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Is the era of the brand mascot over?

Traditional brand mascots are going extinct. Brands must innovate to stay relevant.

9 min read

Brands & Campaigns

Progressive (left) and Dos Equis (right)

Is your marketing team dreaming of creating the next Green Giant?

Bad news: It’s no longer possible to create a character like Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean or the Michelin Man and see these figures endure for decades and bleed into pop culture simply by featuring them in ads.

That’s right: The traditional brand mascot is going extinct.

Despite what might be decreased relevance overall, these characters nevertheless still have years of consumer good will to cash in on. More modern brand reps, however, face pressure to evolve and to be nuanced in order to remain relevant because in part attention spans are short and channels abound.

Look no further than beer brand Dos Equis and its Most Interesting Man in the World. According to a press release on March 9, the brand said #AdiosAmigo as he headed on a one-way mission to Mars.

But, the brand added, “Fans can rest assured that Dos Equis will reveal a new Most Interesting Man in the World in 2016, as this is not the end of the campaign, but an evolution.”

A Dos Equis rep declined to provide specifics about what’s to come, but said 2016 is the right time for the brand to “take interesting to new heights” as Dos Equis opens “the door to a new world of possibilities for what it means to be interesting” and the brand prepares to assume its role as the official beer sponsor of the college football playoff on ESPN in the fall.

“It’s important for Dos Equis to evolve with our consumers and their changing attitudes and behaviors and recent research shows 83% of men want to live an even more interesting life, which reinforces Dos Equis’ Stay Thirsty mindset,” the rep added. “We see this evolution of The Most Interesting Man similar to that of Batman, Superman and James Bond, where our guy has seen multiple iterations of these cultural icons and enjoys different takes on the same character. These franchises not only endure, they grow, as the characters’ stories are bigger than one individual. They refresh themselves and stay relevant, just like The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

The latest in a string of makeovers
The Most Interesting Man is certainly not the first brand rep to undergo a change. Look no further than the Maytag Repairman, McDonalds’ Hamburglar or the Brawny Man, who have all been revamped in recent years.

But with all due respect to these latter icons, Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man still arguably had more cultural cache left, meaning he’s making something of a Seinfeld-like exit at this point.

Value in going out on top
To wit: The #AdiosAmigo spot announcing his departure has 1.3 million views on YouTube and, per video ad tech firm Pixability, it has 4200 shares on YouTube with an additional 10.3 million views and 23,000 shares on Facebook.

And while the Most Interesting Man does not have an official Twitter handle, a number of unofficial accounts exist and the quips about him — which, since 2009, include, “He has won the lifetime achievement award, twice,” “His business card simply says, ‘I’ll call you,’” and “When he drives a new car off the lot, it increases in value” — have inspired countless memes and even a meme generator.

The Most Interesting Man has also bled into popular culture with executions like a 2012 Saturday Night Live sketch featuring actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his obnoxious son.

In an additional nod to his popularity, Dos Equis is giving away his Coveted Collection of worldly possessions, including his tuxedo, guitar and mariachi and astronaut suits.

Why timing is everything
Many marketers agree the timing is right for this change. Rafael Serrano, executive creative director at advertising company GSD&M’s multicultural arm, Sibling, says the Most Interesting Man was getting a little stale and repetitive.

“Some of the last executions I saw were expected and no longer had the freshness that they once did, so I was not at all shocked that they were going to retire him,” Serrano said, adding that it’s time to take the campaign in a new, unexpected direction. “I would have retired him a little earlier, but that’s just me. I did like the way they retired him though — epic. Very fitting.”

Now the challenge is for Dos Equis to retain its engaged fans while gaining new ones with new content.

“The bar is high and you can’t afford to disappoint,” Serrano said.

Brook Flagg, account executive at Desmond & Louis Public Relations, added this move potentially gives Dos Equis an opportunity to boost public interest in the brand itself again rather than simply in the character of the Most Interesting Man.

To boldly go…
It’s not just Dos Equis that has to prepare for a bold new mascot future.

Per Matthew Scott, senior vice president of business development and strategy at online community Crowdtap, spokespeople functioned as brand icons during a time when the media landscape was much simpler.

