From Tony the Tiger to Mr. Sheen and the Kool-Aid Man, successful animated characters designed for advertising transcend their original brand purposes and become iconic. They evolve from marketing tools into proper pop culture, all while deepening brand affinity to the point that customers even become nostalgic for them years later.
There’s no shortage of examples of animated brand characters done right across different industries. In addition to those mentioned above, who can forget the Jolly Green Giant, walking and talking M&M candies, the Michelin Man or the Pillsbury Doughboy? Consider the tale of the animated Tetley Tea Folk in the UK, who were abandoned for being 'old-fashioned' in 2002 only for Tetley to see sagging sales (they eventually returned).
Not every animated character concocted for marketing will prove to be enduring and so indelibly linked to a brand, but there’s tremendous upside for companies that put in the work to develop a compelling original character that represents the brand’s values.
An original animated brand character is a fully-owned property, which provides many benefits. First off, there’s none of the repeat fees that would come with using a licensed character or a celebrity endorser. On the latter front, there’s also no need to worry about celebrity or influencer scandals that could not only diminish your brand value, but also waste your investment.
Bespoke brand characters also provide companies with complete creative freedom, allowing them to cost-effectively use a character across various campaigns and media platforms and update it for the times without hassle from rights holders. And as we’ve seen from some of the most prominent brand characters over the years, they can lead to so much more: entertainment properties, toys, merchandising, and more.
Even if your company doesn’t have such grand ambitions in mind from the start, it’s still critical to fully develop any character that you plan to associate with your brand. Not only is this a process that will require time, money, and attention from your company, but more importantly, you’re creating a character that people will come to associate with your brand - and one that could ultimately help elevate that brand to new heights.
It’s important to create an animated brand character that represents your brand values, whatever they are. A character that feels incongruous with your brand won’t resonate, no matter how charming or unique it may be. Cushelle’s Kenny Koala is a perfect example of a harmonious character: he’s fluffy and soft, just like the toilet paper.
Along with representing your brand values, a character must also target the pinpoint demographic to maximise its effectiveness and boost its chances to resonate with a particular audience. It’s really just a constant process of iteration, testing concepts and refining them until you find something that really sticks. Even if lightning strikes and you land on a brilliant idea from the jump, nobody nails all of the details on the first pass.
In our own experience creating animated characters for clients at Flipbook Studio, it has always been a process of collaboration with a company and/or creative agency to find the right fit for a brand. One of our most prominent character animation pieces was done in collaboration with McCann UK for Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot Christmas campaigns; we animated Kevin in a commercial and designed and created a digital series showcasing other vegetable characters who auditioned for the role of Kevin, but didn’t quite make the cut. Another example is the Cadbury Marvellous Ice Creams project, in which we designed, modelled, textured and animated a series of penguin characters for Cadbury’s new ice cream range.
We also worked with luxury mattress maker Harrison Spinks to produce the first commercial in its 178-year history, collaborating with agency Brass to develop a fully CG animated sheep appropriately named Harrison. The result was a character that represented the brand and its heritage in an authentic manner, introducing the company to a new and wider audience.
While the process of designing and defining a brand character hasn’t changed all that much over the years, the technology backing it has. We’ve gone from hand-drawn 2D artwork to 3D animation, and the future opens up the possibilities further with virtual and augmented reality.
We’ve already seen examples of brand characters being performed live, such as in the US with Cricket Wireless’ cartoonish characters interacting with viewers on a live online stream, and there’s potential for in-person interactions too via technologies like real-time game engines and motion capture suits.
Virtual influencers are also gaining popularity, such as Instagram star Lil’ Miquela, who has 2.4 million followers and has represented brands such as Calvin Klein and Samsung Mobile. Car brand Renault even has its own virtual ambassador, Liv, who has appeared in commercials for the Kadjar SUV.
The times and technology may be changing, but the benefits of animated brand characters are still enormous and the goal is the same: to create something memorable that can really resonate with consumers. The success of an animated character will always be in the strength of the original idea. History is littered with brand characters that have either been forgotten or ultimately reviled. Don’t let either grim fate happen to your brand mascot.
Andrew Lord is co-founder of creative production studio Flipbook Studio.