It is clear that being an ad sponsor at huge sporting events such as this, where viewership reaches millions around the globe, is an incredible opportunity for marketers. In fact, this year’s commercial time has already been virtually sold out. With the pressure on, how do brands use this platform to grab audience attention in just 30 seconds?
Research indicates that mascots and characters make for some of the most memorable campaigns. And with mascots featuring heavily within sports teams all over the world, could brands be utilising this link better when it comes to creating commercials for sporting events? What can we learn about the long term success of mascot culture from countries such as China and Japan in order to build impactful campaigns that stay with audiences for years to come?
We speak with MPC Shanghai’s creative director Barry Greaves and head of CG Christian Kalata to delve into the history and success of mascot culture in the East and why they are so impactful.
Mascots Through Time
From the Three Squirrels (the snack brand mascots that have inspired their own television series) to the Taobao Doll (a dialogue bubble brought to life for the online shopping platform), and Zushihocky (the part-rice part-clam Japanese town mascot winning most unforgettable character in 2020) - mascots are big business in East Asia.
But what led to their dramatic rise?
“Mascots started to get popular around Asia with Japan developing mascots for each city / prefecture / popular site to encourage tourism in the 1980s,” reveals Christan Kalata, head of CG at MPC Shanghai. “In China, local governments started to use mascots to aid public service announcements long before they played a major role in corporate branding and merchandising. Today’s adults grew up with them and show greater acceptance to the ubiquitous presence of mascots.”
“The toy culture is also more popular in China,” he says. “Popmart recently became a major driving force, putting up vending machines for toys in every mall across China. There are many exhibitions around toys and figurines that I don’t see in the West on this scale.”
But it was only until a few years ago that brands in the East started seeing the positive impact that mascots can have which has led to a considerable increase. “I can remember around ten years ago seeing a commercial with an animated character and thinking, ‘why aren’t they using this character more?’” shares creative director Barry Greaves. “When clients were using a mascot it certainly didn’t feel like a long-term strategy. It felt like they were being created specifically for individual commercials with clients/directors having fun with something new, rather than using them for full campaigns.”
“Now with so much based on social media there is an influx of new digital influencers and brands have created mascots to have on their own channels to cut out the cost of celebrity endorsements and expensive shoots. You know they aren’t real, but if they strike a chord with the right target audience you can quickly forget the advertising side of things and enjoy the content being performed. If this is done well, the mascot can become almost as big as the brand - think Duracell Bunny.”
So what is it about these characters that make audiences resonate with them so well?
According to Christian, “There isn’t a single mascot over here that isn’t cute. I see special focus on the eyes, probably deriving from the many ways to express them as a text emoji. In the West, a smiley emoticon is pretty simple and emotionless in the eyes :) But in Asia there is huge variety in the eyes, all way more expressive.”
“If mascots get success, brands have a huge opportunity to cash in with merchandise,” highlights Barry. “I see this in the West but at a much smaller scale because of the numbers of followers. The huge number of people in Asia essentially offers a brand all kinds of possibilities of extra revenue with a mascot on top of their brand assets.”
Christian states that “WeChat is probably the biggest example of how mascots are used by brands and how the public spreads them around. It’s a major factor for marketing in China and how companies use it to promote their business. Every WeChat brand account can upload 16-24 stickers (same as animated gifs) and share them with all 1.2 billion users of WeChat. Brand stickers can be designed to accompany messages like ‘thanks’ or ‘see you later’, which makes the message read with much greater emphasis.”
He continues, “It’s best to update these stickers, gift cards and shareable wallpapers for all seasonal events. There are many possibilities to design content for things like International Valentine’s Day, Chinese Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Golden Week, Tomb Sweeping Day, Labor Day, Dragon Boat Festival and more.”
“And if we are talking for commercial purposes and not just events, I would say a clever link to the brand that isn’t in-your-face obvious makes for a hugely successful mascot,” Barry comments. “A good story line that develops over time and that doesn’t feel like an advertisement. Something people would seek out to watch rather than skipping after the first five seconds.”
A Star Is Born
With no limits to the imagination in designing mascots, where do you start and how do you bring your character to life?
At MPC Shanghai, Barry says, “Usually there’s a brief from the client in terms of what type of person, object or animal that they are after. From here we ask questions to find out personality traits, what this mascot will be doing, restrictions that may be in place, etc. We always concept multiple designs to see if one or more of these feels right for the brief. We try to present at least three good representations of what we think the clients are after - always with our preferred design clearly labelled.”
“We always try to look for cultural meaning and origins / backstory to create a personality and a storytelling universe too,” Christian mentions. “Putting meaning in the name is very important and connecting it to some auspicious symbol or ideal, like prosperity, health and the like. Sketching out some angles is always more of a back-and-forth process rather than a linear one. We then go into the CG realm and make it look pretty.”
But when it comes to how cute you make your character, it all depends on the type of brand. “Big brands such as Tmall, Meituan and JD favour a more formal appearance,” explains Christian. “For those designs, we bring the proportions closer to the original shape and dial down expressions.”
“You have to look at the brand and what you are trying to sell,” states Barry. “Each case may well be different. We have designed mascots specifically for children, that are brighter colours and funny shapes, but then take the same mascot and apply a different voice to it and suddenly it can be aimed at a completely different target demographic.”
“Mascots give the brand an identity, whilst the personalities represent the brand values and attitude. This gives the consumers a face to relate to the brand. Coke, for example, is very specific regarding its Chinese New Year Clay Dolls and their behaviour. They were never too far from the family and they never separated or were in peril. It always had a safe family feel throughout.”
MPC Shanghai has worked on Coca-Cola’s Chinese New Year films for the past few years after originally designing and building the clay dolls in 2015. “Originally when Coca-Cola and McCann came to us with the idea of designing these two characters Afu and Ajiao, we had some older designs from the 90s to work off and modernise. That year we created the artwork that went onto all the products in China for Chinese New Year,” says Barry.
“The next year we redressed and updated them further. We started creating a series of yearly films that became the staple at Chinese New Year. The idea was to drive the narrative (like they did with Christmas in the West), that you cannot have a Chinese New Year meal without a bottle of Coca-Cola.”
The team in Shanghai were also behind Milka’s brand mascot, meticulously building a 100% CG world for the spots. “The Milka campaign was quite difficult - we went through rounds of concept trying to get the eyes and mouth just right,” Barry remembers. “Milka was created to be male but with quite unisex features. He had thick prominent eyelashes with a sparkle in the whites of his eye to remain cute and desirable.”
“We spent a while experimenting over things like whether he should have eyebrows and where his facial features should be placed. Lots of variety with small subtle changes making big personality differences just by appearance alone. Then you have to look at cute animation, all of these attributes are subjective, but we are pretty happy with how Milka turned out.”
In the West, especially in America, mascots are huge among sporting teams. But the West hasn’t quite got the same level of cultural hype that can surround these lovable characters.
“In the East, mascots are used less than in the West for individual sports clubs, but if a big sporting event is around, the mascots accompanying it are everywhere - all over public transport, out of home displays, the news and social media. WeChat is full of animated stickers to share around that time, ” says Christian. “Having mascots infiltrate popular culture around these big games can really help cement recognition and a following for these characters.”
“I see them replacing stars and influencers on some level,” he predicts. “I feel that aspect is more left in the hands of the people and how they interact with the provided content.”
“With more trust in the creative and less need to be so obvious, the West is already benefiting from what Christian has just said - it’s bound to go next-level at some point,” Barry agrees. “In the East, we already have digital influencers being controlled by brands with millions of followers watching intently. It’s an area with huge potential in this digital space.”