Tony the Tiger may be approaching his 50th birthday, but he couldn't be younger at heart. That's because he's always doing something fun and exciting, especially when it comes to kids. He stays in touch with kid trends, including the foods they eat, their interests, language and activities. Reaching out to kids both home and abroad, Tony is seen and heard in at least 42 different countries.
All this has made Tony not just a spokescharacter for a brand, but a universal icon, according to his creator, the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich.
While not all brand characters are as powerful as Tony, many have had success in building relationships with kids.
And that's not an easy thing to do. Kids are savvy consumers. They know companies want their money, and use advertising and promotions to get it. As a result, they connect with brands they can trust.
Once they feel secure with a brand, they're willing to spend money on it -- and lots of it. Spending among the 36 million kids between the ages of 4 and 12 has been increasing at a rate of 15% over the last 10 years. Last year, kids generated $33.2 billion in income through allowances, work outside the home and handouts from family, according to James McNeal, Ph.D., president of McNeal & Kids, College Station, Texas, a youth consultancy. Further, kids influenced about $290 billion of their parents' money last year, McNeal said. To reach this important demographic group, marketers realize that they need to make their products fun and exciting. Brand characters can do just that because they give products a friendly face to which kids can relate. Kids who identify with the character will no doubt like the brand it represents.
While mostly used in the cereal category, brand characters can also be found in plenty of other areas of the store, including the fresh department (Pillsbury Dough Boy) and candy section (M&M's).
"Characters are a great way to build a connection with kids," said Tina Imig, co-founder of KidLeo, the kid consultancy of marketing firm Leo Burnett, Chicago.
Successful brand characters possess two core dimensions: magnetism and integrity, according to Imig. Magnetic characters are powerful in that kids are drawn to them. They're fresh, amusing and even infectious. Kids feel that the characters are just like them, and understand their interests.
Characters with integrity are trustworthy. Kids see them frequently and feel they know them well. They teach kids new things. And, most importantly, they show that they care about kids, the world and helping others.
That's why it's so important to develop the character's personality. In doing so, marketers should keep in mind that good characters are unique. They don't replicate something that's happens to be cool in kid culture at the time. Powerful characters go well beyond that by coming in contact with kids in a variety of ways, including on the Internet, in advertising, school (through the creation of educational programs), parades and athletics.
Because characters can be easily forgotten, marketers need to reinvent and refresh their characters all the time. Kellogg did this by creating an ad campaign that told the story behind Tony the Tiger.
"Just because a character's face is on a cereal box doesn't mean anything to kids," said Imig. "They want to know what the character cares about and what his interests are."
While some of the strongest characters have been around for years, marketers are also benefiting through new characters.
Kellogg is among the marketers that recognize this. The company has a big slate of characters, including Snap, Crackle and Pop (Rice Krispies), Cornelious (Corn Flakes), Toucan Sam (Froot Loops) and Dig 'Em (Smacks). While most of its characters are used for its cereal brands, it also has plenty of representation in other areas through personalities like Eggosaur and Wally Waffle for Eggo waffles and Milton for Pop Tarts.
Kellogg continues to look for new opportunities in its character lineup. About 18 months ago, it introduced Eet and Ern, characters used primarily online to introduce promotions. "Eet and Ern are the first characters we created specifically for introducing promotions," said Clark. "They add fun and excitement to our programs."
To keep its characters relevant to kids, Kellogg makes sure the characters are portrayed in a variety of kid-friendly activities. Tony the Tiger, for instance, is currently being featured in a promotion that lets kids design -- and possibly win -- their own snowboard. Kids who log onto www.tonythetiger.com can use a screen application to design the top of a snowboard. All approved designs are being posted at tonythetiger.com. Site visitors will judge the entries at the end of the month -- a move that encourages entrants to get their friends and family to log onto the site.
Masterfoods USA, Hackettstown, N.J., a division of Mars Inc., also makes sure its M&M's "spokescandies" remain appropriate for kids. Toward that end, the characters constantly grow and change. The biggest change came in 1995, when they went from being one-dimensional to three-dimensional, a move that made them more realistic.
"We continue to develop their personalities," said Scott Hudler, brand communications manager, M&M's. "We don't want them spouting the same lines over and over again." The spokescandies were first introduced into advertising in 1954.
