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’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,


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.




The view from here


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:


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



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?


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.


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.


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 – when 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)


In the safari park of marketing







Safari means journey in swahili – and going on a safari in the world of brand characters will take you to all parts of animal kingdom.

But questions of categories soon arises and I have been wondering, how I will get an overview of all the ceratures and:

Can all types of creatures work as brand characters?

Are some creatures more popular than others?


And I have come closer to an answer, because I have been reading articles and books (okay only one book – ‘Brand Mascots and other marketing animals’) by Stephen Brown – and what a relief finally to find someone who writes about things that have been puzzling me in this study area. And he is also presenting arguments for taking this research area more seriously. Yes! – I’m not alone.

The popularity of brand characters are incontestable

Stephen Brown, Where the wild brands are, p. 215

Brown has a been collecting information about which kind of brand animals (a broad term that also includes humans, deities, extra-terrestrials, monsters, robots – and other objects that can be anthropomorphized) are most popular.

Brand animal popularity is directly related to the species’ physiological and psychological distance from humankind

Stephen Brown, Where the wild brands are, p. 215

21% human

19% bird

16% domestic

12% large wild

9% small wild

7% mythical

7% aquatic

4% insects

2% vegetable

1% body part (?)

3% other

(Stephen Brown, Where the wild brands are, p. 216)


Characters with a social media profile


The news have travelled around the world: Kermit and Miss Piggy is getting a divorce!

It has caused rather strong reactions – on social media, in articles and so on. The divorce and the media covering of it has been compared to the break up of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
And Kermit is now proclaimed as the bad guy because he found a new girfriend. People are reacting just like if Kermit and Miss Piggy were real people.


The news was announced on the couples Twitter and Facebook profiles.


Muppets and other characters that are having an independent life  – including social media identities – outside the film, the game or tv show in which they are appearing is not something new.

Also brand characters (that differs from for example The Muppet show muppets by representing or marketing a brand – and not being a part the product itself) tend to get an independent life outside their brand and treated as if the were real persons.

Consider for example Ronald McDonald attending group terapy with his fellow mascot-collegues:

Ronald: “I’m a burger mascot and everybody hates me.”

All: “That’s OK, Ronald.”

Ronald: “I can’t even believe I’m here. I thought I was well liked. Now I’ve become some kind of childhood obesity villain.”

Big Boy: “If anyone should be that, it’s me, Ronald. I’ve been portly since 1960. Chubby was cute back then. …

Brand Mascots become villains: Group therapy with Ronald McDonald, Davis Taylor, Central Penn Business Journal, 2011

Brand characters also have social media profiles.

And that is quite logical since a recommendation when designing a brand character is to give the character a distinct personality and avoiding wearout by keeping the character modern.

So giving a brand character a life of it’s own on social media might be a good idea.

But be aware. In her article 5 Ways to Create Brand Mascot Content That Doesn’t Suck Becca Frasier writes about the pitfall mascots with social media accounts face (they ‘can easily feel spammy or fivolous) and she presents ideas on how to manage the situation:

  • Share user generated content
  • Have a sense of humor and sport a unique personality
  • Engage with fans

See for example the Twitter profile of the M&M’s or the campaign for Matilde chocolate milk that I mentioned in a previous post, which has been taking a new and more humorous direction:


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 happiest people in the world


#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.


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:



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?



I am a grain of sand

A grain of sand to the mountain of knowledge


If all the knowledge in the world is equivalent to a mountain – say like Mount Fuji (why Fuji? well because I have been to see it earlier this year, and because it is so beautiful and big – but I must admit not even among the 100 biggest mountains in the world) – my contribution can be compared to a grain of sand.


Grains of sand under a microrscope

But that is not bad at all if you zoom in on the beauty and uniqueness of grains of sand.

The other day my reasearch colleagues and I attended a small workshop on academic research methods: literature review and constructing research questions, where we were presented to that picturesque metaphor.


Writing my research question on the board – before having feedback.

And in the proces of formulating my research question that reflects my project, I have come to this point in my process:

Which steps must

a guide to designing brand characters

consist of?

So this is the question my project is aiming at answering.


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