Why mascots work

By Sam Milne
Whether they’re based on people, animals or objects, mascots make short work of communicating complex brand messages, sometimes without even having a face.

In a pretty mountain town nestled amongst the cliffs and dense green forests of Japan’s alpine Gifu region, a tourist is currently handing over a few golden coins to a friendly shopkeeper in exchange for a little faceless red figurine. The Sarubobo – originally a good luck charm, made by mothers from left-over cloth for their children – has become a symbol for the little mountain town, adorning shop fronts, represented in statues and appearing in almost every colour imaginable throughout Takayama.

It’s been theorised that the blank face of the Sarubobo allows the owner to imagine it’s expression, seeing it as happy when they are happy and sad when they are sad, creating an empathetic connection between the owner and the amulet. It’s a stark example of exactly why mascots work. Their simple bodies and limited expressions, allow the audience to connect empathetically to them without the need to mentally deconstruct complex messaging systems.

Of-course not everywhere in the world is the mascot loved as much as it is in Japan. But even in the relatively conservative landscape of Australian advertising we’ve seen some beloved and long lived characters emerge, such as Freddo, Miss Redheads and Chesty Bonds. But outside of specific products, Australia has had a pretty tame history with mascots, usually limited to using them to appeal to children during sports events – which of course they excel at – yet many marketing managers remain at a loss at what to do with their character.

When you know their strengths, then suddenly the mascot becomes a powerful tool for change. Recently Fluid worked with Barwon Water on their summer campaign. Barwon Water needed help changing visitors and residents’ behaviours, asking them to carefully consider their water usage during summer. Drip and Drop were born from the need to develop an empathetic way of communicating and reinforcing, positive water saving behaviour whilst calling out negative behaviours. They highlighted the do's and don'ts to conserve and preserve water during the peak use months. 

The Save Water Summer Campaign (SWSC) could have been created with more literal examples of what 'to do' and 'not to do' to save water, however this formulaic approach has been done many times before. Fluid created Drip and Drop the SWSC mascots to be more expressive flexible and adaptive to a multitude of digital, print and physical environments. Much like Sarubobo, they create a persona which the audience can respond to without the need for photography. A far more visually engaging and distinctive campaign reinforcing positive actions by 'Drop' and reminding viewers to not be a 'Drip' and save water this summer.

The key to a powerful mascot is similar to any other successful brand symbol, using it often enough and consistently enough that it builds mental availability. It’s too often forgotten that while a marketing team have to see the same logo, colours and/or character every day, the consumer may only see your brand once a week, once a month or even once a year. It’s vital that consumers are able to quickly identify and connect all your different touchpoints together as they briefly notice your communication in the real, unrelenting world. And all that can be achieved – in some cases – without even having a face.