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“Alexa, who’s the wife?”

I was streaming a show the other day with my daughters when a commercial for Amazon’s Alexa came on. I remember that brief golden age when we used to be able to skip commercials, but on this particular streaming service, you have to sit through them. Anyway, the spot features a woman fantasizing about the Amazon Alexa, brought to life in the body of actor Michael B. Jordan. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link. As it was ending, my older daughter asked if, being a husband in a household with multiple Alexas, I was offended that the husband in the commercial was presented as jealous of and threatened by Alexa. That’s right, we dissect TV commercials in my family for fun. I’m not sure if that’s a feature or a bug. Anyway, I was about to answer when my younger daughter looked up from her smart phone.

“Dad’s not the husband in that commercial,” she said. “He’s the wife

“The wife?” the older daughter questioned.

“The wife,” the younger one confirmed. “Everybody watching is the wife. The husband is just a secondary obstacle character. The wife is meant to be the stand-in for people who like and use Alexa. Like dad does. The husband is a rejector. Dad’s the consumer, so he’s the wife.” 

“But the wife character is introduced as part of the team that’s created the new Alexa, so isn’t she the brand?” the older one asked.

“No. Classic blunder,” the little one tsked. “The metaphor is based on how the character behaves—not their superficial role or how they look.” Of course, she was right.

Brand characters, whether recurring mascots, like the red M&M or Flo for Progressive insurance, or the non-icon fictional people that populate most brand communications, like the wife and husband in the Alexa commercial, are subconsciously interpreted and emotionally processed by viewers as metaphors. All fictional characters get processed that way to the degree a story connects with an audience emotionally. In entertainment, the main character—whether it’s a relatable everyman like Wade Felton from The Unicorn, or a super-heroic fish out of water like Wanda Maximoff from WandaVision—gets processed by our subconscious as a metaphoric representation of ourselves. We can’t help it. If we see a character wrestling with an internal struggle we’ve experienced, we connect to them and recognize they’re standing in for us in the story. That’s one of the key mechanisms that makes good characters so impactful and emotionally resonant and one of the reasons it’s really useful to understand what metaphoric role a character in your brand communications is playing. 

Brand characters generally get interpreted in one of three ways:

  1. The character is a metaphor for the product. If we see a character that is a product literally brought to life or that does what the product does—the Red M&M, the Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal characters, Michael B. Jordan as Alexa—we recognize that the character is playing the role of the product. 
  1. The character is a metaphor for the consumer. When we see characters who want a product, love a product or use a product—Chester Cheetah, The Trix Rabbit, any character that takes a bite of a product and smiles—it’s hard to miss that they’re a metaphoric representative of the consumer. They’re doing what the brand wants the consumer to do.
  1. The character is a metaphor for the brand. Characters who make, distribute or promote the product—the GEICO Gecko, a celebrity spokesperson, or the Keebler Elves—are doing what the brand does. They are playing the role of the brand.

You may be able to think of a few brand characters that don’t seem to fall into any of these categories, but that’s probably for one of two reasons. 

The first reason is that the brand never consciously thought about the role the character was playing, so the role drifted over time. This is often the case with brand characters that start strong but then seem to lose relevance and focus over the course of multiple campaigns—like the Aflac duck and the Kia Hamsters. The duck started as a metaphor for the product, the hamsters as metaphors for the consumer, then both drifted into metaphors for their brands—roles they weren’t designed to play. 

The second reason is that the character is playing an anti-hero version of one of the three metaphoric roles. Anti-hero characters typically relate to their brands by being the antithesis of one of the other metaphors, like the husband character in the Alexa spot. He’s playing the anti-consumer—the product rejector—which is why people who like and use Alexa are unlikely to be put off by him as a character even if, like me, they play a similar role in their family.

“So, it doesn’t matter whether the character looks like a salesman, a typical consumer or an animated bear,” my younger daughter concluded. “The metaphoric role of a character is based on its behavior and that sets the stage for how and why the audience connects or doesn’t connect with it.”

“Which is why Dad is the wife,” the older one nodded.

“Which is why I’m the wife,” I agreed.  

“You’re not cool enough to be the wife,” my wife said, coming down the basement stairs. “And what are we talking about?”

“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