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Companies giving icons more character



Published: Mon, October 2, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Brand icons are redesigned to capture their 'inner struggle.'

HARTFORD COURANT

Does the Jolly Green Giant ever ponder his place in the General Mills marketing machine?

Probably not. His is an iconic role, which places him firmly in the tradition of brand characters.

Compare him, then, with the Geico Gecko.

Perhaps the most self-aware of the brand characters, the Gecko speaks openly of his celebrity role and plainly acknowledges that his job is to get people to buy Geico insurance. While Mr. Clean would likely balk at identifying himself as a pitchman, the Gecko is happy to.

"It just seems that this self-awareness helps lower people's barriers to your message," says Steve Bassett at the Martin Agency, which created the Gecko.

"When advertisers have respect for the viewer, they'll say, 'This is an ad, and we know you know it's an ad. Let's drop the pretense.'"

Expect to see more savvy brand characters, says David Altschul of Character, an Oregon-based company that specializes in developing and reviving such icons.

A new breed of brand character is necessary to keep up with an audience hyper-aware of marketing. Other signs that we are in a new age of brand characters have recently shown up on TV -- Travelocity's Roaming Gnome and the mute king of Burger King commercials. Both seem to exist only to mock the idea of brand characters and the earnestness of such company icons as the Pillsbury Doughboy. You might even call them "meta-brand-characters."

Evolving

The irony-laden makeover is the latest development in the long evolution of spokes-characters. They started out as illustrations on a product's packaging. The advent of television didn't do much to flesh them out. The new medium was such a huge phenomenon that a character just had to show up on it to get the word out.

"All of that is over," Altschul says. "The media is fragmented. The audience is grown up, much more skeptical and less willing to believe whatever you tell them."

Today's characters have story lines. Indeed, "story" and "conflict" are among the most oft-repeated words for the folks at Character.

Altschul's partner, Jim Hardison, writes in License magazine that "inner conflict is key" to a brand character. "The inner struggle -- that is key to emotionally engaging characters."

A deeper look

A successful story, marketers say, is one that speaks to a fundamental truth about the human condition. It's no longer enough for Sonny to tell us that he's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs; we need to understand the inner demons that drive the poor bird close to insanity.

"I think the trick is always to make sure that the flaws are authentic ones that the audience can identify with -- then you're in pretty good territory," Altschul says. "What every character needs now is a deeper sense of story and clear connection with the authentic story of the brand."

Such issues are worked out in "Character camp," a three-day off-site retreat Altschul and company take with a new client to work out a character's story lines and motivations.

The philosophy seems to be working. Character has worked on modernizing such revered brand icons as Snap, Crackle & amp; Pop, the Lucky Charms leprechaun and the Trix rabbit.

Taking it seriously

If you need any further evidence that brand characters have taken hold of our imaginations, talk to the people at Planters.

As of this week, more than 100,000 have weighed in on Mr. Peanut's new look. At www.planters.com, voters can elect to give Mr. Peanut either a pocket watch, a bow tie, cufflinks, or to keep him just the way he is. Results will be revealed next year.

A good brand character can be a company's success or failure. The folks at Martin Agency are well aware of the power of a good character. That's why they've put so much work into retooling the Geico Gecko into a recognizably human reptile.

The Martin Agency is unusual in its openness about its character. Generally, companies are very guarded about their brand characters. Planters was relatively stingy with information about the inner conflict that drives Mr. Peanut (though they did tell us that his first name is Percy).

Even at the Martin Agency, they're careful to keep some of the Gecko's mystery. People have suggested that the gecko's family enter the picture, but Bassett is doubtful.

"I don't think he needs any of those trappings," he says. "And we don't want to give him a name. He's just 'The Gecko.'"




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