This is the story of how a bored college kid let his mind wander in class and wound up changing the world. Wait—haven't we heard this one before? You bet we have. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg—all were bored college kids who went on to accomplish a thing or two. But in the case of University of Virginia senior Alexis Ohanian, who in 2005 co-founded Reddit, the innovation wasn't just a highly influential social hub that's celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It was Snoo.
And what's Snoo? Why, nothing—what's new with you?
Stay with us, folks. "What's new?" was actually the operating premise behind Reddit, the so-called "front page of the Internet" where popular vote determines the most relevant posts of a given day. And that made Snoo (the slangy shorthand for "what's new") a fine name for the character that Ohanian drew to represent his new site. According to Reddit's director of outreach Ashley Dawkins, Snoo "is a trademark, a mascot and an important part of the Reddit family." Indeed, given Reddit's sheer size and influence (7.6 billion monthly pageviews), Snoo isn't just one of the best known characters on the Web; it's not too much of a stretch to say he's the most famous space alien since E.T.
And why a space alien? "I doodled it while bored in marketing class," Ohanian has written (on Reddit, of course). "Not sure why it's an alien. I just kind of like the idea of having a time-traveling alien mascot."
If that seems like a WTF approach to marketing, it is—and it's just the beginning. Branding 101 holds that mascots should stay consistent. But Snoo changes constantly—with the holidays, the weather and at a whim. Each subreddit has its own Snoo. Reddit encourages users to play around with Snoo, too. "We love allowing people the creative freedom to create their own version of a Snoo," said Dawkins.
So, let's review: A website about anything and everything, represented by a mascot from space whose appearance has little consistency. Does any of it make any sense? Well, no. And yes—if you consider the nature of Reddit itself.
Reddit's legendary user unfriendliness and circa-1998 appearance signify a site that's historically been a refuge for the kind of tech-savvy, socially iconoclastic crowd that's inherently resistent to traditional marketing to start with. And for this crowd, says creative consultant and longtime Redditor Matt Bull, the robot is ideal. "Reddit's livelihood depends on a kind of nonaesthetic captured perfectly by Snoo, who looks like a never-used piece of '90s clip art," Bull said. "As a piece of design, Snoo seems like an afterthought, a space filler. But as a piece of brand identity, he's perfect."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.