Author: James Duerr, Motion Guy
Animation is a fantastic way to present a brand. It gives total creative control over a subject, making it easier and quicker to convey the brand’s values and goals through interesting visuals and characters. So why, then, do people create such insipid characters for animations? It seems so simple: just create a “cool,” likable character and have it do something funny. Sometimes that is enough, but we want to push our work further to create something memorable and entertaining. Animation should create value past just being another media platform while still being an effective marketing tool. In the end, it boils down to making conscious and informed design decisions from the start of the creative process.
The intent of the character is one of the most important aspects of designing an animated mascot character, but there are some important questions that need to be asked before starting the design process.
What Are the Brand’s Values?
After all, the character needs to be a personification of what the brand is, or what the brand wants to present itself as. This seems self-explanatory, but it is a vital step in creating a character and giving it appeal. Is the brand cheery? Goofy? Cool? Once that is determined, you can inject these ideals into the character. Any direction you go, sincerity in design is very important. A character that aims to appeal to children should understand what children like and what is popular while also being mindful of the ever-changing cultural landscape. Like any production, animation is a long process from initial concept work to release, and by the time the media is released, the world may have already moved on to something completely different.
Who Is the Product or Brand Aimed At?
This informs everything from visual style to narrative conflicts the character must overcome. If the brand is focused toward children, the style usually adopts current cartooning and animation styles to mimic popular animated shows and films. Giving an animated character obstacles to overcome and secondary characters to interact with in meaningful ways can make the animations feel like more than commercials. They become entertainment that just happens to be promoting a product. These elements help to sell the character as living in a world of its own instead of just living on the front of a box.
A common pitfall in making a character that appeals to children is trying too hard to make that character “cool.” You can spot these kinds of characters by bland traits such as wearing sunglasses, riding skateboards and doing things to the “Xtreme.” It is acceptable for a character to do a couple of these things, but piling “cool” traits onto a character undermines any intent the character may have had. Instead, the character will feel like just a cheap and lifeless pile of things the character likes doing. Characters need some kind of depth to make them more interesting. A commercial character’s motivations do not need to be incredibly compelling. No one is going to make a pizza-selling mouse into a Shakespearean thespian, but having a concrete, internalized goal for the character makes it that much more interesting for the viewer. Whether this goal is something as simple as stealing cereal from kids or something as complex as championing a social cause, having clear drive behind a character’s actions makes it more genuine.
When making a spokesperson for products aimed at adults, the animated character can have a bit more edge or sophistication depending on your brand. A common approach is making the character a stand-in for a live-action spokesperson, with its cartoony appearance being a layer of flippant comedy to the media it occupies. While not traditional animation, “That’s Vaginal” uses purposefully cheap-looking puppetry in an opulent setting to mock similar styles of commercials with live actors and to make the admittedly awkward subject matter more palatable.
Summer’s Eve: “That’s Vaginal”
Does It Make Sense?
An animated mascot should make sense. A chicken shouldn’t be promoting a place that serves fried chicken while holding a bucket of its golden-brown brethren. That can become very creepy very quickly, and brings up a lot of questions that don’t need to be asked. However, divorcing characters made from food from the product can be done. For example, our NatureSweet advertisements use tomatoes and simple line work to create adorable animals. However, the fruit that makes up the characters isn’t meant to be real tomatoes, but instead stylized two-dimensional cutouts of tomatoes. The fact that they are made of food is never called to attention. While the end cards have them posing beside packaging filled with tomatoes, there is a clear delineation between the two types of tomatoes. The characters made of tomatoes and line work are alive and have distinct personalities, while the tomatoes inside the packaging are lifeless yet delicious. Even though the concept does a good job of preventing the viewer from wanting to eat the mascot, the creative and motion graphics teams are still consciously avoiding problematic creative decisions that would undermine the base design decisions and make a person want to eat our happy little tomato animals.
NatureSweet: “Tomatoes Raised Right”
Longevity and Nostalgia
All of these basic design decisions are important to the longevity of any piece of media the character occupies. Having strong, universal appeal will keep your character and the media it occupies from becoming quickly dated, and helps to avoid costly redesigns and repeat commercial production. For example, the Tootsie Roll “How Many Licks” commercial has been on the air for decades. The only significant changes over the years have been to timing and length while preserving the same punchline and simple, timeless style. Redesigning media for new brand directions or shifting consumer tastes is a common practice, but it is much more impressive to create a spot that can engage for decades.
Tootsie Roll: “How Many Licks”
Creating a character with strong appeal continues to pay off even after your target audience has stopped being your target. Nostalgia can be a powerful force in recapturing people’s attention. While there’s value in nostalgia that plainly reminds a person of a time when they liked something, using nostalgia as part of a larger campaign is a much more elegant and impactful use of this emotion. KITH, a sneaker and streetwear brand from New York City, partnered with Cap’n Crunch to release a set of branded merchandise based on the cereal and its titular character. While on the surface the collaboration makes no sense, since sugary cereals are hardly on the radar of higher-end clothing designers, it captures an ever-growing subculture with a humorous crossover. Even outside of sneaker heads, the concept grabs attention from its ridiculous premise and builds exposure of both brands to multiple audiences.
KITH: “Kith Treats x Cap’n Crunch – Kings of Their Castles”
Like any creative endeavor, knowledge of the subject matter is key to designing an effective commercial animation. Knowing your audience and the intended values, and avoiding the pitfalls that come from lazy design are all important elements that should be brought up with the very first design decisions and beyond. Animation is a powerful tool to transport the audience into fantasy, but shortsighted design decisions can turn “fantasy” into “eye rolling” and undermine all the work put into a piece.
- “That’s Vaginal: Cat on a Mission.” Summer’s Eve, YouTube, December 8, 2012.
- “Tomatoes Raised Right.” NatureSweet, Vimeo, 2016.
- “How Many Licks.” Tootsie Roll, YouTube, 1969.
- “Kith Treats x Cap’n Crunch Present – Cap’n Kith.” KITH, October 5, 2016
- “Kith Treats x Cap’n Crunch – Kings of Their Castles.” KITH, Vimeo, 2016.