Brand characters can bring home the bacon

Comparethemarket walked away with the Brand of the Year trophy at the Marketing Week Engage Awards 2010 thanks to its strategy based on the adventures of the aristocratic meerkat Aleksandr Orlov. Advertising agency VCCP also won Agency of the Year for its work on the business and telecoms client O2.

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The rise of the meerkat prompted many companies to think of developing a brand ambassador or revive a dormant creation. Marketing Week takes an in-depth look at the best ways of approaching this strategy and the pitfalls that could occur.

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Aleksandr Orlov, Compare the Meerkat
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Cheryl Cole Loreal

Move over Cheryl Cole – there is a band of celebrities in town who are proving to be just as valuable as those of the flesh and blood type. Brand characters are standing up to be a reliable, and often more human alternative to using celebrity ambassadors. And the benefits of them don’t end there: there are no messy contracts and exorbitant fees to negotiate and, most importantly, they won’t let brands down with “transgressions” committed in their personal life.

Characters have traditionally been used as an icon in above-the-line advertising. The Snap, Crackle and Pop gnomes, for example, have been used for more than 80 years to make Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal memorable to children and their parents. Now the advent of social media has given brands new ways of engaging with consumers through characters, and particularly for businesses trading in commoditised markets, it is enabling them to get the edge over their rivals. However, social media demands that characters are more three-dimensional than before and are personalities in their own right in order to develop closer relationships with consumers.

The recession has resulted in a surge in consumer desire to seek “real” connections with brands, and characters are a solution to offering a “human touch” suggests Bryan Urbick, director of research consultancy the Consumer Knowledge Centre (CKC). Characters can be moulded and story lines created to replicate human life and circumstances or, conversely, entertain in fantasy scenarios, more so than a celebrity. “Paradoxically, characters tend to be more real than real people,” Urbick says. “This is why people love soap opera stories, and characters can play right into that. It makes sense that a character can represent what people are looking for.”

The most likely brands to use characters come from highly commoditised sectors such as insurance, food and utilities, says Simon Myers, partner at brand consultancy Figtree. Certainly the brands from these sectors – Compare the Market’s meerkat character Aleksandr Orlov, Go Compare’s warbling tenor Gio Compario, and Churchill’s jetsetting bulldog – were responsible for some of the most memorable campaigns of last year and have amassed fanbases to rival those of your average B-lister. Their success could well pave the way for brands from other sectors, which might be put off using celebrities and are looking to build a character narrative, to build a connection with consumers in this way.

“In such a crowded, competitive market a character can create pure brand salience. The character becomes a shortcut reference to the brand, and can be more interesting than the brand itself”

Peter Deane, Churchill

Character creation can be a good option for brands looking to revitalise their image and positioning, according to CKC’s Urbick. But it must be strategically thought out: “Any brand can create a character, but it depends on how it is executed. It’s a riper opportunity for some than others; for brands that are about personality and connection, particularly within familial groups, characters could play a big role. But brands in sectors such as technology should also consider it because they can often seem cold and depersonalised.”

Churchill head of brand Peter Deane agrees that characters can be a more authentic way of getting a brand message across. “The problem with relying on celebrities is that they come in and out of fashion and, essentially, they have another life outside the brand. You end up looking like you want to borrow their values. A lot of celebrities are quite promiscuous with their brand partnerships. So it can work out stronger to build your own character.”

BT has taken this route, using the fictional couple Adam and Jane to tell its brand story [see case study, below].

The consumer reaction to the news that the couple were getting married demonstrates just how real fictional characters can be perceived in advertising, says BT retail marketing director Matthew Dearden. “I have been stunned at how much people love this campaign. People have been asking us when they are getting married. Obviously it is a big deal in the life of the family, and for British consumers too.”

The use of characters harks back to the fundamental aims of brand awareness – “to own a bit of the public’s mental real estate”, says Figtree’s Myers. Churchill’s Deane admits that a character creates greater visibility than a static logo. “In such a crowded, competitive market a character can create pure brand salience. The character becomes a shortcut reference to the brand, and can be more interesting than the brand itself,” he says.

