Mascots serve a lot of roles. They’ll be shooting a t-shirt cannon one minute, doing back flips through a ring of fire the next, or intimidating the opposing team. Whatever their shtick, the connective tissue is this – their main job is to create human emotion and a lasting memory.
When it comes to sports, most schools or professional teams lean towards powerful, mythical, or even predatory animals. A bit of useless dinner party trivia: eagles are the most common school mascot in the United States. It makes sense, as an eagle represents all 3 of those key features you’d want in an intimidating mascot. What was mine you ask? Oh, well I hail from Verona, NJ and we are the mighty, mighty…hillbillies.
First of all, Verona, NJ is by no means in the country. We’re a 20-minute commute to downtown Manhattan and surrounded by no less than 6 malls. We were much more Real Housewives of New Jersey than Deliverance. That said, our mascot was a true hillbilly caricature all the way down to his jug of moonshine and a rifle. Oh, and he also smoked, because he wasn’t offensive enough already. He was later rightfully re-imagined with a puppy and a fishing pole (see end of article) to make him less offensive, but no less ridiculous.
But, we’re not here today to talk sports or make sense of Verona’s mascot direction, because I know very little about either of these things. Rather, let’s talk about mascots in their other well-known role as branding superstars.
Brand mascots go all the way back to when print was the primary means for advertising. Very few examples from this era stood the test of time, trends, and shifting tastes. “It’s rare that a brand hits mascot gold. Some brands are lucky if they create a character that connects with the public for half a decade, let alone five — or even a full century. Sometimes a character just connects, though” says Wendy Parish of Marketing Dive.
Two of those enduring mascots are instantly recognizable for one major commonality – their body shape. The first, and oldest, is the Michelin Man, who has been a brand identifier since 1898. For over 115 years, he’s been synonymous with tires and one of the most recognizable mascots. The other is a family favorite identifiable by his ears – Mickey Mouse. While not as old as the Michelin Man, he’s rapidly approaching 100 years of brand ambassadorship.
Mickey Mouse has achieved what a real, live spokesperson typically can’t do, or at least maintain, and that is providing a human component to a brand, but also creating trust and recognition across all generations. Regardless of age, sex, geography or education, Mickey has a brand recognition rate of 98%. One could argue that Amazon and Google also have high recognition rates, but they’re not championed by a giant talking animal in a tux (yet).
Mascots are storytellers for their brands. They can bring life to a product, exude values, and create human connection with the audience – all while being completely controllable. And that’s a major difference between a mascot and a spokesperson, or even the more modern equivalent, the influencer. Spokespeople and influencers are flesh and bone, and they can make mistakes that can easily tank a brand’s image. You won’t find the Jolly Green Giant or the Bounty Man embroiled in a media scandal. They operate as controlled character extensions of the brand, and never ask for a raise!
Mascots made a lot of sense during the era of print advertising, and certainly into the age of television advertisements. Any other 80’s baby will fondly remember some of them: Tony the Tiger, Ronald McDonald, Snap Crackle & Pop. I could go on. But unlike many forms of marketing that went extinct in the advent of the digital revolution, mascots have flourished.
Social media channels have created the perfect platform for personifying a brand, and mascots have helped many companies do it. For several years now, Flo has been a signature presence of Progressive Insurance. In fact, the character came about around the time that social media was gaining a growing part in our daily routine. In fact, Flo’s Twitter presence has more followers than Progressive itself, and it’s easy to see why. A mascot can exude the same values and brand traits, but in a more personified way. It adds human elements and entertainment to an otherwise cold process – buying car insurance. They can also dramatically boost a brand’s social presence.
According to a case study written by Mark Kelly of Convince & Convert, “brand mascot boosts shareability significantly when compared to non-character visual content. For example, the Charmin Bears contributed to 585% more shares, Tony the Tiger led to 279% more shares, the Keebler Elves led to 203% more shares, and Mr. Clean led to 182% more shares.” Recognizing this sort of traction, brands continue to create new mascots to this day – with Hinge’s “Hingie” being the latest to enter the arena.
Do mascots always work? Certainly not. Do they always last? Nope, a lot of them have gone into permanent retirement after becoming irrelevant or annoying everyone into brand avoidance (looking at you Noid). Additionally, certain mascots resonate better with some generations versus others. For Gen X, Chuck E. Cheese ranked higher in recognition than the Cheerios Honey Bee, even though the bee gets significant air time in commercials to this day. Chuck E. Cheese, or Chuck, made a deeper emotional connection with that generation at a young age, and a lasting memory.
While other means of marketing and branding continue to fall out of favor in the digital age, mascots persist. As long as we need a human touch in our brands, mascots will continue to delight, sing, joke, dance, and occasionally, annoy us into buying something.
(By the way if you want to know where your favorite character ranks, or which ranks best amongst certain generations, check out Advertising Week’s PopIcon).
Also, as promised, Verona’s re-imagined Hillbilly: