Ronald McDonald, Mr. Peanut, the Energizer Bunny—hundreds of companies use colorful characters to connect with consumers. But the tech industry isn’t so quick to conjure anthropomorphic spokescritters. With the exception of the Twitter Fail Whale or the Reddit alien, there aren’t many. Most disappeared over a decade ago. Does this mean there’s something inherently different about the tech industry, and how it’s marketed?
Some business experts say yes.
Sunder Narayanan is a clinical associate professor of marketing at NYU. He says that a mascot’s essential function is to "humanize" its brand, and to play to the buyer’s emotions. So in a rather unsexy field like auto insurance, one can see why this might be necessary.
"In insurance, people rarely think about it and rarely make insurance decisions, so it’s low-involvement," says Narayanan. "In those situations, a mascot is effective in building warm feelings toward the brand, which can be activated into a purchase when the customer is ready."
Incidentally, insurance nowadays is a mascot cash cow: Two of America’s most visible, Flo the Progressive Girl and the Geico gecko, both relentlessly hawk auto insurance to American TV viewers.
Tech used to be as fond of mascots as any other industry. Take Jeeves, the cartoon butler Ask.com used back in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Back when everyday Americans were just discovering the incredible power of search engines, a butler was the perfect mascot: It reinforced to people that Ask.com (previously AskJeeves.com) can personally deliver any information you want, directly to you and put it at your fingertips, like a digital servant.
Sadly, as we all know, Jeeves didn’t last forever. And he isn’t the only tech mascot to symbolize a bygone era. There’s the Pets.com sock puppet, the AOL Running Man, the RCA dog, the Monster.com monster, and Microsoft’s favorite animated office assistant, Clippy the Paperclip. You won’t see any of these guys, or any mascot for many tech companies, on TV or in magazine ads.
But back in the ‘90s, when the Internet and computers really started to take over American homes, tech companies needed those playful mascots to show buyers that this new technology wasn’t so intimidating. And now that we’ve arrived in the age of smartphones and Oculus Rift, that initial consumer trepidation is minimal, but it wasn’t always.
"For some types of products, customers experience anxiety when purchasing," says Jakki Mohr, professor of marketing at the University of Montana. "They might ask themselves, ‘Will I be able to fully use this new product? Will it perform as promised? If I run into glitches, will the company help me solve them? Will the new product integrate seamlessly with my printer or other software?’ The mascot can help create a friendly, less ‘techie’ image, and reassure customers about their purchases."
Microsoft took that strategy to new levels by including a cute cartoon in the actual Word software to help users navigate the program: The more-infamous-than-famous Clippy the talking paperclip.
Kevan Atteberry was the artist behind Clippy. He was a graphic designer and illustrator for years before being contacted by Microsoft.
"Initially, my reaction to Clippy was a distancing of myself from him," says Atteberry, after Clippy was introduced to the masses. "I knew people hated him or ridiculed him, and I didn’t want to be associated with that. I was afraid to include him in my resume."
But at the time, Microsoft’s heart was in the right place. Back then, word processors were new to a lot of people. Microsoft clearly wanted to make Word less daunting to new users, and the cutesy paper clip, with big eyes and which could morph into different shapes, was designed to do that. After working with Microsoft to create Word’s talking paper clip, Atteberry found success as a children’s book illustrator, and recently sold a two-book deal to HarperCollins.
It's not just our growing comfort level with tech that accounts for its lack of mascots. It’s also a question of need. Services like Facebook and Twitter have become a utility for most Internet users, and since it's the network effect that draws them—not the quality of the product—these networks don't need to drown out competitors the way insurance companies do.
"With companies like Facebook, it’s social media, so the relationship is with other people—not with the brand," Narayanan says.
Mohr says that mascots aren’t just supposed to appeal to customers’ emotions.
"Mascots can reinforce a company’s unique values or value proposition," she says. "They become a way for customers both to identify the company, and what it stands for."
Today, in this post-Clippy, Google Glass-ready world, people no longer need a cartoon character acting as a Virgil who guides through the murky depths of software and user guides. But tech companies still need a way to convey character and personality. Enter the Google Doodle.
One Silicon Valley giant—Google—plays to users’ emotions with its ever-changing, brightly colored, and frequently interactive Google Doodles.
In the past, the Doodle has been a Charlie Chaplin-honoring video, "Google" written out in Braille, and a playable game of Pac-Man. You can even purchase prints of select Doodles on posters or shirts. The now-iconic logo and its Doodles are likely the closest thing Google will ever have to a mascot, but Narayanan says the marketing nuance is slightly different. Similar is Reddit's ever-changing alien.
"The Doodle is more to create a nice, temporary feeling every time someone [uses Google]," he says. "Unlike a mascot, which can create a long-term connection with an enduring personality."
Narayanan says that West Coast-based tech companies are "far away from the glitzy advertising world of NYC," and that they’ve "focused on selling technology, rather than on creating warm, fuzzy mascots."
But one sector of the tech landscape, unlike the rest of the industry, just doesn’t utilize mascots. It thrives on its mascots. That sector: Video games.
Nintendo debuted Super Mario back in 1981, and he’s turned into an incredibly enduring corporate mascot. The Japanese company’s first-party mascots have become its lifeblood. One of its franchises, Super Smash Bros., is a fighting game that pits the pantheon of Nintendo mascots—Donkey Kong, Yoshi, Princess Peach, Luigi, and scores from the non-Mario universe—against each other in a cartoony multiplayer brawl.
The Smash Bros. series, first introduced in 1999, has proven so popular that Nintendo’s arch-nemesis Sony responded with its own version in 2012 called PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale.
"Tech itself does not seem the best place for characters in marketing, but consumer products from a tech company will always be ripe for character representation in marketing and brand establishment," says Atteberry.
Consumer electronics like video games are indeed fertile ground for mascots—and for the millions to be made in merchandising. Angry Birds, created by Finnish game devs Rovio, has taken the gaming world by storm in the last few years. Their cast of bulbous birds has spawned a market all their own. There are plush toys, beanies, socks, comics, stationery, lunchboxes, greeting cards, lanyards—even cookbooks and an in-app cartoon.
And since a lot of Angry Birds’ target audience is kids, creating mascots and launching a toy and apparel line seems like a no-brainer. Meanwhile, back at companies like Mozilla, Apple, or Uber, there isn’t much demonstrated interest in plastering mascots all over media for popular consumption.
"Some tech companies—often managed by engineers and programmers—find such ‘fluffy’ marketing tactics a bit, well, frivolous," Mohr explains. "The possible disconnect between the developers’ and the customers’ mindsets is what makes the topic of how marketing decisions are made in tech companies a particularly interesting area of study. It also means that anything tech companies can do to really understand the customers’ decision process—say, through observation or ethnography—is so important," she continues. "Many tech companies realize this and are hiring anthropologists into their research departments."
Don’t expect anything like the Geico gecko for now, though. But don’t be surprised if the airwaves might one day be inundated with a technology company’s new talking animal mascot, either.
"No matter how silly it seems or how reluctant people are to admit it," Atteberry says, "there are characters out there they like."