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Why do we fear clowns? – the art of chosing the right brand character for your brand

Recommendations for brand character strategies:

  • Pick your brand character wisely – the character must be a reflection of your brand values. Beware of the possible connotations a certain type of person, animal or object might represent
  • Adapt to change – society, trends, your product – everything changes and these changes needs to be reflected in your brand character
  • Kill your darling – if your brand character does not bring value or is even hurting your brand, it is time for retirement

If you are about to create a brand character for your brand, you might be wondering what kind of creature suits you best. Exemplified by the clown this article focuses on important things to consider in the process.

Is your brand as strong as an elephant, could it be illustrated by a energetic boy, is it free like a bird? The process of designing of brand character concept is full of choices.

You might have the idea of choosing a clown as your brand character since your product is targeted kids. A great idea since clowns are funny and invented to entertain kids.

However, the clown is a difficult choice, especially in the wake of the recent global problems with scary clown pranks. However, being scared of clowns was also a problem long before the pranks got popular.

The clown is also controversial in relation to marketing where for example McDonalds has had their challenges with Ronald McDonald because of the ambiguous connotations he evokes.

The challenges with clowns puts focus on more than one important issue regarding brand character design:

First – you need to choose your character wisely and you have to adjust your marketing strategy if you realize for example that clowns are problematic – like McDonalds have done with Ronald: He has been given a break until the scary clown hysteria passes. In other words when times, trends, politics change the brand character needs to change too. When things change, consider if the character needs to change behavior, looks or even retire.

Second focus is looking more closely at why we fear clowns. Because this leads us to another point – the importance of the face. If the image of a clown – that is supposed to look happy, smiling and inviting – can scare us as much as is does, what does that say about the face.

The face is one of the most important tool for us humans to communicate with – we create facial expressions and make sound to be understood. Vice versa, we interpret expressions and sounds that are communicated to us through the face. We also have to rely on our ability to recognize people and to tell friend from foe mainly through the face.

  • The distorted scares us

The clown is a human being – but with exaggerated facial expressions, body language and for example shoes. The clown is a strange mixture of the well-known and the unknown – and this ambiguity makes us insecure. Our experience tells us that no one is always smiling so a constantly smiling face is not natural and creates cognitive dissonance in us. Cognitive dissonance is a kind of mental stress experienced when someone holds contradictory beliefs. The distorted look and behavior of the clown is the opposite of authentic

  • Scary clowns look like predators – which we instinctively fear

scaryclown

  • The mask makes the clown unpredictable.

The main part of our communication happens via the face, but a face that is covered by a mask or heavy makeup cannot be read. When we cannot be certain of a person’s state of mind or intensions, it makes us uncomfortable.

Article (in Danish) about scary clowns.

 

Many months of preparing

First I researched for years and years and began this blog, then I wrote for more than six months, prof-read and prepared illustrations, which kept me so busy that there was little time for this blog. But now it is all finally coming together: right now the graphic designer is creating the layout- and this spring my book will be published. Keep and eye out it is coming soon 😉

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This is the first version of the cover page.

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Example of a homemade illustration for the book. A member of the target group – the hipster designer type.

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Preparing illustrations.

I have hand-drawn a large part of the illustrations myself. A surprisingly big challenge in the preparations for this book has been asking for permissions to use real brands characters in the book. Many big brands have said no, but fortunately some said yes.

innocent

 

 

Elephants and donkeys – the battle of the election mascots

Democrat and republican candidates are currently competing for the precidency in the US – and we hear a lot about Donald, Hillary and Bernie etc. But it is also a fight between two mascots: A donkey and an elephant!

donkeyRepublicanlogo.svg

Even political parties have brand characters. The democrats have a donkey – the republican an elephant. And this relates perfectly to the reasons why many brands use characters in the first place.

In my study, I am generally using the term brand character about the figures and creatures, because I think it is more telling and broader than the word mascot. But often the terms brand character and mascot are used as synonyms.

Mascot however has an additional connotation and meaning – because the word  mascot originally is to be understood as an item of magical power. A mascot is a person, an animal or an object that brings good luck. A mascot can be compared to the use of an icon, a charm, a religious relic or a talisman and is in your possession, worn or carried to protect you. In that context it makes perfect sense that often even the smallest local sports team or club has a mascot helping and cheering them to victory.

In this case the symbolic totem qualities of donkeys and elephants are hopefully transferred to the fighting politicians.

Democrats have used the donkey since 1828 because of its strong-willed and stubborn nature. It is smart and brave.

The elephant is republican and is supposed to symbolize the strong and dignified.

Read more about the American political mascots and their origin here:

Think Design

Fact monster

Look me in the eyes

eyes

What happens when people look each other in the eyes?

Do you get a glimpse of the other person’s soul? Do you feel closer attached? Do you build trust?

