In October, Michelin injected new life into its marshmallow-looking mascot, "Michelin Man," by launching a brand campaign around it. In the same month, Pinnacle Foods put Mrs. Butterworth back in the spotlight with a naming contest. Other icons, such as Maggie Moo Ice Cream's Miss Maggie Moo, have also been re-energized through recent PR and marketing campaigns.
Brand mascots' resurgence can, in part, be attributed to consumers longing for comfort and familiarity during the recession. Social media also plays a role.
"The notion of trust with a lot of brands is being broken. Many of us, when it comes down to the wire, will revert to the things we know," says Dean Crutchfield, chief engagement officer at brand experience firm Method. "Often, the brands we know best are the ones that have heritage."
For example, Stefan Aps, marketing director at Pinnacle, told PRWeek that one reason Mrs. Butterworth was brought back was because "a lot of interest [came] from people who grew up with her and remember her from childhood."
Dave Murtaugh, director of image and brands at Michelin adds, "The Michelin Man is instantly recognizable. The moment you see him, people know which brand is speaking."
Additionally, while brand icons were traditionally used in ad campaigns and at events, communications is now finding ways to add more dimension and personality to these icons.
"People think it's a debate between using a symbol or substance," Crutchfield says. "But icons cannot just carry themselves without substance."Icons of social media
In particular, social media has made icons and mascots a much more interactive component of a brand's story. As brands clamor for consumers on social networks, using a recognizable brand icon can provide a shortcut to get attention, adds Crutchfield.
"Our brains can react in half of a second to something visual," he explains. "But if you give me some heady text, it might take some time to get through it. If you give me a powerful icon that cuts through the clutter, you can follow it with verbal text."
Murtaugh says that Michelin decided to reinvigorate its icon, which is over a century old, to help simplify its communications.
"He allows us to bring emotions to communications in our category, which can frequently be very technical and complex," he adds. While the Michelin Man updates his Twitter and Facebook pages with messages about rebates or his whereabouts, the icon is also used to tell consumers Michelin's brand value, like most recently that tires can help save on fuel. The Michelin Man had 1,009 followers on Twitter and 1,493 fans on Facebook at press time.
Although transparency and authenticity have become the cornerstones of social media, consumers still get a kick out of engaging with fictional mascots - as long as the interactions are amusing, says Pete Campisi, SVP at Weber Shandwick.
"These personalities are coming to life through Facebook, Twitter, and a lot of these social networks," he says. "It's just another way to communicate a message in a manner that generates attention or word of mouth in an entertaining way. The brand still needs to communicate in other ways, but using a mascot or personality is entertaining."
Campisi adds that WS is developing ways for consumers to connect with the Snuggle Bear, brand mascot for its client Snuggle fabric softener, a Unilever brand. The firm also worked with Kentucky Fried Chicken to leverage its iconic founder Colonel Sanders in its communications.
While mascots don't work for efforts designed to convey serious news, such as earnings or product recalls, he says they can be particularly effective for general product news or for more tips and suggestions.
"It works when the mascot elevates what's already true to the brand," Campisi explains. "If it's an edgy brand, the mascot can use humor to reinforce this."
The evolution of brand mascots
The fictional face has morphed several times over many decades to reflect changes among women in the US
Iconic girl has recently taken a more digital and modern look
The original image was revamped to more positively reflect on black women