In the simplest of terms, a brand is an entity that is made for selling goods and services. Beneath this superficial definition, however, is something far more complex. Rather than simply investing money in the best product that finances allow, we as consumers look for names on the shelves, as if searching for good friends in a crowd. The most successful brands forge these connections through the medium of marketing.
With the aim of building these relationships, many successful companies turn to using animals in their marketing efforts. In many cases, these mascots seem unrelated to the product or service being sold, yet the brands still seem to flourish. To explain the attraction of furry logos and creature-led campaigns, we talked to several top marketing experts for their view on this fascinating trend.
Since ancient times, when Egyptians welcomed feline and avian acquaintances into their daily lives, our affection for animals of all kinds has been unending. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, between 37–47 percent of U.S. households now have a dog, while somewhere between 30–37 percent have a cat. What these statistics tell us is that people love animals. Pets are cherished as family members, with special privileges and a unique place in our hearts. Our fascination doesn’t rest solely with domesticated animals, though; we also form bonds with untamed beasts, with thousands of visitors pouring into reserves around the country to see native and foreign wildlife.
In marketing terms, this adoration can be channeled to create positive first impressions.
Natasha Braunwart is a trade marketing coordinator at outdoor tools company Gerber Gear — but in her university days, she researched the link between animals and advertising. She says dogs, cats, and other species have likeable traits that make it easy to form emotional bonds.
“Animals offer connections such as companionship, loyalty, and obedience, when humans do not always offer the same things in such a simple form,” Braunwart says. This instant access can be very powerful when the aim is to build affinity during a 30-second commercial.
Braunwart points to a favorite TV campaign: “Someone Waits for You at Home” by beer-maker Budweiser. These ads weren’t about branding, but rather about urging people not to drive under the influence. The main character is a labrador retriever, who pines for his dearly beloved owner to come home. The young man eventually returns the next morning, having initially decided not to take the road after a big night out. The message is powerful in its own right, but the doleful, searching eyes of the pup only serve to amplify the emotional impact. “Go check out the level of consumer engagement through comments on their YouTube channel,” says Braunwart.
Elsewhere, food and household-product brands call on animals to add feeling to otherwise emotionless purchases. Toilet-paper maker Charmin, for example, uses a cute animated koala to win the hearts of consumers.
“When someone stands in the dairy aisle to buy a gallon of milk, there is no emotional drive to purchase one brand over another,” explains Braunwart. This creates the space to tie an emotion-triggering tool — in this case, animals — to the brand, she continues. It can be the difference between commercial success and failure.
Emotion isn’t everything when it comes to branding, though. As with any friend, we might like their personality, but we would not necessarily vouch for their competence in every situation. Once again, marketing experts have the answers.
Kalie Moore is the director of global PR at Carmudi, an online car classifieds site. Speaking in an interview with branding network IntoConnection, she points out that many top online brands use animals in their logos to signify certain traits.
“If you see an elephant, you know it has something to do with memory,“ she says, referring to the logo of note-taking app, Evernote. Likewise, she points to the Firefox web browser, which has a fox in the app icon. Subconsciously, she says, this tells the user that the app has “something to do with being quick and agile.” The same principles apply to the tweeting bird in Twitter’s logo, and the free-flying butterfly that symbolizes MSN.
Academic studies confirm that human traits have long been symbolized by animals in various cultures, while cognitive research shows that people pick up on, and identify with, the characteristics of various species, such as the strength and intelligence of a gorilla, or the thieving qualities of a raccoon.
Spot the Stallion
After inspiring some emotional investment and highlighting favorable traits, there is another hurdle that any brand must overcome. In the crowded marketplace, standing out visually is essential. Unless consumers can find and recognize a product, those hard-fought psychological ties will offer no reward.
Not every animal possesses the kind of distinctive form that catches the eye. There are, however, some notable examples of animal logos that we all know, and many animals can be stylized without losing their recognizable form. The scarlet cattle that adorn Red Bull’s logo provide the perfect example.
“If appropriate for the brand, identities using animals have instant recognition,” says Dean Crutchfield, an independent branding consultant who has worked with the likes of McDonald’s and Comcast. He points out that “although thousands of businesses use animals in their logos, there is only a handful of ‘very’ successful brands that have them.” He names Lacoste, Jaguar, Puma, Twitter, WWF, Red Bull, and Ralph Lauren as the major winners.
Jaguar is not the only notable automotive company with an animal logo. Ferrari’s stallion can be seen prancing on red sports cars around the world, hinting at an untamed thoroughbred with significant horsepower. There is no mistaking this brand for any other, and the logo hints at exactly the level of excitement that prospective supercar buyers are looking for.
The Company Mascot
While marketing is often about superficial relationships and visual cues, some brands have become cultural icons. This can occur when advertisements go viral, but such memes rarely stand the test of time. More often, brands seek to create mascots that act as recognizable brand ambassadors.
Animals are regularly used in this role to good effect. Dr. Sharon Ponsonby- McCabe, a lecturer in marketing communications at Ulster University in Ireland, and the co-author of Brand Mascots And Other Marketing Animals, has studied this phenomenon. She says mascots can offer many advantages to the brands that create them.
“Companies can use brand mascots to bring their central character to life, to inject their products with meaning, and to enable important stakeholders to interpret what they stand for,” she says.
In particular, she suggests that animals are very good for communicating these ideas. “They carry such significant symbolic value: for example, the British Bulldog.” In the U.K., this very breed has long been the mascot for Churchill Insurance, a brand named after the country’s most famous wartime premier.
Ponsonby-McCabe says that brands in all sectors have embraced furry mascots. “Their capacity to represent products as diverse as breakfast cereal (Toucan Sam) and insurance (Geico Gecko), suggests that they do have widespread appeal and relevance.” Research confirms that any mascot will improve how consumers perceive a brand and influence their purchasing decisions.
While research regarding return on investment is thin on the ground, Energizer attributed a seven-per-cent sales jump in 1992 to the company’s new Energizer Bunny mascot. The battery manufacturer continues to use the same long-eared mascot to this day.
It is telling that animals have always been the subject of folklore. Long before storytelling became the staple of modern marketing, people have always enjoyed tales of the Big Bad Wolf and the lion of Narnia. While the trials and tribulations of people can pull on our heartstrings, there is something deep in the human psyche that is drawn to life-forms other than our own.
No theme offers the magic solution for branding success, but there are many examples in which animals have found favor. From distinctive logos that represent the company ethos, to brand mascots that become celebrity ambassadors in their own right, any marketing manager would be foolhardy to discount creatures great and small.