Back in the day, brands had lovable mascots - human, animal or cartoon, to boost recall value. The biggest compliment for an infant was being 'just like the Murphy baby'! Going over and above the regular working hours and pushing through sleep and exhaustion rewarded you with a throwaway comparison to the Energizer Bunny.
The gold standard has been the Amul girl. At a time when marketing foods in India was a serious business and wit was not part of a brand's arsenal, the Amul girl began her journey as an insightful, progressive commentator on current affairs. She has stood the test of time and continues to give us an interesting and humorous perspective on the way we look at the world around us, even today.
However, mascots began to lose their shine. They were no longer considered necessary for a brand to stand out from its competitors. In the pre-digital era, there were limited distribution channels - print, radio, TV - and less opportunity for consumers to influence brandspeak. Today, teenagers and young adults are watching 2.5 times more online video than television. The mobile phone's display has become the real battlefield; engagement is the new mantra. This spells big changes for the way a brand needs to communicate. In today's digital universe of likes, comments, shares, and follows, mascots have risen like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.
Brand mascots vs social influencers
Mascots have stiff competition from social influencers on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Brands are progressively developing a closer relationship with consumers via social influencers because they are real people and can create content for brands that would otherwise cost a lot of money. But in many ways, this strategy also signifies a lack of control that comes with user-generated content. While some brands are doing well with social influencers, who become advocates for the brand, there are experts who think most are simply collecting a paycheck to post something on social media. "The consumer isn't a moron; she's your wife", as Ogilvy had famously said.
This could be the reason why mascots are regaining relevance. They allow greater flexibility in terms of brand application while simultaneously retaining control over brandspeak. After all, fictional characters can be more loyal in the long run, while social influencers may interpret the brand each in their own way. Many mascots have moved from the TV screen to become social media stars themselves.
Three ways in which brands should use mascots in the digital space
• Evolve: A mascot can remain relevant only if it evolves with the times. For example, the King from Burger King, that has become more edgy.
• Build long-term relationships with consumers by helping them participate in brand conversations: Traditionally, brands have used mascots to connect with consumers. These days, when trends and preferences change in the blink of an eye, a mascot can provide a certain steadiness by engaging the consumer in an on-going digital conversation. Nowadays consumers can actually play a part in the brand's own story through the mascot.
• Listen: Mascots are great devices to listen to what consumers have to say. Online dialogues between consumers and mascots can be a treasure trove for mining audience insights.
Old mascots flourishing in digital times
Some classic mascots have found a new lease on life digitally, commanding huge followings amongst newer audiences on social media. Combined, the M&M characters have amassed over 10 million fans on Facebook; Captain Morgan has become a top engager on Facebook with his drink recipes and partying tips; and the Jolly Green Giant is tweeting about the benefits of frozen vegetables and retweeting photos of customers using the products.
Mr. Clean's Facebook page boasts over 900,000 likes while over 15,000 people follow him on Twitter. His YouTube videos have got as many as three million views, while some Facebook posts have attracted over 16,000 likes. These are impressive figures for a mascot created in 1957. They prove Mr. Clean has gotten better with age, posting and tweeting fun photos of himself at the Oscars and the Olympics.
Major corporations need to stay abreast or even ahead of today's fast-paced trends. McDonald's 2014 makeover of Ronald McDonald, the face of the company since 1963, has been a masterstroke. He took social media by storm in his new clothes created by Ann Hould-Ward, an accomplished theatrical designer with a Tony Award for 'Beauty and the Beast'. Other than his iconic giant red shoes his wardrobe has moved from classic clown to a more sophisticated version. But this was more than just a wardrobe change. The famous red-haired clown is busy delivering the brand's vision - "Fun makes great things happen." His huge following on various digital platforms indicates he is engaging audiences to explore simple pleasures that can lead to acts of goodness. Here, brand promise delivered through a mascot, is going beyond burgers and french fries to make consumers feel better.
Episodes not ads: The Network Strategy
US insurance provider, Progressive, uses a Network Strategy for digital marketing of its mascot Flo. They treat their ads more like episodes. Like a hit TV drama, the brand has introduced foils, a supporting cast, integrated set changes and even spin-offs like the 'Dress Like Flo' Halloween contest around the mascot's narrative. Audience research shows Flo is more likable and relatable now than ever before. Switching to a Network Strategy has encouraged people to share branded content making Flo relevant, even after over 120 episodes.
These above examples from the US show brand mascots can be effective tools for social media engagement. Consumers prefer to interact on social media with a cute, entertaining character rather than a nameless, faceless PR person or corporate executive. Brand mascots are also successful digitally because they make for a softer sell. India has fewer mascots compared to the global space and marketers have not really begun reincarnating them for the digital realm.
A few months ago, I had a blazing row on social media with a consumer durables giant. They were unresponsive. I was impatient. Had they had a mascot, it perhaps, could have been a gentler conversation, leading to a satisfactory resolution. #JustSaying!
(The author is global creative advisor, BBC Media Action, BBC's international development charity)