“There were limited distribution channels — newspaper, radio, TV — and less opportunity for everyday people to influence the message,” Scott said. “Consider that among today’s teens, online creators are more influential than most traditional celebrities and young adults are watching 2.5 times more online video than TV. This spells big changes for the way brands utilize spokespeople.”

Further, as the pace of the marketing world accelerates and brands prepare for incoming generations of consumers that demonstrate vastly different preferences and behaviors, Scott noted change will be a constant.

“Advertisers can’t please all people all the time. Sure, some fans might be sad to see The Most Interesting Man in the World go, but let’s remember that consumers can be fickle,” Scott added. “Today’s tweet lamenting the retirement of a fictional spokesman will likely be replaced by an entirely new conversation tomorrow. That’s why brands today need to focus on building longer-term relationships, beyond the campaign, to stay relevant amid cultural ebbs and flows.”

Misty, water-colored memories
Nostalgia remains a powerful motivator, so even inconsolable Dos Equis fans need not necessarily despair forever.

In fact, Serrano said nostalgia is one of the main reasons brand reps stay relevant in the first place and this evolution by Dos Equis really signals an attempt to make the campaign more relevant again and to offer something new to fans.

“TV shows, for instance, that stay way longer than necessary — I’m looking at you, “Two and a Half Men” — still bring in the numbers and have a rabid loyal following, but they are no longer part of the national conversation,” Serrano said. “The retirement of the Most Interesting Man in the World has people talking about him again. It’s brilliant.”

As such, Serrano said he believes we will see the Most Interesting Man again and give him a hero’s welcome, adding he hopes the Geico cavemen come back at some point, too.

“When they bring the original actor back, it will strike a nostalgia cord in the audience and the brand will have accomplished not just one, but two long-term objectives,” Flagg added. “Bringing him back can happen no less than five years from now, because these things are cyclical. [And] the brand has to wait for its audience to mature in order for the reprise of the character to truly be nostalgic.”

The perkiest mascot of all
Insurance provider Progressive is in a similar position with Flo, who has been shilling for the brand since 2008.

According to Progressive CMO Jeff Charney, the brand keeps Flo fresh with what it calls its Network Strategy.

“We don’t treat our ads like ads — they’re episodes. Just like a hit TV show, over the years we’ve introduced foils, a supporting cast, integrated set changes and even spin-offs,” Charney said. “The result? The campaign is as relevant as ever. Based on third-party research, Flo is more likable now than ever. And based on our own marketing measures, she’s as effective as ever. Simply put — the Network Strategy is helping keep Flo relevant, even after more than 120 episodes.”

And so while Progressive may not have recast Flo to date as Dos Equis is doing, she has nevertheless evolved in her own way.

“Progressive has dimensionalized Flo across social media channels, and the mascot often gets more engagement than the brand itself,” Scott added. “Progressive also recently ran a ‘Dress Like Flo’ Halloween contest to encourage people to share branded content using the popular character as a fun and relevant way in.”

Insurance provider Allstate’s Mayhem character is a similar example. Introduced in 2010, he’s arguably the new kid on the block, so his initial chaos shtick still works, so it will be interesting to see what Allstate does with him as time goes on. An Allstate rep was not available for further comment.

Modern mascot takeaways
In short, brands that want to introduce mascots today — or more powerfully leverage those that have been introduced in the last decade or so like Dos Equis, Progressive and Allstate — need to make sure they:

  • Evolve: Mascot relevance is all about evolution and keeping up with the times today, Serrano said. “Even the King from Burger King became ‘edgier,’” he added.
  • Build long-term relationships with consumers: While we cannot anticipate all upcoming trends and preferences — especially among future generations, Scott said these relationships can help withstand cultural ebbs and flows.
  • Empower consumers to participate in brand conversations: “While there is clearly still a place for creating iconic personalities to associate with brands, marketers need to balance this with tactics that empower everyday people and online influencers to participate in brand storytelling, too,” Scott said.
  • Listen: Per Scott, as brands find new ways to connect with their audiences, it’s vital they keep an ear to the ground and recognize opportunities to reintroduce past spokespeople. “Marketers can uncover these opportunities by having a more authentic and ongoing dialogue with their customers,” he said.

Lisa Lacy is the senior writer for Momentology. She previously covered digital and search marketing for ClickZ and SEW and is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism.