From Santa to Sanders – why brand mascots still perform better than almost anything else in marketing

Brand mascots are old hat in marketing, right? Well, maybe. But why do they move the marketing needle like almost nothing else, and what can we learn?

December 7, 2021
From Santa to Sanders – why brand mascots still perform better than almost anything else in marketing

The world’s most famous colonel has nothing to do with military service, but admittedly, he is guarding a set of secret herbs and spices like they’re classified wartime documents.

The fact your mouth is probably watering without us even saying that brand mascot’s name – or the name of the fast food chain he represents – says a lot. Similarly if you’ve ever seen Santa Claus wrapped in his classic red costume and coveted a certain sugary soft drink, you’ve witnessed the power of the brand mascot.

But it’s not just subconscious cravings these OG brand influencers elicit. The reason they excel is because they tie something your customers value to a value shared by your brand – fun, friendliness, childhood wonder. Brands become these things by embodying themselves as someone (or something) who can express these feelings emotionally.

It’s surprising, then – but perhaps it shouldn’t be – that mascots still move the brand marketing needle unlike almost anything else. Why is that, and how does it inform new strategies around customer experience, brand ambassadorship, conversational AI and virtual influencers?

From Sanders to Santa, let’s look at why great brand mascots work – historically and in the modern day.

Why do brands use mascots research statistics | UneeQ Blog

Why and how brand mascots make such a difference

When we say “mascots move the needle”, we really mean it. Ad campaigns that use mascots are 37% better positioned for greater market share than those that don’t.

There are a number of reasons why brand mascots work in this way:

  • They humanize brands so people can emotionally engage with them.
  • They have a personality that embodies the brand itself, and a timelessness that means they stick in people’s memory.
  • They encourage emotional responses such as laughter, humor, likeability, camaraderie, empathy. Emotional and empathetic responses to advertising have never been more important.

These are, we think, exceptional benefits. But let’s face it, mascots are considered a bit outdated. Today, they aren’t commonplace outside of the biggest consumer brands.

Similarly, the biggest brand mascots that come to your mind might be from decades past. The Kool-Aid Man, Ronald McDonald, The Pillsbury Doughboy – relics of childhood Americana. Their value might be in capitalizing on a company’s legacy more than its ability to be innovative.

But the fact that they STILL work means we can’t discount the marketing psychology behind them. There’s value in giving a brand some empathy, emotional resonance and personality – along with personality traits people can get behind and have a connection to: likeability, fun, humor, friendliness.

That STILL works in modern brand marketing – it always has done, because it’s hardwired into us as people to emotionally connect with personalities.

So, let’s understand this brand marketing psychology better. Let’s look at some of the best examples of amazing brand mascots that have stood the test of time, before leaping forward and looking at some of the best modern brand mascots doing exceptional marketing work today.

THREE of the best brand mascots in history

You’ll know and most likely love these mascots, and there’s a reason they’re still going as strong as ever today. So, let’s start at the top.

1. Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

Is Santa Claus the greatest brand mascot of all time? Controversial question? Maybe, but there’s a lot of evidence that shows how Coca-Cola advertising helped to cement what we now see as the quintessential Santa. It’s a genius combination of the excitement and seasonal joy of Santa and Coca-Cola’s strong brand iconography. It also dates back a lot further than you might think.

According to the company, in 1931 it commissioned an illustrator to create a Santa (there was no consistent Santa caricature then) for its upcoming Christmas campaign.

The illustrator drew inspiration from the poem we know as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, originally written in 1822, to create what we all now identify as Santa Claus – a jolly gentleman with rosy cheeks, a snow-white beard and a gleam in his eye. The company continued to evolve the character throughout the following decades, with the very same illustrator creating his final version in 1964.

Since then, every child who’s drawn the great man has reached for the crayon in Coca-Cola’s iconic red. And the soft-drink brand has been irreversibly linked to the season of giving, camaraderie, family, good-will and the “most wonderful time of the year”. Brand marketing at its finest!

Coca-Cola and Santa brand mascot engagement example | UneeQ Blog

2. Colonel Sanders

We already alluded to our favourite fried-chicken magnate, but we didn’t talk about why Colonel Sanders is such an effective mascot.

It’s worth pointing out that he was a real person (but not a real colonel) and the image we see on KFC products is a stylized likeness of the man himself. But while many might see him as the friendly face on signs outside every store, the company has always made efforts to keep the Colonel modern and relevant.

For one, he’s been played by actors such as Jim Gaffigan, Reba McEntire and Ray Liotta who all put their own humorous twist on his likeness.

Speaking of twists, KFC even published a dating video game called “I Love You, Colonel Sanders!” where players try to romance a version of the mascot that’s been stylised as an anime character. It might not be mouse-clickin’ good, but it’s fun and quirky – two personality traits you might not otherwise relate to a 70-year-old company.

3. Tony the Tiger

Brand mascots don’t need to be human to be effective influencers. Tony the Tiger can attest that animated animals can be just as GGRRREAT!

Entering his eighth decade of service, Tony was actually voted for by the general public when Kellogg’s first launched Frosted Flakes in 1952 and asked people to choose between four potential brand mascots (we can’t believe Newt the Gnu lost).

