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


  • 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.



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!


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

Why do the Japanese love Irma?


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!


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.



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


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


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.


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.


Name dropping

Names are an important part of identity – but many brand characters are anonymous:


The apis bull representing Novo Nordisk – does it have a name?


The Starbuck mermaid?


Or this girl representing the company Minilån.

But on the other hand, many brand characters DO have names, we just don’t know them:

Did you know that the cute Twitter bird is called Larry


That the guy representing Pringles is called Julius Pringles


Or that the mascot for Linux is called Tux


The antihero character!

A hero is a character, that convension (whoever that is…) has desided has qualities like courage, strength, idealism, morality etc.

An antihero is of course the opposite, ie. a character that lacks the normal heroic traits and is known for being unable, mediocre, weak, ridiculous etc. In other words the antihero is much more human. And in a way more real.

Examples of antiheros in film and literature and real life could be:


The overweight panda Po from the animation film Kung Fu Panda. Po is chosen to be master of Kung fu despite his obvius physical challenges – and seemingly un-coolness.

Or perhaps this guy – who is highly antiheroic in many of the parts that he is playing:


Or a character that all danes know: Gummi-Tarzan, who is bullied by stronger kids and also by his father for being a wimp.


In a brand mascot context, there are numeruos brand characters with overwhelmingly positive hero-like qualities:




But there are also brand characters who get famous for being antiheroic. Take for example the former brand character for the danish railroad company DSB, called Harry:


Harry is clumsy, stupid and since he is very much in love with his old car, and against travelling in trains, he is the ironic contrast to the customers in DSB trains. Harry appeared in DSB adds for eleven years and was a great succes for DSB. Harry managed to change people’s attitude towards the company which was a great achievement.


Another example of an anti-hero character representing a brand is Aleksandr Orlov. Aleksandr is a russian meerkat – he runs the website Compare the Meerkat and is very annoyed by people who mistakedly find his website instead of the website ‘compare the market’ where you can compare car insurances. Which is the real sender of the Aleksandr Orlov campaign.

Aleksandr is an aristocrat, he is interested in literature, has a strong russian accent and is a bit of a snob. He is surrounded by a set of characters for example his emplyee Vassily. You can meet Aleksandr online since he is both tweeting and has a facebook profile.


Like Harry, Aleksandr is not designed to be likable, positive and friendly, but is a succes because he is comical, an exagerated charicature and the whole campaign is an ironic approach to the general problem people have when spelling URL’s.

Character Trademarks


A book filled with pictures and examples of mainly american characters. And a little bit of text on character design.

Arguments for why a character survives:

‘characters have the ability to evoke emotional resposes, to stick in your memories in a way that no abstract logo can’ p.7

I am asking myself if that counts for all characters (propably not) and what distinguish a good character?

‘They instill confidence in products and evoke in the mind of the consumer those all-important thoughts of trust, integrity and honesty. Faith in corporations may be shaky, but our belief in these symbols persists’

But how do they do that? Just by being a character?

On anthropomorphism:

‘Objects given human qualities … are referred to as anthropomorphic forms. Their human-like qualities make them more accessible, or appealing to the viewer’

Meet Mr. Product


A book by: Warren Dotz and Masud Husain

I am currently researching on why a brand (and/or a product? – can it be both – my collegue is asking me that question, so I am thinking about that distinction) should have a character designed for them. When is it relevant? What considerations comes before going into the design fase?

In that regard Meet mr. Product is an overview of a long list of examples of characters in american advertising the last 100 years (but centered around the marketing boom in the 1960’s – called the golden age of ad-characters) and they are grouped in categories: food, drinks, kid’s stuff, dining, technology, home, automotive + personal & leisure.

So the book gives an overview of characters that stayed with us (and the ones that was forgotten or abandoned) – and the reason for them to be able to stand the test of time is interesting.

Give a product a face, arms, and legs, and suddenly it becomes more appealing and emotionally accessible – more human. p. 14

At the same time I am also looking at how characters are designed?

And sometimes (but seldom) it can seem a bit without cohence:

Like for example John Deere and the reason for their deer logo: ‘obviously, is a simple play on the inventor’s name’ – so yes that is one approach: I am called Deere lets put a deer in our logo allthough our products have very little to do with deer.


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