If you think of the opposite situation, the feeling that something is ‘wrong’ can grow if people avoid eye contact: Maybe they are shy, maybe not willing to tell the truth, are indifferent about you and the situation or not mentally present.

On an interpersonal level, a lot of information can come from the gaze: Obtaining eye contact is often perceived as an invitation and as a sign of self-confidence.

But what about the effect of eye contact in the world of brand characters?

Is eye contact as important when it comes to brand characters as is between real life people?

OPTUS_Ollie_01

 

2010-singapore-youth-olympic-mascot

A study of brand characters on cereal boxes done by Cornell University Food and Brand Lab shows that cereal producers clearly think that eye contact matters. On cereal boxes marketed for kids the gaze of the characters on boxes in 57 out of 86 cases are directed in an angle matching the young audience when passing by the shelves in the supermarket. On products directed towards adults the angle of the eyes are directed at a higher level.

As a result of that observation the researchers turned to the consumers and tested what cereal brand they trusted and felt the closest connection to. Trust and connection rose up to 28% when the character looked them straight in the eyes.

Utzgirl

A recommendation for brand character designers who want to build trust and brand loyalty is to direct the gaze of the character at your target group since we seem to find reassurance and honesty in eye contact.

 

Celebrating Face with Tears of Joy

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On the occasion of The Oxford Dictionaries revealing the Word of the Year not to be a word, but a picture – the emoji Face with Tears of Joy –  I think it is time to consider the good old question: is a picture worth a thousand words?

However the answer is complex.  Some claim that the sense of sight is more important to us human beings than any other sense. Others says that it is an oversimplification and that the way our senses influence each other is yet to be discovered. And mayby it depends on the type of person you are.

“We are visual creatures,” says E. Clea Warburton, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Bristol. “Our brain has got more cortex devoted to processing visual information compared to that from our other senses. We are programmed to be encoding and retrieving visual information much more so than auditory information.”

What I think is interesting about the election of the ‘Word’ of the Year in relation my project is the increased focus on pictures, visual language and faces. Faces are trending.

What is it about these faces? It is true, that it is faster to send an emoji than writing: I laugh so much it makes me cry , LOL or LMAO.

Seing that little laughing face has another kind of impact on us, than just the written words. It appeals to us in a fundamental way because we are evolutionary programmed to react to the face.

  • Did you know that a new born baby less than an hour old can trace a picture of a face longer than anything else?
  • Did you know that face-blindness i.e. the inability to remember and recognize faces is a serious handicap and that it is called Prosopagnosia.
  • Did you know that a happy face can comfort us, and that we are attracted to smiles and positive attitudes?

 

I don’t know the background for choosing the Face with Tears of Joy – and not Face with Heart shaped Eyes or Winking Face emojis. But I recently read that for us to interpret a face as being truly happy and not just smiling out of politeness or faking a smile there is at least two features that must be present:

A joyous smile (a truly happy smile) also called a Duchenne smile is when the muscles around the eyes are activated. That is precisely what the Face with Tears of Joy is doing which is different from most other smiling emoji.

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And of course we are communicating and selling by means of happy smiling faces when using characters in branding.

Here the recent example of a smiling Band-Aid that will comfort you if you are in pain, afraid or feeling lonely.

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Tröstisar Tøjdyrsplaster.

 

When you eat characters…

BBC has spotted a new trend: creating food faces. But the trend is not just about creating food-faces for your own amusement or to persuade kids to eat their dinner. People are theming their Instagram accounts to share photos of food-faces. And where does this trend boom? – in Asia of course and Japan in particular. It’s so kawaii!

angry-birds-bento-box

A Google search on Character Bento gives you a surprisingly creative and colorful result. A bento box is a Japanese lunch box usually containing a homecooked meal of rice, meat, fish and vegetables. Often carefully arranged to look appetizing. The food face trend is taking this tradition to a new level.

And yes food that looks like characters is common in Japan, and a lot of other places:

Foodwithaface

Me eating cake in Tokyo.

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Character macarons

But it’s not a new thing to combine food and faces – and publishing the result. In the renaissance the Italian artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo specialised in the same concept when he excelled in painting faces made out of fruit, vegetables etc.

archimboldo arcimboldo

When we are seeing faces in the food like that, artists and foodies are relying on a phenomenon called pareidolia.

Wikipedia defines pareidolia as:  a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.

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This is not a gif-animation of a face talking – it is a gif-animation of two fried eggs!

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And so this trend is yet another example of how obsessed we are with faces and how powerful the face is as an archetypical image. We simply can’t help seeing the  familiar pattern of the face. It is almost compulsive.

And of course a lot of food branding is relying on the combination of food and faces

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Mel the Milk-Bite from Kraft

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Heinz Tomato man

The golden age of American brand characters

A World of Characters: Advertising Icons from the Warren Dotz Collection from Jan Sturmann on Vimeo.

