The Potential and Peril of Giving a Brand a Human Face

The workload of fictional characters has changed since the (lonely) days of the Maytag repairman. “Early on, there was one consideration when you were creating a brand spokesperson: How does the character embody, exemplify or advance the brand’s value?” said Steve Gardner, a founder and former president of the ad agency Gardner Nelson & Partners. “You wanted a character with particular knowledge that made their endorsement of the product relevant.”

It would stand to reason, for example, that Madge would know what made hands soft because she was a manicurist. And it made perfect sense that as an innkeeper, Sara Tucker would have the skinny on the best way to enhance a dessert.

But now, Mr. Gardner said, characters are being conjured less as experts and more as what he calls brand-mnemonics: mouthpieces who will be overwhelmingly associated with a company and its products.

It can be a winning approach. “When someone says, ‘O.K., now I’m ready to shop for insurance,’ they go into their brain and come up with the top three names they can remember,” Mr. Nolan said. “To do that you need to be simple and memorable, and characters can help with that.”

But it’s a complicated process, said Allen Adamson, the founder of BrandSimple, a consulting firm. “You have to cast characters right and build them right,” he said. “They’re a big-ticket item, and you have to let audiences get to know them. You need time and money, and marketers are short on both.”

And however well conceived, characters can be something of a mixed blessing. “The more successful they are at communicating one message about your product or service, the harder it is when you want them to communicate another message,” said Peggy Masterson Kalter, the founder and chief executive of Masterson/SWOT Team, a consulting firm. “People will see Flo and think, ‘Oh, I already know what she’s about,’ and tune out, not appreciating that Progressive has a message about a new service or new insurance coverage.”

As Mr. Nolan put it, “The best characters are created to make a specific point about a product or service, and when the point changes, it’s hard to get them to evolve.”

He cited the example of the gnome once used by the website Travelocity to encourage people to embrace adventure and see the world. “And as the brand evolved we wanted the gnome to be more of a travel expert,” Mr. Nolan said. “It was very challenging, and I don’t know if it…

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