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Brand Characters Never Get Depressed

We’ve been fielding a lot of calls over the last few weeks from folks wanting to spruce up their brand characters. Since we started our practice many years ago with a focus on brand characters, that definitely got our attention.

Most of the time, brand characters don’t get much respect. Agency creatives often view them as tired or clichéd and marketers worry about how something so old can ever be “relevant.” But brand characters have amazing potential to connect emotionally with an audience, and when economic times are tough they can be like money in the bank. While this ability to connect is commonly accepted on an anecdotal basis, the latest technological/medical breakthroughs offer a scientific hypothesis as to why brand characters are so effective.

Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Michigan, using fMRIs to study brain responses, have demonstrated that people’s brains process personality traits differently for humans than they do for brands. Brand personality traits are processed in a portion of the brain that analyzes objects rather than in the portion that typically processes the traits associated with people. “Advertisers should keep in mind that when they use personality terms for a product –reliable, trustworthy, cheerful–consumers are not associating those purely human qualities to the products in question,” said lead author Carolyn Yoon, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Business School. One solution, the study‘s authors note, could be to employ brand characters like Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald. Yoon believes that it’s more likely for brand characters to be processed in the “person” regions of the brain, allowing for emotional connections to “stick” to the brand in a way that they would not in the absence of a character.

Of course, the great brands succeed in building a deep emotional relationship with their audience that seems to overcome this apparent brain deficit. But in tough times, it’s a good idea to accept help wherever you can find it–even if the person offering you a hand up is a cartoon. 

So keep your eyes peeled over the coming months to see how many characters reemerge. The tough economic conditions are likely to be a boon for brand characters. If you have a brand character of your own, you might consider dusting it off, sprucing it up and putting it back out there. In these uncertain times, your brand character could be a great hedge against eroding brand equity. In any case, I’d love to know if you are observing the same phenomenon that we are seeing.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery