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26 JUN. 2019

The Branding Power of Mascots

Hugo Gentil

Corporate Branding Team, Shanghai

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “mascot”? If you’re a sports fan, it’s probable that what will come to your mind are mascots from the sport industry: like the mascots from the different NBA leagues, or those from the MLB… Thing is you’ve already seen one. Well, if not, here’s a picture of the 2008 Beijing Olympics mascots: The Fuwa, to jog your memory.

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The 2008 Beijing Olympics mascots: The Fuwa

A mascot is any object, person or animal adopted by a group, thought to bring luck or used as a symbolic figure to represent an organization, such as school, society, sport teams or the military. Team mascots are often related to the team nicknames, and this is especially true when the name involves an animal and can be made to have humanlike characteristics. For more abstract names, teams can create a mascot that holds symbolic meanings. In the case of the Olympics, the mascots were chosen to be 4 popular Chinese animals: a fish, a panda, an antelope, a swallow (while the fifth one represents the flame of the Olympics). In the world of sports, mascots are also used for merchandising purposes.

Beijing 2008 Olympic merchandise store. Source: Mark J Rebilas

Just as the sport industry use the mascot for economic purposes (and maybe to bring luck), business firms do make a great use of mascots as well, though not limited to only selling merchandise. As we’ll see mascots also hold a great branding power, having the ability to catch the attention easily.

Companies have greatly benefited from their mascots, anchoring their brand awareness through these fictional characters over time. Here are a recognizable few: The Michelin Man (created in 1898) is one of the oldest business mascots and has always been the symbol of the leading tire manufacturing company Michelin. The bold figure of Mr. Clean (created in 1958) has helped the company distinguish its cleaning products in a very competitive market ever since its apparition. Or even the Green Giant (1928) who was created to advertise the company’s discovery of a new variety of “big peas”, elevated the brand to become one of the biggest canned-vegetable company in the world. 

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Michelin Man, Mr. Clean and the Jolly Green Giant

Give Product Brands a Mascot

The most common use of mascots is in the consumer product sectors, especially in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) market. It is not an easy task to advertise a product if there is “nobody” to present it, to let us see the benefit of the good or to persuade us to buy it. This is where brand mascots come in. It is a proxy for companies to showcase brand values and personality. And most importantly, it is a medium through which consumers can create an emotional connection to the brand. It is often difficult to sell a product by showcasing its benefits alone, and this is especially true in an increasingly commoditized market. Even if you do have a spectacular product with amazing functionalities, relying on it to sell itself is no guarantee that it will become a market success. Humans are inherently visual communicators. If done right, the use of mascots can therefore engage the audience more and strengthen communication across on all platforms.

Take M&M’s as an example. The M&M’s candies were created by Forrest Mars, one of the iconic forces behind the Mars Company empire, as a duplicate of the British candy: Smarties. M&Ms were invented right before the Second World War and was a US army exclusive good.

After the war, they were back on the private market. As a move to push the product into the mainstream, they decided to add faces to their chocolate: one for a red M&M, representing the milk chocolate kind, and one for the yellow M&M, the peanut-chocolate one. 

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Evolution of M&M’s mascots, from the 50s to today. Source: Youtube-Lucky Lion Bear, M&M's Twitter

This move proved to be successful: everywhere on TV we could see the two jumping around and dive into chocolate pools, dancing in a Willy-Wonka-like land. The kids loved it. It conveyed joy and fun, and that’s how they’ll remember the product. It appealed to them and it helped differentiate themselves from other candy brands. The company grew and by the late 80s, they were already introduced to Australia, Europe, Canada, Japan, Hong-Kong and the UK.

Bringing a mascot to a product has since become the norm for snack and confectionary companies (e.g.: Haribo, Cheetos, Nesquik…), as it required relatively minimal effort but brought great result as it resonated well with younger consumers.But of course, mascots are not just limited to snack and confectionary brands. Other companies also tailor their own mascots to fit their brand narratives and give them distinct personalities to captivate consumers attention in unique ways.

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Haribo’s Bear, Duracell Battery Bunny, KFC Colonel Sanders

Give Mascots Personalities

Adding human characteristics through mascots breathes life to your brand. Having a story or a narrative to your mascots engages the audience and makes for a more profound connection. This can be applied for any products.

By the late 90s, M&M’s sales started to flatline. As more snack and candy alternatives continue to flood the market, competition became harsh. Mars decided to hire the brand consultancy to help rejuvenate the M&M’s brand. Their idea was simple yet ingenious: give these candies a distinct personality. Red was sarcastic and cynical, Yellow was laid-back and gullible: the duo appeared everywhere on TV, Internet and now often appear on Super Bowl advertisements. Each advertisement is often accompanied by a celebrity and showcased these characters’ daily funny and weird life. The characters have such likeable and relatable personalities that made them connect with the audience, even the adults. This marketing move revived the brand and made them it so popular that they now have M&M’s “museums” called “M&M’s World”. In these flagship stores, we see more of these “Spokescandies” displayed around than the actual M&M’s products.