In this video, there is a rare chance to look into the past and see examples of characters that once populated ads in America. The collection was exhibited this year in San Francisco. And the collector is an important part of the research and data collection of brand characters.

Warren Dotz is a unique person in the strange realm of brand characters. He calls himself a pop culture archaeologist. He is specialized in American advertising; he is publishing books about classic American brand characters, and has a huge collection of brand figurines and other historic material.

Bonus info: Dotz is also a dermatologist with a clinic in Berkeley.

WarrenDotzbooks

Examples of Dotz’s books.

If you are looking for material on brand characters – as I have been – and only found Dotz’s books, you would think that the development of brand characters stopped in 1985. And peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s.

I don’t think that’s the case. The problem is that Dotz is almost the only one collecting and publishing books about brand characters – and since he is specialising in a certain time and country – there is obvious limits to his study.

What is also interesting in the video is the strong emotional reactions people have to seeing all the faces – some familiar and nostalgic others are just reacting to the universal appeal in happy faces.

I especially adore the japanese girl who loves the cuteness and has visited the exhibition three times.

More bonus info that made me wonder:

Aunt Jemima is famous and still popular representing pancake related breakfast products, she has been redesigned several times to look more modern.  Much has been said about this old brand character (dating back to the 1890’s) and the connotations in relation to slavery and afro-american rights,

auntjemima

but did you know that Jemima once had a male counterpart called Uncle Mose, and that he was invented just to create salt AND pepper shakers shaped as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose as an advertising premium (Dotz and Morton, What a character!, p.10)

But imagine a subordinate ‘career’ like that. Standing in the shadow of the salt shaking Aunt Jemina. Talk about 15 minutes of fame.

unclemose

 

The view from here

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My growing collection of brand characters populating the windowsill.

I am right now in a phase where I need to decide on different things regarding the scope and outcome of my project.

For example:

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Is the outcome of the project a book? Yes, I think so, but:

bigbook

smallbook

What kind of book?

How many pages? Is it a textbook intended for education, is it a designbook for connoisseurs?

Will anyone publish it? How do I find a publishing company? Can we publish ourselves?

Who is the target audience?

targetaudience

I imagine to create a kind of cookbook for designers, marketing people and brands – where they can find inspiration, guidelines, and arguments on why to have a brand character.

I imagine it to be richly illustrated but also to have depth and serious theoretical content.

I imagine it to be about 200-300 pages long.

cookbook

Why do the Japanese love Irma?

DK-JP_linkedin

Japan is far away from  Denmark.You can’t – almost – get any further away. As a child I always wondered why the Japanese didn’t fall of the face of the earth; I imagined that they must be standing with their heads down on the other side of earth – because clearly my head was up.

In many ways Japan is far away from Denmark and Danish culture. Just think about language, food, behavior etc. So do we have anything in common at all?

Well yes, we do! A girl called Irma!

irma

For several years the Japanese has been in love with Irma. It has been reported how tourists ask for the local Irma-stores when visiting Copenhagen – and how they are buying stuff with her image on. Especially canvas totes.

Irma (called the Irma-girl or Irma-pigen in Danish) is an icon in Danish marketing and something that is regarded almost like national heritage i Denmark. She is the mascot of the supermarket chain Irma, that has anorganic focus and specializes in high quality products.

Irma is 108 years old and has been re-designed to her current look several times during her life.

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irma-udvikling

And now here in November 2015 the Irma chain is making a promotion in Japan selling Irma and Irma-girl-accessories.

Why?

But if the Japanese are so different from us, why do they love our Irma?

mascots_jp

When you visit Japan you can’t help noticing that they are crazy about characters – especially brand characters. Much more than we are used to in Denmark. It seems like every region, bigger city, tourist attraction has a mascot (which is a concept called yuru-chara) but also food brands, restaurants and many many products in general has a brand character.

The concept of kawaii (= cute) is japanese. They are experts in cuteness and are celebrating the childish and youthful.

A common image in Japanese anime culture and cosplay is the schoolgirl look.

school-girl

And the Japanese love to wear these cute characters – so accessoires (teddy bears, prints, pins etc) are big business is Japan.

Japanese also celebrate classic minimalistic Scandinavian design – they for example adore Danish furniture design. Scandinavian design and classic Japanese design has very much in common in the formal style language.

Japanese love Irma because:

Irma is a young girl. She is innocent, a bit shy, and looking away from us.

Irma is stylish; she is simple, but elegant. She is classic in her colours and her clothes – without being old fashioned. Irma is Scandinavian in her style.

And you can buy totes, biscuit tins etc (japanese love sweet stuff) with her image on.

She is everything a Japanese girl could dream of.

tote

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