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Creative with Character: How to Land on the Perfect Character for Your Next Ad

London, UK
Born Licensing's David Born shares eight insights on picking the right fictional character for your project

You’ve decided it might be worth working with an existing fictional character for your next ad. There are thousands and thousands of characters that exist, whether from film, TV, animation, video games, books, or other areas of pop culture. So, how do you choose?

Here are some thought starters to help you decide on the perfect character for your next ad.

Who is your Target Demographic

First and foremost, your character should really resonate with your target market. Broader targeting campaigns might choose to embrace characters who appeal across multiple generations like Sesame Street or The Simpsons. Or you might be targeting those who grew up in a certain decade such as the 90’s, where characters from Rugrats or Hey Arnold might be a good fit. 

Where is your campaign running?

Make sure that your character has high awareness in all or at least the most important markets that your campaign will run in. There are some characters that are hugely popular in the UK but most people have never heard of in the US, and vice versa. For a global campaign, make sure to ensure you’re working with a character that is well-known and instantly recognisable in all major markets. 

What is the product/service?

The type of character you choose should depend on the product/service you’re selling. The financial services sector is an example of an industry that can really benefit from using warm, lovable, and comical characters. Banks, mortgage, or insurance providers are institutions that are traditionally seen as cold, boring, stuffy, clinical, and pretty much the last thing you’d want to chat about with friends. Hiring a friendly familiar face can bring warmth, humour, and accessibility to your brand. But which character to use? If you’re looking to create a pop-culture moment, then the back catalogue is always a great place to start. Nostalgia is a very effective way of tapping into the emotional sensibilities of an audience, which is why brands like MetLife (Snoopy), MoneySuperMarket (He-Man and Skeletor), Direct Line (Ninja Turtles, Transformers, RoboCop), Halifax (Top Cat), Barclaycard (The Muppets) GEICO (Yogi Bear), and many more have chosen to work with retro characters from their target audiences’ childhood. 

Linking with brand codes

If your client has strong brand codes, perhaps a character that ties in well with those could be a great way to go. For example, Garfield is strongly associated with the colour orange so could align well with brands such as Sainsbury’s, Fanta, easyJet, Orange, TNT and B&Q. Shrek and Kermit the Frog are famous for being green and could work for Holiday Inn, Land Rover, Starbucks, Whole Foods or Tropicana. The Cookie Monster from Sesame Street might be of interest for brands like Facebook, IBM, Ford, Dell, PayPal and Samsung. This of course isn’t a must, but it’s a nice touch! 

Alcohol and brands with HFFS 

Be prepared for some challenges if the ad you’re working on is for an alcohol brand, as Rights Holders are very careful about lending their characters out for that purpose. The same goes for any food that is high fat, high salt or high sugar (HFSS). Some Rights Holders are more comfortable than others in this space, but a lot of them have strict policies in place preventing them from allowing their characters to feature in advertising like this. 

What is your message?

We know that creatives don’t like to shoe-horn personalities into their creative and naturally prefer for the creative concept to dictate which character is the best fit for the campaign. (This is a different approach to celebrity endorsements where there is typically already a relationship in place between the brand and celebrity). When deciding on a character it’s therefore important that the chosen character doesn’t come with too many restrictive parameters that could compromise the creative. For Direct Line’s ‘We’re On It’ campaign we explored over 150 fictional characters. Whilst there were many variables involved, in the end, the final three characters were chosen because they were best suited to carry the messaging without diluting the amazing creative. 

What’s your budget? 

It’s important to consider upfront how much of your budget can be allocated to licensing fees. Naturally some fictional characters are more expensive than others. Each Rights Holder is different but typically license fees tend to be calculated based on usage (i.e., how many months will the campaign run for and in which markets, how much material will there be, will the character be making a small cameo appearance or will it be the star of the campaign etc.). In addition to license fees other factors may need to be considered. For example, if you’re using a famous live action character and want the original talent to reprise their role, then you’ll need to consider talent fees and availability. Alternatively, some Rights Holders may allow non-celebrity talent to play a famous role. You may also be interested in using custom animation (see Rick & Morty for Wendy’s) or creating special costumes to bring a character to life (see RoboCop for Direct Line). These kinds of production costs should be considered in addition to the licensing fees. 

Is there any additional PR Potential?

When brands revive famous fictional characters for campaigns, even mainstream media takes notice. (Just about every mainstream publication in the UK covered Bruce Willis’s reprisal of his role as John McClane for Advance Auto Parts, even though it didn’t air in the UK!) However, when choosing which character to star in your next campaign you might want to consider if there’s any other activity that could give an extra boost to your campaign. For example, if it’s a franchise there might be a new film set for release or a new TV series scheduled to launch. Anniversaries are also a big deal. Earlier in the year Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon reunited for the 30th anniversary of Thelma & Louise with a special drive-in screening in the original 1966 Ford Thunderbird. Again, everyone from the BBC to The Hollywood Reporter covered the story and it would have been a great opportunity for brands to tap into this coverage. 

Obviously, brands can invest in market research to determine which character will resonate best for their audiences, but we hope the above guide will help with your initial briefing and shortlisting process. The important thing to remember is to always have a Plan B and a Plan C character in case your first choice isn’t feasible or available. If you can, try to engage with Rights Holders ASAP to avoid wasting time on a dead-end route. A good licensing expert will have direct access to key Rights Holders and can provide you with fast and trusted guidance on feasibility.

See some of the campaigns Born Licensing has worked on involving fictional characters here. 

Work from Born Licensing
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