an example of a brand mascot: a golden retriever Barkley dog behind the wheel of a Subaru
PHOTO: Subaru

Are brand mascots a thing of the past? The Subaru Barkley family of golden retrievers, the GEICO Gecko and the Starbuck Mermaid are all doing quite well thank you. And despite the untimely demise of Mr. Peanut last month*, or perhaps because of it, brand mascots continue to be important to our marketing strategy. Here’s why.

Why We Care About Mascots

Mascots punctuate the brand promise. They are not only “spokespersons” for that promise, they help customers and prospective buyers remember the promise.

“A brand promise is a commitment to your customers that identifies what they should expect for all interactions with your people, products, services and company.” — ABCs of Branding

Many of our most popular mascots are not people but rather anthropomorphic, like the Aflac duck or US Forest Service's Smokey the Bear and Woodsy the Owl. The campaign developed with Woodsy as a friendly, caring and wise spokesperson advised children to “give a hoot and don’t pollute.”

Neuroscience tells us that people respond strongly to characters that imitate human behavior. So Woodsy and the others get our attention. And when Mr. Peanut apparently met his ultimate roasting destiny, just in time for a Planter’s Peanuts 2020 pregame Superbowl ad, social media was abuzz.

Mr. Peanut was an icon I grew up with. As it turns out, just as brand preferences are generational so are brand mascots. We can often guess someone’s generation —from the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers to the Millennials and Gen Zers — based on the brand mascot they find most relatable. And the fate of many a brand mascot is to fade as generations pass.

But it is also true that some brand icons have remained popular across generations, like Geoffrey the Giraffe who was introduced in the '60s and successfully represented Toys R Us for decades. Geoffrey got multiple makeovers over the years from “big hearted kid” to family man and back. At one point he became a real-life giraffe who could talk and then once again became a cartoon with stars for spots to represent the “magic” that is Toys R Us. Throughout his many transformations, Geoffrey remained an iconic representation of the brand because we care about him and want to be a “Toys R Us kid.” 

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Animal Mascots Have Staying Power

Animal mascots like Geoffrey are among the most beloved. But with all due respect to Geoffrey, the single most recognizable animal when we think of a great brand mascot is Mickey Mouse. Mickey has staying power. He has been the official cartoon representative of the Walt Disney Company ever since its creation, thus making him “one of the oldest mascots extremely popular worldwide and loved by people of all ages.”

Perhaps no industry loves an animal mascot as much as insurance though. From the quirky GEICO gecko to the outspoken Aflac duck, these mascots seem to have grown on the consumer audience while connecting strongly back to their brand promise. In fact, the GEICO gecko was identified as one of the top 5 memorable brand mascots in a Mascot Recognition Challenge survey. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed could identify the gecko back to the brand and the gecko scored at or close to the top of the pack as likable, trustworthy and persuasive.

When it comes to animal mascots, our canine friends are well represented, particularly my favorite breed — golden retrievers.

There’s of course the Barkley family for Subaru. Then there’s Duke, the golden retriever brand mascot for Bush’s Baked Beans. As the story goes, while preparing to be the spokesman for his family’s brand of baked beans, Jay Bush turned to his Golden Retriever, Duketo, for comfort. Jay whispers the secret family recipe in Duke’s ear and the famous Bush’s Baked Beans series of commercials was born. Full disclosure: The real Duke Bush wasn’t a fan of the spotlight, so a look-alike professional dog actor was brought in to play the role.

The most recent entrant to the beloved golden brand ambassador hall of fame is Scout, the WeatherTech CEO’s canine. Chemo treatments saved Scout’s life and his grateful Dad bought the veterinary school that cured him a $6 million Super Bowl commercial to thank his vet.

Scout’s dad and his vets are my heroes. And indeed, some of the most iconic brand mascots are of the hero variety. 

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Iconic Brands Have Heroes

We have our sports heroes that we relate to and want to be like. Nike counts on that with a continual series of sports celebrity endorsements. And decades before that Wheaties used iconic sports figures on its cereal boxes. Ask a member of the greatest generation what cereal brand they prefer and more than not you will get the response Wheaties, “the breakfast of champions.”

But times have changed and so have our heroes.

Reputation.com found that 83% of millennials say they don’t trust advertising and they aren’t impressed by celebrity endorsements. Instead, they rely on referrals from friends and online reviews as their primary sources of information about products and services.

GoPro tapped into this with its Hero camera series. The company founder was motivated by a surfing trip to Australia. He was hoping to capture high quality action photos but couldn’t because amateur photographers could not buy appropriate quality equipment at reasonable prices. Enter the GoPro with the aim to capture great shots that made the subjects look like heroes. 

Late last year even Nike adapted to the latest brand buying preferences, releasing its shoe for "everyday heroes."  Nike's new shoe was not created for athletes like basketball players or tennis players. Rather the Nike Air Zoom Pulse is an athletic shoe specifically designed and marketed for our healthcare heroes in the medical profession.

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Why Tech Is Different

Tech used to be as fond of mascots as any other industry. No longer, according to "The Quiet Death of the Tech Company Mascot."

We remember when there was search engine Ask.com’s Jeeves, the AOL Running Man, and Microsoft’s more-infamous-than-famous animated office assistant, Clippy the Paperclip. [And yes, Clippy irritated me as much as it did the rest of you.] Jakki Mohr, professor of marketing at the University of Montana, explained that the tech companies needed those playful mascots to counteract purchase anxiety and show buyers that this new technology wasn’t so intimidating.  

That need is a thing of the past. Now, except for the video games sector that thrives on its mascots, we are too cool.

Yet clinical associate professor of marketing at New York University, Sunder Narayanan, maintains that tech companies still seek a way to convey character and personality and posits that the Google Doodle is just a modern-day brand mascot — “a Doodle has been a Charlie Chaplin-honoring video, 'Google' written out in Braille, and a playable game of Pac-Man.”

While the Doodles are likely the closest thing Google will ever get to having a mascot representing the tech brand’s promise, they are more fleeting in connection than the impact of an enduring brand mascot’s personality.

For after all, we will never have to worry about a Doodle’s fate the way we did the apparent demise of Mr. Peanut.

*Author’s Note: And the Mr. Peanut saga continues with the either terrifying or endearing #BabyNut revealed in a Planters commercial during the Super Bowl game.