Character design

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 ūüėČ


This is the first version of the cover page.


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


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.





Elephants and donkeys – the battle of the election mascots

Democrat and republican candidates are currently competing for the precidency in the US Рand 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 Рbecause 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


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?




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.


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.


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!


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:


Me eating cake in Tokyo.


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.


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



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


Mel the Milk-Bite from Kraft


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.


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‚Äôs 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,


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.



A rose by any other name would smell as sweet


In this project I am  challenged by terminology and definitions; what should I call the objects that I am studying. And I am not the only one, because when I read about characters and mascots, there is confusingly many terms and names. Are they:

Brand characters

Brand mascots

Adverticing characters

Brand icons

Trade characters

Adverticing spokes-creatures

Stephen Brown sums up the problems about defintions in his article: Animal house: Brand mascots, mascot brands and more besides

I like the term mascot, because that is easy to explain, whereas when you say brand characters you need to explain that it’s not ‘actors’ like Mickey Mouse; Kermit or Minions (unless they are¬†advertising something else than their¬†own movies). But on the other hand mascots tend to be associated more with sports (at least danes think so…)


But I guess that what matters is what something is, not what it is called.

a trade character is a fictional, animate being or animated object that has been created
for the promotion of a product, service or idea

Callcott and Lee, Establishing the Spokes-character in Academic Inquiry: Historical Overview and Framework for Defintion, Advances in Consumer Research 22, 1995.

So I am relying on Callcotts definition and have decided to call them brand characters and is thinking about changing the subtitle of my project to: why and how to design brand characters

But Brown is also pointing to another problem that has has been keeping me awake at night (well, not literally keeping me awake, but yes challenging me) because there seem to be different roles for brand characters or different ways to relate to their brand:

He distinguishes between (the first two categories being by far the most common and relevant distinctions for my study):

Brand animals, where the animal is more an attachment than an intergrated part of the brand



Classic brand mascots support the brand and is deeply integrated into culture and values in the brand in a loyal and faithfull way



Mascot brands – when the mascot is overshadowing the brand


Or even more rare: Animal brands Рwhen beasts become brands themselves


(did you know that Grumpy cat is a real cat known for it’s non-smiling facial features and is an internet celebrity with more than 7 million likes on Facebook! – and it has for example been on the cover of the Wall Street Journal)


The blessing of a new book


Last week a new book was delievered at my desk – and what a thrill. There are so few publications about character design in branding, but my new book is, and even better it is about one of my favourite subjects: japanese characters.

Title: Character design now. Effective characters in advertising, promotional tool, packages and logos.

My reaction must have been strong,¬†because¬†my colleague remarked: ‘It has been a long time since I’ve seen a person being so happy about a book’


Gif seen on Etlen

Flicking through the book gave many experiences. In Japan they are really very fund of characters. There is a character for every occation and brand.




And I can’t even read the book since it is written in japanese (luckily it mostly consists of pictures), but that left me wondering very much about what is going on in this last picture. Detail below:


The power of kawaii!


Kawaii? Say what? ¬†– You might respond. And what’s up with the puppy?

Don’t worry – it all makes sense. I’m only trying to make you feel better.

Kawaii is japanese and it means cute. And the concept of cuteness is an essential part of japanese culture. Originally kawaii is referring to the image of a radiant og blushing face. And can also be translated into:  to be loved.

The icon of cuteness is Hello Kitty Рand this year she has been 40 years in the business of kawaii! And she stronger than ever Рbecause of her cuteness. Looking at Kitty (or other kawaii images) makes you feel good.


But why is all this talk about kawaii relevant in this context?

If you take a look over the landscape of brand characters you will meet cuteness everywhere. It is often the very essence of characterdesign. But why?

Cute things produce positive feelings

The tenderness elicited by cute images is more than just a positive feeling state. It can make people more physically tender in in their motor behavior and narrows attentional focus

Nittono, H. et al.: The Power of kawaii, PLoS one 2012


A immensely cute brand character is Danbo. He represents Amazon – he isa ¬†sort of robot made from the company’s delivery boxes.


Or Zendiums toothpaste’s new characters called Zymerne


Or Yummo Yogurts penguin

When is something percieved to be cute?

Cute objects are assumed to be characterized by baby schema: A large head relative to the body size, a high and protruding forehead and large eyes.

This idea that cuteness in babies is a part of evolution that ensures that adults take care of their children was first described by the austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz in the 1970’s



¬†If a picture wasn’t going very well, I’d put a puppy in it.

Norman Rockwell

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


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