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.