Buying insurance from a disgruntled talking meerkat might have seemed laughable before Compare the Market’s character stormed the insurance price comparison sector in early 2009. But it has gone down in advertising history as one of the most memorable characters and campaigns, and can even be credited with shaking up a market that had relatively little consumer engagement prior to its inception. “In a market that has never been considered high interest by consumers, we needed something that created a genuinely engaging and enjoyable campaign, that integrated above-the-line, digital and social media, and encouraged real-time mass participation.

Comparethemeerkat.com was born,” says Compare the Market marketing director Mark Vile. He claims that Compare the Market is the most recognised brand in the insurance price comparison sector. The site has doubled its market share, according to an annual report released by parent company BGL in June 2009. And its fanbase in the social media space is growing too. The Compare the Meerkat website receives more than 700,000 visitors a month, while Aleksandr the Meerkat has around 32,000 Twitter followers and 700,000 Facebook fans.

“We have a long storyline mapped out but we have to make sure it fits our needs – reflecting our products and responding to consumer feedback”

Matthew Dearden, BT

The aggressive play from Compare the Market prompted rival Go Compare to develop the moustached tenor Gio Compario, played by real Welsh tenor Wynne Evans. He pops up in cafés, restaurants and even finishing schools to perform his operatic signature tune. Within two months of the character appearing on TV in August last year, Go Compare recorded a 50% increase in brand awareness. Go Compare head of marketing Nick Hall explains: “We needed something that pushed the brand. This led to us creating the character-led advertising, which has both visual and audio strengths, is inextricably linked to the brand and is a call to action.”

But once brand awareness is achieved, how does a character maintain longevity to remain an asset to the brand? “In situations where the characters are designed to build awareness, it is a challenge to make these characters do something more sophisticated when the need for awareness has passed,” warns Magnus Willis, founding partner of brand consultancy Sparkler. Characters have to be more three-dimensional than the early brand characters ever were, having a life beyond a product package or TV screen. Willis believes BT’s family storyline is an example of a successful character-led campaign that has outlived its original purpose and become a way to convey customer understanding and invoke public empathy for the brand. The mix of characters has potential for the story to be further expanded into future campaigns.

Cartoon-type characters can also be stretched to be engaging beyond any initial campaigns. Both Churchill and Compare the Market have continued to place their characters in entertaining scenarios, following an increase in brand awareness. Churchill’s bulldog has a romantic date in Paris with TV presenter Melanie Sykes (even though he can only say “oh no” and “oh yes”), while Aleksandr the Meerkat tells us his family history in a bid to stop the public confusing his meerkat comparison site for an insurance sales platform. Off-screen, Churchill appeared in last Christmas’s Cinderella pantomime run. “We have to find ways of amplifying our TV messages and creating more word-of-mouth opportunities by exploring how far we can push the character beyond traditional TV,” explains Churchill’s Deane.

Compare the Market’s Vile says there is still more to come from Aleksandr and friends. The recently released “iSimples” iPhone application reached number one on iTunes’ free download chart, achieving around 50,000 downloads in a day. Vile adds there will be more incarnations of the meerkat later this year, although he is keeping details a secret: “We are working on more new material which will be launching soon.”

Creating a Facebook page and Twitter feed for a character is an easy way of spreading the word and extending the character’s personality through social media. Stretching out a character’s attributes in this space can justify the cost of a TV ad and enhance a brand’s return on investment, says Figtree’s Myers. However, entertainment must remain the key purpose, and brands should resist the temptation to transform their characters’ social networking sites into sales tools. Compare the Market’s Aleksandr’s popularity online demonstrates how social networking can both engage and heighten a brand’s reach through entertaining posts.

But social media can also be a honey trap for brands: it can stop them from using characters in more creative physical forms, warns Sparkler’s Willis. “It’s easy to overstate the extent to which people have the time and inclination to engage with brands and their characters. The majority of people don’t have that level of empathy to want to engage with characters on social networking sites.” Brands are better off investing their character presence in more traditional marketing, or a branded event, he argues. “There is endless scope for using characters in other interesting ways, it doesn’t necessarily have to be on Facebook or Twitter.”

