Dr. Barbara Phillips featured in The Globe & Mail
Release Date : June 25, 2014
Wolfgang the penguin does not like the gnome.
Travelocity’s mascot is in an enclosure at the Toronto Zoo looking for the perfect photo-op. It’s just one stop on a summer tour for the world’s most famous anthropomorphized garden ornament – and part of a Canadian campaign designed to encourage consumers to book more summer vacations through the discount travel website.
Travelocity employees have updated hisTwitter and Instagram accounts with photos of the friendly cartoonish face visiting the Ripley’s Aquarium, eyeing shots of tequila at a local bar and taking a dunk in a pool. Only one gnome has appeared in commercials and marketing material for the brand since 2003. It’s a sturdy statue.
But on this sunny morning, the gnome is taking some abuse. The penguin, apparently not liking the cut of his jib, pecks at the plaster beard before waddling away.
Still, Travelocity’s vice-president and general manager for Canada and Latin America, Stuart Morris, does not look worried. His company is in the enviable position of having created a character that has gained some popularity and recognition. And while the adventures of a gnome may seem like fun and games, they can have real business implications for brands that make mascots work.
According to research from the firm Synthesio, popular mascots get consumers’ attention. A study released last year looked at social media conversations over 30 days, to see how often spokespeople were mentioned in connection with brands. The best performing celebrity spokesperson was race car driver Danica Patrick, whose name appeared in 12.72 per cent of the mentions of GoDaddy. More than half of the celebrities the study looked at accounted for less than 1 per cent.
By contrast, the most popular mascots generated a large percentage of their brands’ buzz online. The Doughboy was referenced in 22.14 per cent of Pillsbury’s mentions; the Aflac duck accounted for 11.82 per cent of buzz; Progressive’s Flo showed up 6.85 per cent of the time; and the Geico Gecko 6.15 per cent.
“It’s hard to know, in advertising, when it affects sales; there are so many external factors. But for example, the marketing manager for Aflac tried to get rid of the duck … and their sales did go down. And they attributed it to a change in their advertising,” said Barbara Phillips, a marketing professor at the University of Saskatchewan whose research focuses partly on the power of mascots for advertisers. “So they fired the chief marketing officer and kept the duck. Now he’s in their logo.”
When they work, mascots can play an important role in humanizing a brand, she said. The Geico Gecko and the duck managed to make insurance companies seem more personable. Countless food companies have used mascots such as Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger to appeal to children.