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Soften up your brand’s hard image with a cute / terrifying character trademark!

Soften up your brand’s hard image with a cute / terrifying character trademark!

We all know that logos are big business in corporate branding. McDonald’s golden arches are the most recognised symbol in the world. Millions of dollars are spent annually inventing, researching, tweaking, updating, and protecting these brand assets. They represent an enormous part of big brands’ equity and value. They’re also the visual clues that consumers rely on and trust.

But if you take a step back, a logo can quickly become cold and impersonal, especially if your brand gets itself into hot water. Which is where a character trademark can help.

A character trademark is like a mascot for your brand. It embodies your brand’s attributes and values. It can be a person, an animal or something in between. It often has a voice, and sometimes is accompanied by a jingle or tagline. Character trademarks can give a hard, money-making machine a personality that is relatable and trustworthy.

The basic premise is, it’s harder to hate a character trademark than a logo when things go wrong for a brand.

Done well, character trademarks can even become famous, loved identities that consumers are drawn to. Children come to recognise them, love them, and grow up with them. They can become cultural icons.

Done badly, they are nightmare-inducing.

These sometimes cute characters might seem fanciful and shallow but the good ones represent a months of brainstorming, research, refinement and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent. They must work hard to service the brand they represent well. They need broad shoulders in times of crisis. They must have broad appeal across genders, generations, borders, languages and ethnic groups. They can’t offend or frighten anyone, especially kids. They must work digitally, physically, in animation, and in social media.

While the ideas or brand values that drive the personification of the character trademark may be timeless and universal, they typically don’t age well and need to be frequently re-invented and modified as time goes on. The original Ronald McDonald, for example, was invented in 1963. He was a terrifying ‘happy hamburger-eating clown’ with a paper drink cup as a nose, a cardboard food tray for a hat and a belt that magically produced hamburgers. He literally skipped away to his burger haven after proclaiming, “I like to do everything boys and girls like to do, especially when it comes to eating those delicious McDonald’s hamburgers.” Creepy.

Original Ronald Mcdonald


The Ronald McDonald we know today has had most of his personality shaved away by years of bureaucratic decision-making and pressure from public health groups.

Current Ronald McDonald

Slightly less terrifying than the original

They also normally feature heavily in advertising campaigns, on packaging, online, and in-store. It’s normally FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) brands that invest in character trademarks. But interestingly one of the earliest examples of a character trademark, invented in 1838, is Uncle Sam, a personification of the US government to sell war bonds. He’s also sort of creepy.

Uncle Sam


Invented in 1898 by Michelin brothers, André and Edouard, the Michelin Man was one of the first corporate character trademarks and still survives today after many makeovers. Over the years, however, the Michelin Man’s image softened and he smiles a lot more than he used to. He’s made out of tyres so there’s a direct connection to the product he represents. That may seem obvious and clumsy but it’s actually astute and probably why he’s one of the longest lasting, internationally recognised corporate character trademarks.

Michelin Man

He’s tyres. And he’s a corporate character trademark.

Mars also does this well with their M&M’s brand, which were introduced in 1941 as a staple for American soldiers serving in WWII. The original M&Ms characters made their television debut in 1954. The characters evolved in the late nineties into the six characters, each with their own recognisable characteristics and distinct personalities. For example, “Green” is a saucy vixen who won’t disclose her age or weight, loves simple candlelit dinners (in Paris, specifically), can sometimes be intimidating, and dislikes men and women who stare. Frankly, she sounds like a piece of work.

M&Ms characters

M&Ms personified

It doesn’t always go to plan, however. Burger King introduced their mascot “The Burger King” in 1955. Like his archenemy Ronald McD, he’s had several makeovers over the years but he was eventually ‘retired’ (translation: killed) by the corporation in 2013. His creepy, plastic-faced persona (also affectionately known as “Creepy King”) was found to be unappetising. TV ads in North America featured the King character appearing in various, unexpected places, such as in bed with people or behind doors and walls, only to offer these people some sort of Burger King product. Scary.

Burger King

You scare the hell out of me

The official line from Burger King was that “The King” ‘failed to provide a consistent message regarding the company and its products’. He got knifed, as I’m sure did the advertising agency that re-invented him.

Energizer Holdings Energizer Bunny was designed in 1988 by DDB Advertising. He never says a word and continuously beats on his drum. He works well as a character trademark because he actively demonstrates the efficacy of the brand.

Toucan Sam first appeared in 1963 on the box of Froot Loops. His irritatingly perky appearance and snappy catch phrase, “follow my nose, it always knows,” has helped Kellogg’s sell millions of dollars of the sugary breakfast treat. Interestingly, he’s remained almost completely unaltered since his debut over half a century ago.

Toucan Sam

Lay of the sugar, bird

Character trademarks can also come in handy in circumstances where advertising is not allowed. For example many corporate mascots can attend non-profit events, or sports and promote their brand while entertaining the crowd.

Corporate mascots or characters are also the best friends of Brand Managers of brands in heavily restricted or regulated categories, like alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs.

Philip Morris and Co’s Marlboro man was invented by Leo Burnett in 1954. He featured heavily in butch ads as a way to popularise filtered cigarettes, which at the time were considered feminine. There were actually many varieties of “Marlboro Man” but the cowboy character was the most popular and successful for Philip Morris. Sadly, Four men who claimed to have been Marlboro men have all since died of smoking-related diseases. Whoops.

Marlboro Man

Even cowboys can smoke a filtered cigarette

Drug manufacturer Pfizer has also used a tiger character in advertising for its erectile dysfunction drug Viagra. This character trademark works well in markets such as Australia where laws prevent naming the drug brand name specifically in advertising.

It’s safe to say that character trademarks are not suited to all brands or categories. You probably wouldn’t be rushing to a law firm that had a kitten mascot, for example. But in the right industry, with the right investment and research, they can be an indispensable part of your brand’s framework. Just try and keep the creepy factor low.

Stuart Austin
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