For decades, brands have invented characters to help communicate their message with a lighter touch, such as the COI's use of Tufty the Squirrel and the Green Cross Code Man to provide road-safety advice. However, the use of established characters to endorse commercial brands is a more recent phenomenon.
Tea brand Typhoo provided an early example when it hooked up with the BBC to give away promotional Doctor Who cards in 1976, while Disney characters, old and new, have been used by a multitude of brands ranging from fast-food chains to washing detergents.
The licensing market's current characters of choice appear to be Aardman Animation's Wallace and Gromit, who have been signed up to represent the disparate brands Npower, Yorkshire Tea and Kingsmill.
Choosing the right character requires careful thought. Wallace and Gromit and Paddington Bear, who is used to promote Unilever's Marmite, appeal to brands looking to tap into a sense of warmth among consumers and give their marketing an injection of humour. Paddington, in particular, generates a sense of nostalgia among consumers over 30, which is all-important amid today's financial turbulence, according to Keith Pashley, former European marketing manager at entertainment group Chorion.
'In the downturn, many consumers are looking for a safe haven, and things were always safe and comfortable in childhood. So nostalgia is a strong angle to use,' he says. Pashley, who now runs his own consultancy, the Keith Pashley Project, points toward a series of classic children's characters making a splash in licensing, such as Peter Rabbit and the Mr Men range.
Characters from programmes such as Bagpuss and The Magic Roundabout also make compelling ambassadors for brands attempting to appeal to people of a certain age for whom more recent creations, such as Cartoon Network's Ben 10 and Powerpuff Girls, will mean little. But although the use of classic characters ensures a degree of cut-through with adults, it may not chime with younger target audiences.
Children's TV is moving away from shows with adult central characters, such as Postman Pat, to those featuring child protagonists. BBC Worldwide's head of UK licensing, Richard Hollis, says it is now vital that children can connect with characters on TV in a more direct way. 'Hero characters, such as Ben 10, are doing well, as children are excited by the thought of being explorers themselves,' he adds.
The choice of character, naturally, depends on what a brand is trying to sell. Marketing directors strive to find an ambassador to suit a brand's values, or at least the message of the campaign. Marmite signed up Paddington as a fellow classic British brand, while Kingsmill's tie-up with Wallace and Gromit is perfect in the context of the characters' latest bakery-themed outing, A Matter of Loaf and Death.
Similarly, David Scott, managing director of costume character specialist Rainbow Productions, points to the use of The Wombles in a national anti-litter and fly-tipping campaign as an ideal brand partnership.
One key point to watch for, however, according to Beanstalk Group managing director Ciaran Coyle, is that the impact of a character does not become watered-down through over-exposure. 'If you partner a character with too many brands, you risk weakening its equity,' he says.
So licensed characters should appeal to either the inner child of an adult consumer, or the actual child being targeted by the marketing. They should also share values with the brand, while the potential for humour is a bonus.
Nonetheless, marketers should beware characters with too many brand endorsements under their belt, and, perhaps more important, one bigger than the brand - it is likely to obscure the marketing message.
- Brand ambassadors
- Wallace and Gromit - Yorkshire Tea, Npower, Kingsmill
- Paddington Bear - Marmite
- Mr Men - Persil, Family Investments, Virgin Atlantic
- The Simpsons - Burger King, Domino's Pizza
- Spider-Man - Burger King, onlinegamblerweb.com,
- Monkey - ITV Digital, PG Tips
- Pink Panther - Burger King, Nike, KFC