The value of bringing characters to life through traditional media such as TV shouldn’t be underestimated, agrees CKC’s Urbick. He says US insurance company Geico’s caveman characters became so popular they formed the basis of a cartoon series, showing that brands can move their characters beyond straight advertising.

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The Churchill bulldog character is ultimately to entertain, while driving interest in the brand, Deane argues. He explains that the point of using the animated animal is not to be an expert or to act as a salesperson: “Churchill is on Facebook, but we don’t necessarily use it to put him forward as an insurance adviser. He is not a spokesperson for the brand. There is no reason he should understand insurance, but he knows people who do – us – so he plays an introductory kind of role.”

Neither is Gio Compario a spokesperson for Go Compare. “If he was to give insurance advice, it would dilute the effect of our advertising,” says Go Compare’s Hall. “Our experts are the real faces of Go Compare and they are the ones who give comments in the media when we’re asked to talk about the insurance market.”

Beyond social media and traditional advertising sponsorships, public appearances can provide new avenues to refresh a character. The pantomime appearances by Churchill the bulldog were seen by about 1 million people, while allowing the character to move beyond the confines of the TV screen. “It was a good fit, as pantomimes are a British family tradition, and so are we,” says Churchill’s Deane. “We didn’t get any real criticism, except maybe from pantomime purists. But most accepted that pantomimes still need funding, and that this wouldn’t damage the show.”

Gio Compario is also looking for more opportunities to belt out the operatic jingle in public. The ad has been panned in the press for its ability to get stuck in people’s heads, but Go Compare’s Hall says this means the campaign has adhered itself to the “DNA of the population”, resulting in send-ups of the campaign on YouTube and people attending fancy dress parties in costume as the character.

“There seems to be a real love for Gio,” he claims.

“The interesting thing about characters is that they can get closer to real life than simply using real life people”

Kevin Peake, npower

Merchandising is an obvious way to leverage a character’s popularity, but Churchill’s Deane argues this risks over-exposure. Too many extensions of the bulldog could result in people losing their love for the character, he warns. “We have to put a limit on what we do so we don’t over-extend the character’s visibility,” he says. “There is always more we could do with him but we have to make sure we select the right thing so we don’t overkill it.”

The recent spate of celebrity scandals and their effect on brand sponsorships has given marketers something to think about in their choice of brand ambassador. And with the recession having forced brands to look for more cost-effective ways to boost awareness, the character trend looks set to move beyond the “highly commoditised” sectors as the value a character can deliver becomes more apparent. Ironically characters can provide a brand with a more human quality, with the additional benefit that businesses like Churchill and Compare the Market don’t have to worry about what their bulldog and meerkat characters get up to in their spare time.

/b/j/h/BT.jpgCase study: BT

After four years of being at the heart of BT’s TV campaigns to illustrate how its products enhance people’s lives, characters Adam and Jane are finally tying the knot.

It is an event that could have been taken from the script of soaps such as Hollyoaks or EastEnders, and BT Retail marketing director Matthew Dearden says the couple’s good news has driven consumer interest to a new peak. He reveals that upcoming brand activity will capitalise on this interest and ask for public feedback about the wedding through online tools. Although he won’t give any details, he does say that “we will be making a big deal of it”.

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BT’s Adam and Jane

Public engagement: News that Adam and Jane are to marry has caught people’s imaginations

Using characters and a developing storyline was a deliberate move for BT to shake off its image as a sterile technology and utility provider. “The campaigns have provided us a way to show a human side to our products and the fact we understand our customers. The feedback we get is that the public enjoy the ads, and they show how our products help people thrive,” Dearden claims.

And rather than use a celebrity spokesperson gasbagging to their friends on a BT landline, using fictional characters allows the company to manipulate the storyline to reflect different elements of its product portfolio. “There are plenty of people who could act as a spokesperson for us. And while the characters are not spokes¬- people, they allow us to create an accurate portrayal of real life,” Dearden explains.

