The Potential and Peril of Giving a Brand a Human Face

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The actress Stephanie Courtney has quite a weight on her shoulders.

As the endlessly upbeat Flo in a series of commercials for Progressive Casualty Insurance — 140 since the campaign began almost a decade ago — “she’s the personification of our 32,000 employees,” said the company’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Charney. “She represents our core values of integrity and honesty and transparency and customer service. She’s a character who has character.”

Fictional characters have long been deployed to sell everything including whipped topping, whisper-soft toilet tissue and washing machines, and for good reason. “They’re a really efficient way to create a personality for your brand,” said Britt Nolan, the chief creative officer of the ad agency Leo Burnett U.S. “When a brand wants the world to know what it stands for and what it stands against, a character is an easily accessible image to tap into.”

Consider Lily Adams, the chipper AT&T saleswoman; the Most Interesting Man in the World, who, admittedly, doesn’t always drink beer but, when he does, prefers Dos Equis; the aptly named Mayhem, meant to strike terror in the heart of those who don’t have Allstate Insurance; Professor Nathaniel Burke of Farmers Insurance, who knows a thing or two; and Progressive’s Flo.

Their forebears include the prim supermarket manager Mr. Whipple, on the lookout for customers with the temerity to squeeze the Charmin (though, of course, he couldn’t resist the temptation himself). There was Marge the manicurist extolling the gentle-on-your-hands virtues of Palmolive dishwashing liquid; Josephine the plumber, who was in the tank for Comet cleanser; and the innkeeper Sara Tucker, who proudly served Cool Whip to her satisfied guests. And, of course, there are numerous animated characters that act as company avatars.

Characters are particularly useful when there’s a lot of explaining to do. “Insurance is a pretty copy-heavy category,” said Mr. Nolan of Leo Burnett, which created Mayhem. “There’s a lot that every insurance company is trying to say, and one of the great things about characters is that they give you a powerful, entertaining way to do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

The workload of fictional characters has changed since the (lonely) days of the Maytag repairman. “Early on, there was one consideration when you were creating a brand spokesperson: How does the character embody, exemplify or advance the brand’s value?” said Steve Gardner, a founder and former president of the ad agency Gardner Nelson & Partners. “You wanted a character with particular knowledge that made their endorsement of the product relevant.”

It would stand to reason, for example, that Marge would know what made hands soft because she was a manicurist. And it made perfect sense that as an innkeeper, Sara Tucker would have the skinny on the best way to enhance a dessert.

But now, Mr. Gardner said, characters are being conjured less as experts and more as what he calls brand-mnemonics: mouthpieces who will be overwhelmingly associated with a company and its products.

It can be a winning approach. “When someone says, ‘O.K., now I’m ready to shop for insurance,’ they go into their brain and come up with the top three names they can remember,” Mr. Nolan said. “To do that you need to be simple and memorable, and characters can help with that.”

But it’s a complicated process, said Allen Adamson, the founder of BrandSimple, a consulting firm. “You have to cast characters right and build them right,” he said. “They’re a big-ticket item, and you have to let audiences get to know them. You need time and money, and marketers are short on both.”

And however well conceived, characters can be something of a mixed blessing. “The more successful they are at communicating one message about your product or service, the harder it is when you want them to communicate another message,” said Peggy Masterson Kalter, the founder and chief executive of Masterson/SWOT Team, a consulting firm. “People will see Flo and think, ‘Oh, I already know what she’s about,’ and tune out, not appreciating that Progressive has a message about a new service or new insurance coverage.”

As Mr. Nolan put it, “The best characters are created to make a specific point about a product or service, and when the point changes, it’s hard to get them to evolve.”

He cited the example of the gnome once used by the website Travelocity to encourage people to embrace adventure and see the world. “And as the brand evolved we wanted the gnome to be more of a travel expert,” Mr. Nolan said. “It was very challenging, and I don’t know if it ever got there.”

And when it comes to human characters, there is the complicating factor of the performers involved. Dos Equis, for instance, changed actors for its Most Interesting Man campaign last year, to mixed reviews. People age and start to look different, or can have contract issues or ideas about how the character should be portrayed.

“You want the actor to take ownership of the character, to love it and be part of its development,” Mr. Nolan said. “But the actor may have ideas about what to do with the character that aren’t strategically right.”

The ad agency itself can make the mistake of getting too caught up and losing sight of what the character’s purpose is, said Ben Arno, senior director at Interbrand, a consulting firm. “You don’t want to fall into the trap of, ‘Now, is that something Flo would say?’” he said. “That’s making a character more important than she should be, and tying one hand behind your back in terms of the brand.”