Close-Up: How do you make brand icons work?

What's the key to success when creating a character to represent your brand, Kate Nettleton asks.

Brand characters come and go. And while one long-running set of mascots, the Orange Film Funding Board, were consigned to the vaults of advertising history last week, another was resurrected, with Peter Kay returning to front John Smith's "no-nonsense" campaign.

For Fallon, Mr Dresden and his cohorts placed too many limitations on enlarging Orange's relationship with film, yet TBWA\London felt Kay's deadpan everyman buffoonery was a sure-fire way to instantly unlock valuable associations and memories.

A brand mascot's shelf-life will always be a point of contention between agencies, consumers and clients, but there is no doubt that there is an art to devising a character that endures.

Creating one from scratch and adopting a celebrity both bring their own challenges, but the lat- ter is perhaps the most fraught with danger, as the celebrity's allegiance to the brand will always be scrutinised by consumers.

As Mark Hunter, the TBWA\London executive creative director, explains: "A huge part of what we do is tell people things about brands and we need them to believe in them. If people don't believe the celebrity represents the brand and uses that brand themselves, your whole campaign can fall down."

Conversely, when inventing a character, there is greater creative freedom and fewer rules - yet the point about appropriateness of fit still stands. "You still have to tick the same boxes. The character needs to feel connected with the brand and their values need to overlap pretty cleverly," Hunter adds.

This connectivity is dependent on a careful consideration of the purpose of the character, be it an embodiment of a benefit or simply finding an entertaining way of delivering a core message.

Whatever the purpose, the script and delivery of the character are also of fundamental importance to its success. If standards of direction and script-writing wane, consumers will soon lose interest.

To avoid this, agencies need to ensure their characters have hidden depths to be explored and developed, whether by the agency itself or by throwing down the gauntlet and actively encouraging consumer participation.

Although online channels are the perfect forum for this exploration, they have also compounded one of the major risks of character advertising - overexposure. Characters can soon start to dominate, obscuring the core message.

Above all, it is the underlying idea and strategy behind the campaign that is key to the success of a brand character.

Laurence Green, the chairman of Fallon, explains: "At any point where talent or your character is leading the conversation rather than following the conversation, I suspect you've taken the wrong turn. You have to put the existing equities and characters to one side and ask what you are trying to do and how you think you can get there - and if a character is the right answer, then keep going."

If all these criteria are met, and a character enters popular culture and vernacular, it becomes an instantly recognisable embodiment of the brand, creating a natural sense of affinity with consumers and ultimately providing them with reason to believe in the brand.

As a result, the temptation to resurrect these brand totems and all their positive associations is compelling, but as Green explains: "You still have to ask whether that character serves how flexibly you need to trade and communicate in 2010."

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CLIENT - Gareth Turner, senior brand manager, John Smith's & Murphy's Heineken UK Marketing

"The most important thing is that the idea behind the ad campaign is strong in the first place and the character you choose, whether a meerkat or Peter Kay, needs to amplify the core message behind the advertising and connect with consumers.

"The depth and nuances of the character are also vital to its lifespan; as long as there is depth to the character, the longevity looks after itself.

"With the new digital forums, achieving this has become easier. But, equally, there is a greater risk that the character will wear out faster."

PLANNER - Dylan Williams, strategy partner, Mother

"You need to consider what its role in the communication is; is it personifying a product truth, embodying a consumer benefit, representing the audience in the piece or delivering rational news in a more entertaining way?

"One must also balance continuity and change. To stay true, really understand what you are creating in three dimensions from the start and stick to that character's blueprint. To stay fresh, draw on reference points in culture that your audience will again find relevant, credible and distinctive.

"Beyond that, actively encourage consumer customisation and co-creation. People will do it anyway, so you may as well embrace it."

AGENCY HEAD - Laurence Green, chairman, Fallon

"In these modern times, our attention span is very limited and we're pretty good at understanding a brand more generally without needing brand characters to spell out what we should think.

"Broadly, we shy away from brand characters in favour of brand character.

"I think you have to ask whether your character is the master or the servant of your brand, because if it is the master, you're in trouble both strategically and creatively."

CREATIVE - Darren Bailes, creative director, VCCP

"Products and brands need personality to make them relevant and interesting. When well written, brand characters are a great mouthpiece for a strategy. When badly written, they look like they are reading out the brief on TV - it's ugly.

"With enough depth and back-story, there's no reason a character shouldn't last. Del and Rodney from Only Fools And Horses lasted more than 20 years. Done well, a campaign with a character should have years in it. Just let the character develop. People will invest emotional energy in your character - but if you stick to a formula, they'll start switching off."