Translating a Brand Spokesperson in Digital

A brand spokesperson or character can bring a brand to life, give it emotional range, and create instant recognition and connection. It can also create headaches for the marketers charged with translating that character into interactive media. I recently spoke with Julie Burrows, a veteran marketer and digital brand consultant, about the challenges of expanding brand characters into digital and social mediums. Julie should know. The Pillsbury Doughboy reported to her.

Julie identified a couple of key issues to keep in mind when working with a real or animated brand spokesperson, including:

  • Asset management. Characters are a valuable asset built over time. Like any asset, they can also be mishandled and must be protected. As counterintuitive as this may sound, the brand spokesperson or character may even hold more value than the brand they represent.
  • Emotional benefits. Characters often have different benefits than the brands they represent. When the characters are invested with emotional value while the brands stay more rational, you have a powerful combination that allows you to both connect and satisfy. Brands can focus on rational things like recipes or coupons, but that is much more limiting than if they can really understand the emotional benefit and translate it into a dialogue where consumers can love you back. Flo has millions of Facebook fans, yet Progressive has only a couple hundred thousand because Progressive has to do rational things like answer complaints and Flo can have fun.
  • Recall and likeability. Characters can break through the clutter of advertising with their familiarity and recall. Likability can help persuade consumers and offers a leg up when promoting new products or extensions.

Characters have been on packaging, on TV, and in the pages of magazines, but until recently they never spoke back. When you move from a one-way medium like print or TV to the interactive space, you have to factor in the audience expectations of that brand and character. You are bringing that spokesperson much closer to the consumer in a much more familiar and personal way. While that provides many more possibilities for interaction, you also have multiplied the opportunities for missteps. Julie advises, “It’s critically important to understand what your character can’t do or can’t say and also focus on the areas they can be. It’s important to keep [them] credible.” Social media presents an entirely new set of challenges as you now have to be ready to respond in unscripted, real, or almost real-time situations.


  • Keep a separate voice for the character from the brand or company that expresses emotional vs. rational benefits.
  • Make sure you know the character from a deep emotional level so you truly know her personality and what she can and cannot say and do. This sets how that character is credible in all media, but especially in new media engaging with fans. Write a brief that describes that character in detail and make sure all who are responsible for that voice stay true to the character.
  • Do your research. Track all the measures, including Q Score if you have it, to determine the character’s growing (or waning) value to the business.
  • Think about all elements that embody that character including audio and video. What do you share and how?
  • Be careful when translating a flat character for the first time into an animated spokesperson or one who talks. Be sure you have captured their essence since you will want to remain consistent once you launch. It is critical to avoid the creepy quality that can describe some animations.
  • If the character has a history, incorporate that history. Consider taking people through their stories online to close the loop.
  • Monitor usage including trends in growth and usage.
  • Think ahead and plan for corrupted use. Those assets are now online, and cruel, funny, or perverse use can be made of them. Plan in advance what your response should be – that’s your asset they are corrupting.
  • Connect the spokesperson to the product. Make sure they bring that value back to the business with specific calls to action that can be tracked.

Don’t :

  • Let the character become your marketing strategy if it isn’t. It’s easy to let the character overwhelm everything you do.
  • Be careful of bringing characters together. You will confront a wealth of confounding decisions including who is taller, who enters the room first, who is more active, passive, etc. Better to use them individually in a controlled fashion.

If you have a spokesperson or character that represents the brand in radio, print, TV, and FSIs and you are not using it online, there is a disconnect for consumers as well as a missed opportunity for the brand. Characters have always created a connection with people – picture the very first Doughboy poke in the belly. Can you hear that giggle?

Successful spokespeople in today’s market need a cross-platform approach. Most often we see well-known brand characters launched in TV. TV has broad reach and a longer history of characters, but even those characters more recently born and flourishing online like Flo, the Aflac Duck, the Roaming Gnome, the Old Spice Guy, or the Dos Equis Man seem to have benefited from the full sound, motion video experience, and mass reach that they could get with TV. These spokespeople acquire dimension online as they have many more interactions, talk back, and challenge viewers. Remarketing opportunities like email lists, fan lists, Twitter lists, coupons, and other valuable touch points built through this diverse approach are predominantly and most efficiently delivered online.

One of the trials of having a spokesperson online is that it’s not just a content challenge, it’s also a brand challenge, and they come together at this important juncture. Usually a brand challenge can be addressed with strategy that speaks to cross-medium issues. On top of that you have content strategies that you have to tackle online and off. When you have a spokesperson, they come together – you have content and brand challenges wrapped up as one. Brands that aren’t prepared for that can fail spectacularly.

The value of a successful spokesperson online is undeniable, but it is not an easy thing to do well. These fun, quirky characters require a lot of thought and work to connect appropriately to your audiences and add value to your business. For every Flo, there are probably a thousand spokespeople or characters that were not as well thought-out, not supported cross-channel, and not consistently used. That’s probably why we are not on a first name basis with them.

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