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Brands: Personified
By: Beth M. Wood
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The latest trend in social?  Personification. Brands such as Stubhub, Hormel Foods, and Kraft have created characters that they believe personify their brand. The thinking behind this, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, is that consumers would rather communicate with cartoons than with the brand itself “Consumers,” says Jeff Charney (CEO of Progressive) in this article, “are less likely to have a conversation with a logo, or someone from the social or PR team.” Charney is correct. But he’s also not using a talking car to reach consumers. 

A few years ago, when the recession hit hard, brands began reverting to “vintage” packaging: Laundry detergent, cereal, and even soft drinks were bringing back the colors and fonts used in the '50s and '60s. The idea here was to invoke in consumers’ minds a simpler, happier time. Is there a place for cartoon characters in marketing? Sure! Remember “Hey Kool-Aid” and Tony the Tiger (They’re Grreeeaat!)? Kids’ marketing at its finest. While characters like these are fine for kids, the consumers these brands were targeting have all grown up. And to assume that they are more willing, more capable of talking with, listening to, and socializing with a cartoon character is, frankly, offensive.

Granted, some brands are successful with personification. Take Geico’s Gecko, for example. It most certainly works for this brand. Not because they’ve personified their brand with a cute little animal (although that’s true enough) but because they’ve captured the perfect equation: Personality + voice + message. And this, marketers, is the key. If you’ve got that winning combination, your brand voice can come from a person, a box, an animal — doesn’t matter. Because consumers aren’t identifying with the thing, they’re identifying with the personality. Even the Aflac duck, while memorable, isn’t someone I want to socialize with online. He doesn’t have a personality like that Australian chap. 

Speaking of Progressive — this is another example of a company doing it right. They chose a personality (not a cartoon, mind you) to represent their brand across all mediums. That personality has taken to social and has quite a following — not just because she’s recognizable, but because she has a distinct personality. She is the face and voice of the brand to which consumers can relate. 

Consumers today are wiser, more informed. In fact, social, and the tools at their disposal, from smartphones to iPads, have put them in the driver’s seat. No longer do brands reach out to consumers, but more and more consumers are finding and choosing brands based on peer recommendations, online research, and real value. Retail has become a place for consumers to “trial” brands and products. They stop by a store, and then go online to compare prices, check reviews, and talk to their peers. All this before making a purchase.

So using a character in the hopes that this “softer sell” will fool consumers is just child’s play. They’re smarter than that. Let’s appeal to their common sense; their ability to research, listen, and make an informed decision. Let’s treat them like adults, shall we?

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About the Author
Beth M. Wood is VP, Promotion & Events at SJI, Inc., a full-service marketing agency, where she also serves as Social Voice (and butterfly). As a writer and 14-year veteran of the industry, she has a unique left-brain, right-brain perspective on all things marketing. Follow along @SJI_Inc.
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