M&M’s World in Time Square. Source: NYC GO

The Role of Mascots in the Service Sector

While mascots in the consumer goods market are mostly utilized to bring flair to the brand’s marketing communication as well as to create a more amiable and emotionally resonant image with the audience, the use of mascots in the service sector is more to communicate the value propositions of the brand

Some services is complex and are difficult to understand, such as insurances, IT, finance management. Therefore, consumers aren’t as sensitive to the differences between firms offering the same service. This also means increased difficulty for brands to remain in the consumers’ top-of-mind. This is when mascots can play a big role in differentiating your brand from the others. 

Geico’s Gecko, one of the most recognizable brand mascots today

The Power of Mascots in China

China’s service sector is growing exponentially, especially in the digital space. An interesting observation is that many Chinese tech firms seem to believe in the power of employing mascots to “represent” their businesses. Most notably, animal mascots seem to be the default choice of use. And to say that Chinese businesses love animal mascots is an understatement. Here’s a list of example of tech companies with animal mascots: QQ, the popular instant messaging app, has a winking penguin with a scarf; T-Mall, Alibaba’s B2C e-shop, has a cute cat with a weird T-shaped head; Meituan, a food delivery app similar to Uber Eats, has a dashing Kangaroo; Ant Financials, an Alibaba sub-branch that manages Alipay (Digital paying service) and provides financial services, has a one-eyed blue ant; Ctrip, a travel agency, has a C-shaped dolphin. And the list goes on. 

A QQ plush ; TMall Cat different moods ; Group of Chinese tech companies mascots ; Meituan Kangaroo advertisement ; Statues of Ant Financial mascot in different costumes

But all these mascots are packed with meaning and represent the value propositions distinctive to the brand. Meituan’s kangaroo represents the fast-paced delivery and the app’s ability to carry goods in its “pouch”. The Ant of Ant Financials represents, according to the company, the idea that a world made up by small start-ups can succeed in achieving its ambitious dreams by bringing individuals together and driving progress with a hard work ethic and perseverance. This notion is strongly associated with the work ethic and collaborative nature of ants. Last but not least, QQ penguin was originally intended to be a pigeon, eluding to the use of pigeons as a useful message delivery tool during the old times. The founder drew the mascot himself and said it was a pigeon, but everyone else said it looked like a penguin, so the mascot subsequently became a penguin.

It would seem that in order to have a appreciated, recognizable and successful internet-based service company, a mascot is needed, but an animal mascot is a must. But why does animal mascots work particularly well in the case of China?

Why Animal Mascots in China?

Hello kitty café in Shanghai. Source: Cuteshanghai blogpost

The success of cute animal mascots in China is surely due to something particular true of east Asian culture: The “Culture of Cute” or “Kawaii Culture”. While the West likes to emphasize on a cool and grown-up attitude in sex appeal, Asia also considers innocence, youth and a wholesome attitude to be appealing. 

The origin of this “Kawaii culture” comes from Japan. Sharon Kinsella, a lecturer in Japanese visual culture at the University of Manchester and a PhD graduate from Oxford University explains the cultural phenomenon in the following terms: “Most of the Japanese think adulthood is a period of hard work. The most impression of [...] adulthood is that it involves responsibility, which is not just an individual responsibility, but specific, responsibility to [...] society, to one's family. Cute culture [is] therefore a kind of [...] rebellion or refusal to operate with establish[ed] social values and realities.”
This also applies to the younger Chinese population. In China, people are burdened with the idea that they must climb the social ladder to be successful and get rich. They would then need to settle with a family and later in life take care of their elderly parents. The “Kawaii culture” has helped people “escape” these rigid social expectations to a certain extent. Hence the existence of the “Culture of Cute” can explain why animal mascots are especially appreciated in the Chinese market.

An added benefit is that mascots can become a revenue source for companies. Just like the sport leagues, retail merchandise related to the mascots can become attractions themselves. A good example of this is Line, a popular Korean messaging app. Since the app introduced Line exclusive characters “stickers” or mini-animation into their messaging system, the characters became so popular it formed its own brand and now sell related merchandise in their own retail stores all around the world. Moreover, the horizontal expansion stemming from the power of this IP also include cafes and even theme parks. Not only does the company make money, but they also turn their customers into their own brand ambassadors, a double win for the brand.

LINE friends iPhone cases and the 3 story outlet in Seoul dedicated to LINE friends goods. Source: Danielfooddiary

Choosing Your Mascot

When it comes to choosing an appropriate mascot for your brand, it is important to consider what you want to express to your target consumers. As a tool, mascots can create a unique emotional connection with audience that’s hard to replicate. If lucky, a mascot can become a selling point on its own and become the central driver of brand awareness. A mascot can also bring flair and personality to your brand, becoming a point of differentiation separating you from the others, especially when the industry at hand is traditionally seen as dull. In China, adapting a company mascot into your marketing campaign can be particularly effective due to the East’s embracement of the “cute” aesthetics as a normal standard of beauty. An important point to consider is to evaluate how your brand is being perceived by consumers and whether a mascot can help you deliver your company’s distinct values, culture and personality.

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