Using scenarios consumers can relate to – like the daughter upset at her father squeezing in calls to her on his mobile rather than taking the time to sit down and chat properly over the landline – means there are sufficient opportunities for the campaigns to deliver new angles. “There is plenty of opportunity to evolve. We have a long storyline mapped out but we have to make sure it fits our needs – reflecting our products and responding to consumer feedback. Our ads are at their best when they have plugged into consumer insight,” says Dearden. “As long as there is real insight, the drama and the products can support each other.”

/f/c/s/NPower.jpgCase study: Npower

Buying the rights to the well-established Wallace and Gromit characters is allowing npower to capture consumer affection and imagination. In the utility company’s latest advertising campaign, the use of the quirky Aardman characters in spoof versions of real-life situations allows the brand to overcome consumer apathy and even adversity towards it, says marketing director Kevin Peake.

“Using social media is easy if you have a lot of fun products. If you are a utility company, and people don’t necessarily have good feelings towards you because they don’t like paying bills, then you have to work hard to create content that drives engagement,” he says.

The third instalment of npower’s Aardman-created series, which breaks on April 1 but was emailed exclusively to npower customers last week, features Wallace and his latest invention – a homemade widescreen TV, made of several TVs taped together. But his initial genius is foiled when he realises how much energy his new gadget consumes. Gromit, as usual, is left to save the day after npower adviser Penny informs him about the company’s new “smartpower” electricity monitor.

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NPower’s Wallace and Gromit ad

Home truths: Inventors Wallace and Gromit will help to convey npower’s ’usefulness’ to people

Using characters that are already in the public arena is an alternative to creating a brand character from scratch, and in some ways can be a simpler process because they have already generated public empathy and familiarity. And in the case of Wallace and Gromit, the storyline’s well-known format is something viewers can anticipate from previous Aardman feature films, and can be applied to npower’s ad. Peake explains: “Wallace and Gromit are not just nice characters that everybody knows. It’s their storyline construct that we are buying into that people are familiar with: the physical problem, the wacky invention that goes wrong and the hero dog that saves the day.”

Licensing established characters involves an associated fee, negotiation and gaining the right to use the copyrighted character. Peake says npower deals directly with Aardman, paying an initial licensing fee to use the characters and a production fee for each film. Npower’s agency VCCP drafts scripts to which Aardman creator Nick Park adds creative flourishes, maintaining the flavour and identity of the characters and scenario.

“You can’t break the integrity of this artistic property. There are boundaries and situations you couldn’t put Wallace and Gromit into. Aardman is very protective of its characters and the films have to have an integrity beyond just flogging a product,” Peake explains. “The next film moves Wallace and Gromit into things they haven’t done.

It’s good for Aardman, too, to stretch its characters – it helps add revenue streams to its business.”

Larger than life: The success of Go Compare’s Gio Compario and Churchill’s bulldog is that they are not brand spokesmen, but friendly faced go-betweens to the real insurance experts.

Tips for marketers

Characters can be a good shortcut for developing awareness and empathy, but brands have to think about why they want to do it. You need to ask, where will it fit into the context of the brand’s wider communication? Is this an appropriate move for my brand and its values? How will it make my brand stand out from the competition?

To encourage and maximise consumer engagement, brands need to develop rounded, three-dimensional characters. Marketers need to consider a look, a personality, a vocabulary and potential scenarios that can entertain while reflecting the brand. There may even be an opportunity to introduce sidekicks and companion characters to expand the storyline. But know the character’s history and current story and give it a catchphrase that can enter the public’s vernacular.

Social media should be used to entertain and engage, not as a sales platform in disguise.Take care to make posts in the character’s voice and personality to make it worth a consumer’s while to follow them on a social network.

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Look beyond social media and back into traditional media for ways to bring a character to life and endear it to the public.

Consider approaching an animation or design professional with a background in the film and cartoon industry to help shape your character. Greater consumer demand for character development means you could benefit from someone with in-depth knowledge and experience to create a strong character.

Go to the Marketing Week Engage 2011 Awards page here

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