Skip to content

Out of Context: How not to test a brand character

“What was that movie you worked on with Stephen Spielberg that one time?” my friend Jim asked me out of the blue. Not the Jim from my Ted Lasso discussion. A different friend who is also also named Jim. “See, I bet my friend that I know someone who knows someone super famous better than he knows someone super famous. I’ve got money riding on this.”

“The Minority Report,” I told him. “But I only worked on it for one day.”

“But you were advising Stephen Spielberg, right?”

“Yeah, but not really about the movie,” I countered.

“So, you were advising him on the movie but not about the movie?” He considered it for a second. “Yeah. I think that still trumps my friend riding 16 floors up in an elevator with Obama. Just out of curiosity, what were you advising Spielberg about?”

“How the Rice Krispies characters, Snap, Crackle, and Pop, would interact with Tom Cruise on a futuristic cereal box,” I explained. “You know, like what would be in character for them.”

“Holy crap! Did you talk to Tom Cruise, too?” he demanded. “About Snap, Crackle, and Pop? That’s so random!”

“Well, we’d been working with the Rice Krispies brand team on understanding the characters’ story so the brand team could revitalize the characters for modern audiences. We’d helped the team articulate the brand story framework and they were all excited and energized about it. The team was considering a full redesign and relaunch of the characters. Right in the middle of that, Spielberg’s people called and asked if he could use Snap, Crackle, and Pop in The Minority Report, which they’d just started filming.”

“So, the Rice Krispies people were like, ‘Sure. Send Hardison’?” Jim scoffed.

“Well, I guess they thought we knew the characters and their story better than anyone else, so we should go tell Spielberg what the characters would and wouldn’t do.”

“I don’t remember Snap, Crackle, and Pop getting redesigned,” Jim protested. “I mean, aren’t they still the same old guys they always were?”

“Yeah,” I nodded sadly. “The whole revitalization got killed before it launched.”

“Probably why I haven’t given them a thought in decades,” Jim said. “What happened?”

“Bad testing,” I sighed.

First, let me say that I don’t think testing brand characters is a bad idea. I’m not against testing. However, trying to test the design of a character outside of the context of its story is absolutely the best way to kill a character or steer it down the dead-end road to irrelevance.

You see, testing a character looks very different when approached through the story metaphor than it would through the science metaphor. In the science metaphor, I’m sure it seems pretty straightforward to show the audience different versions of a character and ask them which one they like better and why. This can surface valuable insights and potentially help avoid issues the design team might have overlooked. The downside is that it frequently gets you to a version of a character that may be unobjectionable, but is not optimally effective for the brand, doesn’t build the brand story, and could even undermine it.

What testing a character in isolation overlooks is how well the character is suited to bringing the story to life. Specifically, there may be aspects of the design that are there to trigger conflict or suggest meaning, but that might seem less appealing out of context. You can’t easily test for that by comparing versions of characters in isolation, and you can’t end run this problem by telling people what the story is about and asking them to say whether the character fits it. That’s not how people process story.

As an example, if the characters for The Simpsons had been tested for audience approval based on their design alone, it’s easy to imagine significant second-guessing of their look and consequent pressure to make them more “accessible” or visually pleasing. The design must be appropriate to the story, and the only really effective way to test for that is to present the character to audiences in an execution of the story. Such an execution doesn’t have to be a completed commercial, but it should feature the components of a story—it should show conflict, suggest meaning, and signal purpose.

Testing a character in isolation from the story context can be a bit like picking an actor to play a role based entirely on a headshot. Yes, the production team can narrow down initial candidates by looking at headshots, but that’s the broad-strokes work. After that, they’d want to audition the actors—have them perform a scene—in order to get a sense of how well they suit the role and underscore the story.

Of course, this all presumes the brand has an understanding of what story it is trying to tell. Many great brand characters were designed based on creative intuitions that were never fully articulated. That’s why even some of the most iconic characters can drift in and out of relevance as new teams take on the task of using them, many with no firm understanding of what story they were built to express in the first place. At that point, testing can become a brand character’s worst enemy. Character design, which should ideally be a clue to express what the story and the brand are about—what they mean—can instead wind up being decided by focus groups and people’s personal tastes. I’ve seen many characters go off the rails that way and start the descent into oblivion and irrelevance. It can happen to the best of them.

“You know,” Jim said, “I don’t even remember Snap, Crackle, and Pop being in the Minority Report.”

“They weren’t,” I explained. “In the end, I think the official story was that the interaction between Tom Cruise and the characters on the cereal box was obscured the whole time by a computer screen, so you wouldn’t have been able to make out who they were. In reality, the key worry was that the brand team wouldn’t be able to test how audiences would react to Snap, Crackle, and Pop annoying someone with silly antics and wasn’t comfortable signing off on anything unless it could. So instead, Spielberg went with made-up characters and a made-up brand: Pine & Oats Cereal.”

“Pine & Oats Cereal?” Jim frowned. “That doesn’t sound tasty. They probably should have tested it.”

If you’d like to see the cereal box scene as it played out in the movie, here it is.

“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