Brand characters – signpost or gimmick?

Surf’s recent introduction of a foam-like brand character ‘Surfy’ raises the question of whether brand characters are an important signpost for a brand’s identity or a juvenile gimmick that lacks longevity?

I’ve always thought brands are a lot like people. They have a particular look, they talk in a certain way, they have particular promises and hold certain beliefs and crucially have relationships with people (well, consumers and other brands.) Characters essentially become extensions of a brand’s ‘identity’ and like a signpost help us to identify it in a crowded marketplace.

There are some that I think work better than others in doing this – the Michelin man for example, has stood the test of time. He represents the robustness, strength and positivity that the brand also stands for without feeling too trite. Most importantly, he’s entered our vernacular ‘the Michelin man’ means something to us. The Duracell bunny, the Fairy liquid baby, I think they fit in this same camp. They reflect the brand’s personality and purpose, they feel timeless and so connect with us as icons.

There are others that I think aren’t as effective. Ronald McDonald, the once bastion of childhood frivolity, seems quite lost in a world of childhood obesity and modern technology. Kids would rather spend their birthdays with an iPad rather than a clown. Also the Russian Meerkats who perpetuate insurance-based confusion for I don’t feel that these brand characters have much longevity. Ronald is too dated and doesn’t connect with a modern McDonald’s or C21st kids. The meerkats have big personalities and stick in our minds, but what are they saying about as a brand and what will this look like in the future? I’m not convinced they have one.

So what about Surf? Apparently, as fragrance is the big differentiator in laundry and Surfy is there to celebrate fragrance and positive energy. I think it could work. It’s intimately connected to a brand that heroes fragrance, it also has a personality that isn’t too detached and temporary. But, as with the others, I think only time will tell whether this could be a long-term success.