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Mascots Are Brands' Best Social-Media Accessories

Charlie the Tuna earned a new catchphrase. Spam spawned Sir Can-A-Lot. M&M's Ms. Brown runs her own Pandora channel. And Captain Morgan made his TV debut.

Brand mascots are rebounding as marketers redeploy old characters in new ways, create fresh ones from scratch and use digital media to spin out rich storylines not possible in the past, when critters and cartoon characters were pretty much confined to TV.

While it might be too early to declare a full-fledged mascot revival, brand characters are undoubtedly regaining attention.

Mascots are "the gift that keeps on giving," said Carol Phillips, president of consulting group Brand Amplitude. "They never get in trouble with the law. They don't up their fees. You can use them for a long, long time."

Many have been around for what seems like forever. Aunt Jemima and the Michelin Man both date back to the 1890s. Characters picked up steam in the early days of TV advertising, the 1950s and "60s, when Leo Burnett launched classics such as Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy. But character development suffered as marketers gravitated toward shorter commercials, according to Ms. Phillips, a former Leo Burnett staffer who worked on Charlie the Tuna.

Today, social media is giving marketers a whole new playground to test and nurture mascots. "I think the web is going to [bring] a heyday for creating new characters and stories," Ms. Phillips said.

It's on the way there. Consider Kraft Foods, which recently gave us a character who lives almost entirely online. His name is Peanut Butter Doug, introduced to plug Kraft's new Planters Peanut Butter. Doug serves as the stunt double for the 96-year-old Mr. Peanut -- also part of the mascot resurgence, thanks to a 2010 refresh, when he got an earthier look and a voice for the first time, supplied by Robert Downey Jr.

Doug, voiced by Kevin Dillon, specializes in getting crunched into peanut butter while subbing for Mr. Peanut in violent scenes, such as getting flattened by a falling statue. Much like Mr. Dillon's Johnny Drama character on HBO's "Entourage," Doug is a lovable wannabe star who for now can't even get his own Facebook page, so he rents space on Mr. Peanut's page.

That's part of the beauty of launching a character in the social-media era. With a limited investment, Kraft can monitor how well Doug is playing in front of Planters' most engaged fans, said Scott Marcus, senior brand manager for Planters. "It's the perfect audience to get a sense of "Is this thing working?'" (Planters' agency is Being, part of TBWA.)

Other brands have gone all-in right away, making mascots the star of TV ads while using the internet to develop more-involved storylines. Kraft, for instance, is promoting its Milkbite granola bar brand with a part-milk, part-granola puppet named Mel who battles low self-esteem and identity issues. The brainchild of brand agency Droga5, Mel posts regular video diaries on the brand's Facebook page, including a recent entry in which he joins an art-therapy group to work through his "existential crisis."

Make no mistake, these are not casual investments. Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., for instance, mulled a couple of concepts for its character and chose "Scott," a Scottish lawn-care expert, over Lonnie Lawns. The marketer also wrestled with whether Scott should have a Scottish or English accent, finally picking Scottish because it tested as more friendly and approachable, said Scott Crockett, a principal at Richards Group, the brand's agency. After all, nobody wants a mean lawn expert.

Iconic comebacks include Charlie the Tuna, who stars in a StarKist TV campaign with a twist: The classic "Sorry, Charlie" is replaced by "Thanks, Charlie" -- meant to remind consumers that tuna is a healthy choice. Once a cigar-smoking caricature, Charlie is now "really more your pal," said Carrie Parks, partner and group director at MMB, the brand's agency.

Alka-Seltzer's baby-faced Speedy, who retired in 1964 only to return sporadically, is back full-time in TV ads by Energy BBDO. First redeployed in 2010, Speedy has "significantly increased [brand] recall" and is getting more media investment "than there's ever been before," said Barton Warner, VP-U.S. marketing and new business for Bayer health care and consumer care.

Mars Chocolate North America, meanwhile, used advertising's biggest stage to unveil its sixth M&M's character, making "Ms. Brown" the star of a multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ad.

And the marketer did not stop there. The sharp-tongued Ms. Brown, created by BBDO, New York, held a live video chat with followers on Facebook and appeared on NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice." She even has her own channel on Pandora. (She is apparently a fan of the Eurythmics.)

Last month, Spam rolled out the first mascot in the brand's 75-year history. A primary motivation for creating the animated Sir Can-A-Lot, was to drive social-media conversation. (The agency is BBDO, Minneapolis.)

In many cases, consumers would rather interact online with a cute or cuddly character than with a faceless corporate executive, said Marta Majewska, VP-digital and social-media strategist for public-relations firm Porter Novelli. "It's easier to have a casual conversation," she said.

Of course, mascot marketing is not always foolproof, or everlasting. Consider Burger King, which a few years ago revived its King mascot as a mime-like figure with an oversize head who eerily appeared in unexpected places. Though initially lauded by some, the creepy King apparently wore thin and was recently ditched, along with agency CP&B. The fast-feeder's new shop, McGarryBowen, has returned to more product-focused messaging.

Other reinventions have gone more smoothly. For instance, last year Diageo recreated Captain Morgan in an ad campaign from Anomaly set in the 1600s and inspired by real-life privateer Captain Henry Morgan. The effort marked the character's first TV appearance and drew praise from unlikely quarters, such as a beer conference where MillerCoors CEO Tom Long called it an example of breakthrough booze marketing.

And the Captain was among the first to come aboard when Facebook rolled out brand timelines recently, marking yet another mascot milestone.

 

E.J. Schultz, AdAge.com. March 26, 2012

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