put aside childish things to demonstrate how professional we are, arguably making us less effective as professionals.

However even today, some of the most effective campaigns that spring to mind use characters. The CompareTheMarket Meerkat and Progressive’s Flo both immediately establish, with little consumer effort, what we are watching, and we reward them for it. Unlike ads themselves, research suggests that fluent devices don’t experience wear out (although ad wear out is comparatively rare, especially today, and usually driven by poor frequency planning rather than over-investing in the execution). Rather, the conditioning effect of being exposed to repeated stimulus and response suggests the opposite is true – they become more valuable, more effective, the more they are used. Bringing back old, familiar devices, generally leads to significant commercial gains. When Captain Bird’s Eye was reintroduced in 2017 it was responsible for £10M+ incremental sales year-on-year across Europe.

Over the last year or two, we have noticed more clients clamoring for fluent devices, in pitches and publications. The CMO of the UK’s National Lottery recently wrote a post explaining why they are pursuing such fluent devices and, importantly, explaining how they test for them – by removing the brand name, logo and tagline from their advertising to see if people still recognize it as being from them. We’ve used this trick before, especially in car pitches, where you de-brand all the competitive advertising to demonstrate it’s impossible to tell one brand from another most of the time, to support your argument for doing something less boring than a car driving fast around a mountain road. It’s a great idea to use it as a creative test and, alongside the research and newly found interest from clients, might lead us to creating some new advertising icons for the next century. Building characters might be character building for agencies and brand building for their clients.