Over time, Tony’s appearance has continued to evolve, leaving his hand-drawn aesthetic for something much more modern and digital. The fact he’s now associated with the Kellogg’s brand as a whole and not just Frosted Flakes shows just how beloved he’s become. And his bellowing, happy and positive demeanor hasn’t hurt the brand any, either!

Kellogg's Tony the Tiger and Newt the Gnu | UneeQ Blog

THREE of the best MODERN brand mascots and ambassadors

Today, brand mascots can be and do so much more than those advertising personalities of the past. We’ve showcased some of the finest, beginning with a lizard close to our hearts.

1. Martin the Geico Gecko

So far we’ve only looked at examples for mascots selling goods (often to kids), but do they work for services (and adults) too? Martin the GEICO Gecko says absolutely – in a cheeky British accent, no less.

While brands look at how to thrive in the metaverse, GEICO has already built the Geckoverse – a world much like our own but in which cheeky and charming animated geckos can live their best lives.

GEICO is one of the best examples of a successful modern brand mascot, embracing today’s technologies and trends. How many other mascots are doing Twitter Q&As? How many maintain an Instagram account with a complete commitment to them being a real, living, talking lizard? How many mascots post about their dog pal, Tucker, just because?

It helps that Martin’s recognisable voice and cheeky personality is the polar opposite of what people would normally expect from an insurance company. It’s a likeable personality people can relate to, while his CGI styling suit the modern era of brand marketing.

Geico brand mascot engagement example | UneeQ Blog

2. Duolingo's Zari – among others

Duolingo customers will instantly be able to recognise the brand’s green owl, Duo, who wells up in tears when you lose all your hearts on the education app. But Duo is only one of many characters used by Duolingo as a kind of community for personality-based engagement.

Not only does the cast of personalities role-play scenarios to help you learn a new language, they’re marketing personalities, too.

Take Zari, for instance. As well as teaching you to speak Spanish, and dancing with joy when you succeed in your class, Zari will send you push notifications to make sure you maintain your streak. And she does it with personality to make it mean more – to make it more engaging and human. It turns out she’s a huge BTS fan, and is very supportive of you achieving your goals at the same time.

After all, who says brand mascots should only be used in advertising. If they’re so good at the top of the funnel, why not use the same engaging tactics throughout the rest of the customer journey, too?

It’s just one of many examples that make Duolingo an interactive educational experience, while being powered by emotional content – like all the best classrooms are.

Duolingo brand mascot engagement example | UneeQ Blog

3. Jake from State Farm

We recently obsessed over how Jake from State Farm was a perfect fit for the metaverse, but let us focus more broadly on the human mascot for a minute.

Jake is an everyman – obvious by his beige khakis. He’s also become a mascot whose reach extends beyond just insurance advertisements. Prime example, Jake exists as a character in the recent NBA 2K22 video game, where he’ll chat with your character and give you a fresh new set of clothes.

It’s an interaction that exists beyond selling insurance (you can’t buy insurance in the game). And it further positions Jake as a modern mascot – memeable, self-deprecating at times, self-aware and in touch with today’s culture.

So should you create a brand mascot? Well, not so fast

Although many brand mascots have an amazing legacy, and great potential to move the marketing needle, only 4% of ads use mascots today.

While brand mascots are created and owned by companies as intellectual property, brand ambassadors are “borrowed” brand personalities doing largely similar jobs today.

Brands now show their humanity through influencers and brand ambassadors – people and celebrities who can lend their personalities to reinforce the brand. It adds extra authenticity, because it’s a real person, instead of the brand building that personality outright.

To get a sense of the scale of these changes, just look at the influencer market, which in 2021 became worth $13.8 billion worldwide. It’s a huge number on its own, but consider how it has doubled since 2019. Even virtual influencers have started to gain traction, further modernizing the marketing medium.

The influencer/ambassador components of brand marketing include the same psychology of brand mascots – the empathy, the excitement, the brand synergy and the emotional impact of their mascot predecessors.

The only thing is: they’re still not very interactive, are they?

Entering the age of interaction with digital humans

In keeping with the modern marketing world, any mascot, influencer, CEO, founder, ambassador or other personality can now be digitized and made accessible at any point in the customer journey.

Just think what that means for these personalities and the customer experience:

  • People are already holding Q&As with the GEICO Gecko, but what if they could ask questions of Martin in real time, speaking with an expressive virtual brand mascot?
  • What if that digital version of Jake from State Farm answered their insurance questions via video chat and helped them buy a policy right there and then.
  • What if Tony the Tiger helped to teach children (any number of children) about healthy food choices with fun, open-ended dialog?
  • What if a digital version of Albert Einstein existed who could quiz you on science, and teach you about his life and accomplishments? Well, that one actually exists.

Digital humans win marketing use cases make all of those scenarios possible today, creating interactions – not just transactions – that are so much more engaging.

In fact, our interactive Digital Einstein ambassador, borrowing the great scientist’s personality, impacted our entire funnel. You can chat to him below for a little showcase into what’s possible.

While not everyone can launch the next Santa Claus, brands can focus on a new type of innovation using many of the same tactics. Digital human brand experiences are making marketing more personable, interactive and engaging – and they’ll play a huge role in helping brands exist in the metaverse, too.