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Character counts: Brand icons get story lines, emotions

Does the Jolly Green Giant ever ponder his place in the General Mills marketing machine?

Probably not. His is an iconic role, which places him firmly in the tradition of brand characters.

Compare him, then, to the Geico Gecko.

Perhaps the most self-aware of the brand characters, the Gecko speaks openly of his celebrity role and plainly acknowledges that his job is to get people to buy Geico insurance.

While Mr. Clean would likely balk at identifying himself as a pitchman, the Gecko is happy to.

"It just seems that this self-awareness helps lower people's barriers to your message," says Steve Bassett of the Martin Agency, which created the Gecko.

"When advertisers have respect for the viewer, they'll say, 'This is an ad, and we know you know it's an ad. Let's drop the pretense.' "

Expect to see more savvy brand characters, says David Altschul of Character, a Portland-based company that specializes in developing and reviving such icons.

A new breed of brand character is necessary to keep up with an audience hyper-aware of marketing.

Other signs we are in a new age of brand characters have shown up on TV — Travelocity's Roaming Gnome and the mute king of Burger King commercials. Both seem to exist only to mock the idea of brand characters and the earnestness of such company icons as the Pillsbury Doughboy. You might even call them "meta-brand-characters."

The irony-laden makeover is the latest development in the long evolution of spokes-characters, who started out as illustrations on a product's packaging.

The advent of television didn't do much to flesh them out. TV was such a huge phenomenon that a character just had to show up on it to get the word out.

"All of that is over," Altschul says. "The media is fragmented. The audience is grown up, much more skeptical and less willing to believe whatever you tell them."

Today's characters have story lines. Indeed, "story" and "conflict" are among the most oft-repeated words for the folks at Character.

Altschul's partner, Jim Hardison, writes in License magazine that "inner conflict is key" to a brand character. "The inner struggle — that is key to emotionally engaging characters."


The Hamburger Helper's Helping Hand isn't Shakespeare. But at Character, such differences are arbitrary.

A successful story, marketers say, is one that speaks to a fundamental truth about the human condition. It's no longer enough for Sonny the bird to tell us he's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs; we need to understand the inner demons that drive the poor bird close to insanity.

"I think the trick is always to make sure that the flaws are authentic ones that the audience can identify with; then you're in pretty good territory," Altschul says.

"What every character needs now is a deeper sense of story and clear connection with the authentic story of the brand."

Such issues are worked out in "Character camp," a three-day off-site retreat Altschul and company do with a new client to work out a character's story lines and motivations.

The philosophy seems to be working. Character has helped modernize such revered brand icons as Snap, Crackle & Pop, the Lucky Charms leprechaun and the Trix rabbit.

Modernizing a character can be tricky. When Seven-Up/Dr Pepper hired Character to revive Punchy, the brand character for Hawaiian Punch, they ran into a conundrum.

"How's about a nice Hawaiian Punch?" the smart-alecky islander would ask, then punch whoever was there.

Figuring that violence wouldn't go over as smoothly as it once did, Altschul needed to find a way to soften Punchy's image without taking away his one identifying trait. Solution: Graphically represent the punch as a metaphor for Punchy's enthusiasm for Hawaiian Punch.

"So he's still not much different," Altschul says. "He still has the same underlying conflict. He still has that controlled violence in him."

It should be no surprise this much thought is being put into animated salespeople and talking rabbits. If you need further evidence that brand characters have taken hold of our imaginations, talk to the people at Planters.

More than 100,000 weighed in on Mr. Peanut's new look. Voting at www.planters.com, people could elect to give Mr. Peanut either a pocket watch, a bow tie, cufflinks or to keep him just the way he is. Results will be revealed today.

A good brand character can be a company's success or failure. You might not think much of soapsuds with sunglasses. But Droppy, a jaunty advice-giving bubble, has been credited as lifting Joy dishwashing soap out of years of stagnancy.

The folks at Martin Agency are well aware of the power of a good character. That's why they've put so much work into retooling the Geico Gecko into a recognizably human reptile. That means reshaping his mouth to make it more expressive and shoulders so that he can shrug.

The Martin Agency is unusual in its openness about its character. Generally, companies are very guarded about their brand characters.

Planters was relatively stingy with information about the inner conflict that drives Mr. Peanut's (though they did tell us that his first name is Percy — who knew?).

And the Jolly Green Giant? Is he a mutation or from another planet? Several calls to General Mills did little to satisfy curiosity. The company generally doesn't talk about its characters.

Even at the Martin Agency, they're careful to keep some of the Gecko's mystery.

People have suggested that the Gecko's family enter the picture, but Bassett is doubtful.

"I don't think he needs any of those trappings," he says. "And we don't want to give him a name. He's just 'The Gecko.' "


William Weir, The Hartford Courant. November 2, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company. All rights reserved.