Joining the original Red and Yellow characters are Blue, introduced in 1995 after the company let consumers vote on the new color; Green, 1997, the first and only female characters and Crispy, 1999.
Hudler said part of the appeal of the characters is that each has its own personality. In advertising, Masterfoods has played off their character traits. For instance, Red is insecure, while Yellow is clueless; Blue, confident; Green, strong and sexy; and Crispy, neurotic and paranoid.
The popularity of the characters has enabled the company to extend the M&M's brand into licenses, including clothing and desk furniture.
M&M's positions the characters as real people. For instance, Red recently conducted interviews with the press via a satellite media tour.
Such uses have included the characters being touted as the "official spokescandies of the new millennium." And in November 1998, the characters starred in the brand's first feature film when their new 3-D movie attraction opened at the Las Vegas "M&M's" world store.
To drive home the "celebrity" theme, a special Web site was created to give consumers a look into "the star-studded, glamorous world of the "M&M's brand spokescharacters." Located at m-ms.com, the site is a parody of a Hollywood studio's Web site.
While M&M's often pairs the characters with adult celebrities, including Halle Berry and Dennis Miller, it is cautious about joint marketing efforts so that it doesn't position the characters in an environment that is inappropriate for kids.
Over the past four years, the candies have had their own float in the parade. To keep the brand contemporary, it features an up-and-coming artist on the M&M's float each year. For the 2001 parade, for instance, the float carried O-Town, a pop music group.
Other brand marketers have also turned to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade for character exposure. Measuring 37.2 feet tall, 33.5 feet wide and 60 feet long, the General Mills' Honey Nut Cheerios Bee, called BuzzBee, made its third consecutive appearance in the Macy's parade in 2001. In celebration of Cheerios 60th birthday, the bee wore a birthday suit created by third graders in Beeville, Texas.
"We try to involve the bee in family-friendly, fun-loving, high-visibility events. The Macy's parade fits all of those criteria," said Liv Lane, spokeswoman, General Mills, Minneapolis.
The bee appears in advertising and at various kid-focused events, including "family-fun Fridays" at the Mall of America, where the bee takes photos with kids. The Mall of America, Bloomington, Minn., the nation's largest retail and entertainment complex, is also home to Cereal Adventure, a branded General Mills entertainment facility that includes such attractions as Trix and Fruity Carnival and Lucky Charms Magical Forest
The bee, who first appeared on boxes during the cereal's 1979 launch, is also featured on an award-winning board game, "The Honey Nut Cheerios Spelling Bee Game," and on a variety of merchandise, including children's tableware, postcards and T-shirts.
BuzzBee didn't have an official name until recently, when kids ages 5 to 12 were challenged to name the animated icon. Kids from all 50 states entered the contest. "We felt that a naming contest would be a fun way to get kids engaged with the bee and really thinking about his personality," said Lane.
In total, General Mills has about 12 equity characters. Most are linked to cereals, such as Count Chocula or the Trix Rabbit. But there's also the Helping Hand from Hamburger Helper/Chicken Helper/Tuna Helper (who has returned to advertising after a 10-year absence), the Green Giant and the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
Each character has a confidential personality outline, and General Mills makes sure everything the characters say and do is in line with those guidelines. The most successful characters are usually those that have a good amount of visibility on-pack, on-air and at events.
General Mills works diligently to keep its characters contemporary. For instance, the bee underwent a makeover in 2000 to better resemble the cartoon images today's kids are used to seeing. Similarly, Honey Nut Cheerios recently included in-pack figurines of the bee on a scooter, and a recent Trix commercial featured the Trix rabbit trying to perform with a boy band.
Brand characters can make a product more appealing by opening the channels of communication more quickly and efficiently.
Effective brand characters typically share the same traits, according to officials at several kid consultancies:
The character is something that kids can identify and have conversations with, trust, and even control.
"Using an animal-like character makes that character less threatening than an actual person," noted James McNeal, Ph.D., president of McNeal & Kids, College Station, Texas, a youth consultancy. "It's almost like a pet or playmate."
For the Kellogg Co., animal-type characters help its brands develop a friendship with kids. "Kids are used to having animals as pets," said Celeste Clark, company spokeswoman, Kellogg. "They trust them."
"We use a lot of discretion in terms of the situations we put our characters in because we don't want to jeopardize the trust that kids and consumers have developed with them," said Clark.