Rolling Up & Rolling Out

OR, the Case For Characters in Professional Brand Portfolios

How is character design similar to your brand portfolio, besides both involving the art and element of design? Well, lots, actually, and today I’m going to examine that.

Beanie, BB, and Espresso Man — my own personal take on the BIGGBY COFFEE brand and character design.

So I’m not necessarily talking about cute kids’ mascots here. Though I do have a certain affinity for really good ones, and particularly for those over in Japan, today we’ll be talking additionally about spokespeople, customers (yes, real customers!) in commercials and marketing materials, AND mascots, along with other character types.

* I’m sad that this even needs to be said, but there’s ways NOT to do a brand character, too, and you should watch out for these should you decide to heed my opinion. Examples include racist caricatures such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Cream-of-Wheat’s Rastus, as well as any sports team deciding to go with the name “Redskins”, and other offensive portrayals.

Characters should be, and are, for everyone.

So without any further ado…

Let’s talk about Tama.

Tama of Wakayama Electric Railway

Some of you may already be familiar with the story of the cat who saved the train line, but because it’s such a good one I would like to rehash it.

In the late 90s, there was a kitten who lived near and endeared to her the commuters of a rural Japanese train line. At that point, she was only affectionately referred to as the stationmaster. That role would be reprised in the mid 2000s when it was threatened that the rail might close down due to there being a shortage of funds — and riders.

A combination of the dearest wish from Tama’s guardian for the Wakayama Electric Railway to take care of her, a plea from the local residents for the current president, Mitsunobu Kojima, to revive the rail, and love at first sight encouraged Kojima to name Tama the “Stationmaster of Kishi Station” at the beginning of 2007.

Suffice it to say, Tama’s presence, along with branding, merchandise, character design (!!), and a whole entire train designed after her not only saved the railway, but stimulated the local economy.

While this is an extreme example of the success that can come from characterizing your brand, there’s a reason that Japan does it so often, from Pikachu to Hello Kitty to Domo-kun (trust me, you’ll recognize him when you see him). And that’s because it WORKS.

But wait a minute, you might say. One, Tama was an actual, real cat… and I proposed characterizing people, too. That’s not characters, not in the strictest sense of the word. And two, I mentioned at the beginning that I wouldn’t just be talking about Japanese mascots.

Okay, you’re right on point two, so we’ll move on from Japanese mascots. We’ll get to point one later, I promise.

Personifying the BIGGBY Brand

Bob and Mike of BIGGBY COFFEE

For those of you who didn’t know, right after graduating from college the first time, I got hired into the BIGGBY COFFEE Home Office as a Communications Specialist (later renamed as Associate when there was a huge company overhaul soon after my beginning there). While I worked within the Best Sphere, I also learned a lot about and had front-row seats to the branding redux of this beloved Michigan-based coffee franchise.

To be clear, I was already a fan of the brand — and not just for their delicious menu, but that’s a story for another day — and that just made this fine process all that much sweeter.

It all started with the Brand Manifesto. It continued there. It would remain a part of the brand far into the future, too. When working with the brand overhaul, one of the very first steps was to pick an archetype for the brand, similar to the Meyers-Briggs personality test (if you’re wondering, I’m an INFP). “The Lover” was chosen, and off they went.

* (For more reading on the brand archetype process, click here).

Record scratch. Did I just say they picked an archetype? (Yes, I did).

Tabletop roleplayers, for games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder… doesn’t that sound familiar? Yep. BIGGBY COFFEE had just picked a character class! Need I say more? Not to worry; I will anyway.

So how does the archetype play into character design and BIGGBY’s branding?

If you remember BIGGBY’s brand from before the brand manifesto, they had a set of core values that they existed to embody. When the archetype was picked, that existence and embodiment got shortened to:

BIGGBY COFFEE exists to love people.

With this change, Bob and Mike, as well as the people working on the branding, recognized the need for the personal connection within the marketing material. They, in my opinion, reached out a friendly hand to not just the customers, but all of their stakeholders, truly celebrating what it meant to love people: owner/operators, baristas, vendors, and employees.

Bob and Mike had already been pretty involved, to be fair. But once the overhaul was complete, they had become characters, inextricably linked to BIGGBY COFFEE. You see, everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and BAM had become the storied heroes of the BIGGBY brand. A character as defined is not just a fictional “dramatis personae”, but a personality, a temperament, a set of defining traits that make up a person. (I told you I’d come back to point one!)

So by that logic, who’s a character?

Everyone! Yes, Bob and Mike, you, me, everyone. We are all characters telling a grand story. And yes, BIGGBY does in fact star real, actual customers, as well as real, actual staff, in their advertising!

The Range From Dave Thomas To Sassy Wendy

I don’t know how familiar you, as the reader, are with internet memes. Surely you’ve heard of them? There are so many, so I don’t fault you for forgetting a few of them, such as the Wendy’s “Twitter wars” or the classic personification of Wendy herself.

Personifying a brand, anthropomorphizing it, or making a “gijinka” for it, is not new, to be clear. But something about the way it happened to Wendy Thomas was so hilarious that it went “viral”.

Dave Thomas

Let’s start from the beginning. As an outsider to the Wendy’s brand, Dave Thomas, the founder, seems to me a kindly gentleman who knows how to make a good burger. He established his own non-profit centered around adoption, was described as “folksy”, and lives on in legacy even after his death in 2002. What he did to personify his brand by starring in the commercials was clever, purposeful… and successful.

Wendy by @professorsugoi on Twitter

Enter the days of Twitter. Like many hip brands, Wendy’s decided to take a fresh approach to the social media platform, opting to “roast” users and be a little, well, smug. With @professorSugoi’s Tweet regarding the social media account’s attitude, the brand quickly became a meme, took off, and stayed that way.

* Because people of the internet are, well, people of the internet, it’s wild out there. I can’t take responsibility for what you find if you look up this character outside of safe zones.

What’s the commonality here? And how can you incorporate this success into your brand?

It’s that personal connection. As a fellow marketing professional, you likely know all about how your brand has a voice, and how to best connect with people. Character design is just taking it to the next level.

What are your thoughts on the art of character design? Do you want to hear more from me on this topic? Do you have a favorite mascot, character, or presence for a brand? Do you need help creating a character for YOUR brand? Drop me a line!

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