A few aisles later, chances are you’ll spot Betty Crocker, Kool-Aid Man, Elmer the Bull, Pillsbury Doughboy, Energizer Bunny and more.
And, of course, the characters aren’t just in stores. Colonel Sanders, Ronald McDonald and the Burger King are synonymous with fast-food chains. The Michelin Man sells tires. Geico Gecko, Aflac Duck and Flo from Progressive offer insurance.
Distinctive characters are tools brands use to create emotional connections with consumers and signal their personalities and key attributes — reliability, purity or humor, for example.
A recognizable character at the store can also be a visual shortcut for consumers who have endless choices, marketing experts say. In the complex insurance industry, for example, likeable and familiar characters can be used to convey information in a simple way.
Characters and mascots “are valuable as a memory prompt. They’re easy to process. You don’t have to commit any cognitive resources to reading product information, brand names or prices,” said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota. “You don’t have to give it a first thought, let alone a second thought.”
“When you have a character that’s well established and a mental shortcut, you’d be hard pressed to walk away,” said Britt Nolan, the president and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, the agency that developed Tony the Tiger, Pillsbury Doughboy and other iconic characters.
The rise of brand characters can be traced to the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, when food and consumer goods became mass-produced.
Prior to the 1870s, food and other household products were grown on family farms or available from a local grocer. There were no big national brands like we know today or national distribution networks.
Factory production — and railroads to transport goods — opened up the possibility for consumers to get packaged foods and products from distant factories.
But manufacturers needed ways to convince shoppers that these new factory-made products were safe.
Early brand characters were often grandmothers, cooks in white caps and aprons or young girls. This imagery was meant to be “connected with tradition, so that it wasn’t so jarring to be getting these factory-made products,” she said, as well as “cleanliness, so you wouldn’t worry if something was going to kill you.”
Other early brand characters were sometimes based on racist stereotypes of Black people and Native Americans, such as Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Uncle Ben’s rice, Rastus for Cream of Wheat and Land O’Lakes’ Native American maiden.
The influence of television
Brands soon turned to so-called “spokescharacters” and animals to distinguish their products.
Dogs, cows, bears, bulls and other animals also started to appear as mascots for brands, especially for snacks and foods that were aiming to appeal to kids.
The rise of television in the 1950s and early 1960s propelled these kinds of characters into the cultural mainstream. Advertisers had a captive audience watching these personalities develop during commercial breaks on popular series.
“You see a lot of characters appear when television advertising was new,” Nolan said. “TV advertising was trying to figure out how to be both informational and entertaining at the same time.”
Cigarettes and cereal boxes
But it takes time and investment to build a brand character. That’s harder today than it was when everyone was sitting at home watching TV commercials.
“Character development tends to be video-based and rely on a certain level of saturation,” Nolan said. “That doesn’t make sense for as many advertisers as it used to. You no longer own the consumer’s attention.”
Instead, many brands have turned to celebrity spokespeople, partnerships and social media influencers instead of launching new mascots.
One popular European grocery chain, Lidl, in 2020 removed characters from its cereal brands in the UK to limit “pester power” — children nagging their parents to buy sugary cereals emblazoned with their favorite characters.