A Case for Characters

When I worked at Leo Burnett in the eighties and nineties it was often referred to as the “critter agency.” We were well-known for personifying brands with the likes of Tony the Tiger, the Keebler Elves, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Who could forget Charlie the Tuna or the Maytag Repairman?

Effective as these characters were, a lot of creatives didn’t want anything to do with them. It was tough finding people who relished doing Doughboy ads. They weren’t considered cool or celebrated by creative leadership. They didn’t win awards.

As digital media exploded, these characters became less and less in vogue. But I’d like to make a case for why brands can benefit from proper development, care and nurturing of a character. Now more than ever.

Case in point: We know a freshly-minted college grad who went to work at a social media agency and got assigned a peanut butter brand. Her job was to populate the brand’s Facebook page with content. Her performance was judged by the number of Likes the page received and how many customers interacted with her posts. At a certain point, she became frustrated. There were only so many peanut butter related fun facts, recipes, calories, carbs and contests she could come up with. Eventually, she hit the wall.

This problem is not limited to people trying to populate an insatiable Facebook page or Twitter feed with content. It’s the curse of any advertiser that limits their messages to product features alone. There is a finite number of them, no matter how great your product happens to be. But what if that peanut butter brand was wrapped in a story that was personified by a character? Suddenly the possibilities — and potential to be remembered — begin to grow.

Developing a character depends on a lot more than drawing a cute little animated figure. You need to create some tension. Give your hero a mission, purpose and role that is intertwined with your brand or product. What are the barriers to achieving his goal? What happens if he attains it? What are the consequences if he doesn’t? Answer these questions and you begin to build a real property with enough dimension and depth to live over time.

Nobody does this better than the producers behind big blockbuster movies. We encourage the people we work with to Go Hollywood. That means channeling your inner Steven Spielberg to come up with an idea that’s going to bring you into intimate contact with the people you want to reach. You’ve got to be able to describe your character and his story in a compelling and memorable sentence or two. Our friends in LA-LA Land call these loglines. Here’s a great example:

“A police chief with a phobia of open water battles a shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains against a greedy town council that insists that the beaches remain open.”

Thirty-two words that translated into one of the biggest film franchises and cultural icons of all time.

As more and more marketers shift the balance from traditional media and embrace the efficiency and personal nature of content marketing, clients often come to us with very specific requests. “I need a Facebook Page.” “I need a Pinterest board.” “I need a blog.” And so on. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes there are better tools for helping them reach their goals. In any case, what they need first is an extendable property. One that can make them instantly recognizable, travel across different media, and go beyond transaction to create a lasting emotional connection. That’s where a character can be king. Just ask the Geico gecko.

Canteen Communications

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