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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.

 

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

facewithtearsofjoy

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.

obama_laughing

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.

troeste-plaster

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.

macarons

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.

reverse-1314011768_talking_fried_egg

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

pork_face

 

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

Melthemilkbite_kraft

Mel the Milk-Bite from Kraft

heinz_tomatoman

Heinz Tomato man

The happiest people in the world

DK-plugs

#iseefaces – every day next to my desk at the office (One of them I think is even winking at me…)

The official world happiness report tells us that danes are happy. Happier than most others.

Happy-Danes

And why? We have a great work-life balance, we have the concept ‘hygge’ (spending time together in a cosy atmosphere), wellfare, security and we trust each other. We salute being naive in the good way.

But could there be another explanation? Or a new aspect to the the reasons why we are happier in Denmark?

As you know from my previous blogpost The power of kawaii! cute makes you happy and  seing happy faces have a positive impact on your mood. Recently I came across an interesting observation that might have an impact on danish happiness:

int_wall_suckets

 

I think the picture is meant as a joke and I found it on the Facebook page of the danish electricity federation – but seriously if it makes you happy to look at happy faces –  just think about how many times a day you see wall suckets?

 

 

Good vibes from the past – notes on nostalgia

preimer-is_b

Nostalgia is a term that keeps popping up when reading about character design. It seems to be important on several levels.

Nostalgia is originally a greek word and equals the term homesick – but it is also broader defined as a sentimental yearning after earlier and simpler times – often (but not always) it is a longing for childhood.

We love to recognize and revive positive experiences from the past – because it makes us feel good. Human beings do have selective memories and thrives better when focusing on the happy and positive.

A study found that repressing embarassing memories for long enough can lead to us erasing them completely

The Daily Telegraph on Selective memories

So if a brand character succeeds in beeing able to give us that positive vibe from the past, we will love and trust them. And therefore characters that continuously are reinvented and re-introduced in successful ways can have a very long life.

Michelin_man

The Michelin man is for example 121 years old.

matilde_b

And this girl might at first sight seem young, but Matilde, who is the mascot of Arla’s drinking chocolate is 45 years old. And although she is middle aged, she has just been center of attention for young girls in a very popular social media campaign asking danish people to find girls looking like Matilde. For all of us who grew up with Matilde on the shelves in the supermarket and drikning the chocolate at birthday parties and for breakfast at weekends she is a nostalgic item.

And in the future Matilde will most likely also be present in the memories of all the girls participating in the competition:

matilde-piger

Matilde look-alikes summer 2015  from the competion Jagten på Matildepigen on Instagram  #matildepigen

Nostalgia will favorably affect spokes-character trust

Niedrich, R. W.,Spokes-Characters: Creating trust and positive Brand attitudes

But there are other aspects linking nostalgia to brand characters. Last week I was discussing how cute characters affects us in my blogpost The power of kawaii! – and I established that seeing cute stuff makes us happy.

Yesterday I read an article (Russell, L., T., M., A socio-marketing analysis of the concept of cute and its consumer culture implications – 2014 Journal of Consumer Culture) and the article suggests  that there is a kind of escapism from real life in the widespread and growing attraction to and celebration of cuteness. Scientists who have studied the land of the cute (yes I’m talking about Japan) and the spreading of cuteness to the rest of the world say that:

Cute products attests to a rapidly expanding desire for cute, cuddly, reassuring comsumption experinces.

We seek out cute things when we need reassurance during stress

So cuteness is comforting us when the world is demanding. And how is this related to nostalgia? well dealing with the cute and celebrating it in an efford to partake some of the childhood’s simplicity, happiness and emotional warmth.

And taking it futher: ‘rebelllion from society in Japanese youth culture has developed into a rebellion from adulthood’  p.79. Japanese stay young by being cute.

cute_japanese

Taking nostalgia to it’s logical conclusion: Adoring cuteness could very well be linked to this ‘moratorium mentality’ – a lack of desire to grow up!

Seeing faces – part I

A very basic part of my project is concerning the face as an important subject or motif for us human beings. We are sort of programmed to see, recognize and read faces. We communicate with our faces… In alot of ways.

emoji

It all starts when we are born and the distance our eyes can focus is the distance to our mothers face when breastfeeding.

baby

My claim is that one of the reasons why characters are important and popular are because they appeal to us in a fundamental way. Understanding faces is a part of our survival.

So we are drawn to faces:

Elsie-the-Cow

Elsie the cow – is the brand mascot of Borden Dairy Company developed in 1936.

Sometimes we see them in unexspected places:

faces

grillface

And the latest example of our obsession with faces is this coffee cup lid:

lid_face1

lid_face2

Seen on Bored Panda

This is of course a korean invention.

So kiss your coffee :-*

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