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The initial stages of bringing a brand mascot to life

Mascots play an integral part in bringing many brands to life—from adding humor to campaigns (e.g., most kids’ breakfast cereals) to embodying the challenges solved by the brand (e.g., Dominos’ Noid).

Therefore, many brands might decide they need a mascot to represent them. But that may or may not be true—how do you decide whether a mascot is for your brand? Furthermore, deciding your brand needs a mascot doesn’t help you produce one (or a great one).

Ultimately, your brand requires something that their audience can connect with—whether that’s a mascot or not. And if a mascot makes sense, it won’t emerge from osmosis but from a creative team’s thorough understanding of brand strategy and the gaps brands fill for their customers.

Determining when brands benefit from mascots

Not every brand necessarily needs a mascot. But every brand does need to develop an emotional connection with its audience. It’s the foundation of customers’ belief in the brand.

And fostering that emotional connection becomes easier when it’s tied to a focal point.

For example, Jeep doesn’t need a mascot in the traditional sense—that is, an anthropomorphic character—because its target audience connects with the experiences the brand helps deliver or facilitate with its vehicles. Similarly, banks and other financial institutions rarely leverage mascots because the general sentiment they want audiences to connect with is “peace of mind” or “financial security.”

Mascots simply provide a highly accessible focal point, as their personalities and human characteristics or expressions make them easy for audiences to relate to.

So, some situations in which brands benefit from mascots include:

  • The audience seeks a “partner” (in the more literal sense) to help them
  • The challenges the brand helps solve are complex or difficult enough that audiences need:
    • A  “hero” to save the day
    • A “comforting shoulder” or “friendly ear” to commiserate with or vent to
    • A “target” to vent toward that represents their challenge(s) (i.e., the “anti-mascot”)
  • The brand’s strategy heavily correlates with fun, whimsy or similar attributes 

Can something that’s not a mascot function as one?

There’s perhaps some argument to be had over whether imagery functions as a mascot—such as a minimalist version of the classic Jeep CJ body style or the seven-slot grille and round headlights. However, that’s more to do with repetition, recognition and evoking thoughts and sentiments akin to “freedom,” “the outdoors” and similar experiences.

Similarly, looking toward another outdoors-associated brand, the typography and presentation of the letters in the REI logo function in the same way as mascots—especially when combined with the company’s stance on the environment and (not) overshopping.

Imagery and other brand expressions that evoke tangible emotional responses and experiential recollections or daydreams fulfill the same purpose as mascots and benefit brands in the same way, even if they aren’t exactly the same.

Again, mascots aren’t necessary, but something that equally serves as the focal point for your audience to connect and build a relationship with is.

From brand strategy to mascot conceptualization

As mascots provide a focal point for audience relationships, they serve as the brand’s spokesperson. And in that role, the mascot must embody the brand’s most prominent and known attributes—even if taken to absurd and humorous extremes.

This ties any mascot conceptualizations directly into brand strategy.

Serving as the representative or representation of the brand, the mascot must align with the brand’s position, promise, values and other strategic considerations. Mascot conceptualization is ultimately no different from other brand, customer or employee experience efforts—genuine and accurate reflection of brand strategy and reality are necessary.

Otherwise, when customers engage with the brand, their experiences won’t be consistent or reinforced; the audience’s brand belief weakens and the relationship suffers.

Liquid Agency’s brand development work for Tunerfish in 2012

Mascot development—synonymous with campaign development

Conceptualizing a mascot starts from the same origins as any creative campaign: the creative brief.

With its distillation of brand strategy and extensive research, adhering to the brief ensures the mascot conceptualized by the creative team remains rooted in the gap the brand fills for its intended audience—or the intersection of brand strategy and positioning, the audiences’ problem and the unique, brand-provided solution.

From brand stories to concept naming and write-ups

Creative teams should start conceptualizing potential mascots (or developing other concepts) and write-ups from the brand story they craft based on recurring themes extracted from the brief. This is because it provides the richest source for brainstorming any campaign concepts thanks to the storytelling exercises used to connect with audiences or foster their relationship with the brand through the campaign.

The process for developing a brand story and transforming it into potential concepts generally follows six steps:

  1. Pour over the brief—especially the strategy team’s extensive work—and look for recurring themes.
  2. Create a detailed outline of what the brand story must include (using the brief and informed by strategy or the client).
  3. Craft the brand story and get the stamp of approval from strategy and the client.
  4. Revisit the brand story and use it as a launching pad for concepting creative ideas and directions.
  5. Develop multiple overarching concepts for the mascot (or other creative campaign) that distill the brand story into a single creative line—ideally, three at a minimum.
  6. Refine the concepts with short, three- to five-sentence write-ups.

The process is ultimately as straightforward as the creative team crafting the brand story and then asking themselves, “What does the brand story make you think of?” Alternatively, creative teams may start mascot conceptualization simply by naming the project—along the lines of the industry adage, “To name it is to tame it.”

Still, early mascot conceptualization can be quite the messy process despite its straightforward nature. Creative teams will likely need to hold quite a few brainstorming sessions and “break-out” periods to come up with concepts and see what sticks after refining them.

Brainstorming creative ideas might make the process seem subjective or a matter of preference, but so long as the team adheres to the creative brief—and its distillation of brand strategy and research—mascots (or other concepts) will deliver results that objectively align with the brand.

From strategy to something that makes you feel something

Once the creative team has developed strategy-based mascot concepts, it’s time to explore different delivery methods the brand can use during its launch campaigns. The goal is to facilitate the target audiences’ emotional connection to the mascot concept.

This generally involves a version of prototyping with ad-like objects (i.e., resembling posters or print ads) providing the proof of concept. Ad-like objects also enable the creative team to confirm and demonstrate how the mascot can live visually or that the art design and copy mesh seamlessly with design territory examples of style, tone of voice, look and other mascot or campaign attributes.

And it’s in this stage that the creative team truly brings the mascot to life. From a foundation in brand strategy, the mascot transforms from a concept to something more tangible that makes the audience feel.

The mascot finally becomes that focal point every brand-audience relationship needs.

Making mascots memorable for audiences

Mascots—the best ones, at least—aren’t memorable because they’re a collection of outlandish creative ideas (although that can help, depending on the brand). Instead, they’re memorable because they accurately reflect and embody the intersection of a brand’s strategy, its audience’s challenge(s) and the unique solution the brand provides.

That foundation helps establish and reinforce the emotional connection and relationship developed with the brand. It enables the audience’s heuristic processes—or mental decision-making shortcuts—that see them repeatedly choose brands based on those relationships.

And so, bringing mascots to life resembles the same process as any other creative campaign.

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