Character Studies in Change

The reinvention of brand icons—whether based on real people or fictional characters—always comes with a certain amount of risk. Either people love the remakes or hate them. Or, worse still, they are indifferent. Here is a look at how five companies attempted to update their mascots and where a couple of them failed horribly.


Kraft Foods made a bold move last week, introducing a dapper new Mr. Peanut for Planters that not only swaps his cartoon look for the richer, added dimension offered by stop-motion animation, but in the most dramatic turn, has him speak (VO by Robert Downey Jr.) for the first time since he was introduced in 1916. The first work for the brand by TBWA agency Being in New York, the new campaign features the tagline “Naturally remarkable.” The new character was created in collaboration with Laika/House, the Portland, Ore.-based animation shop owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight.


Chester Cheetah, once simply a fun-loving, skateboard-riding cartoon character aimed at kids, is now also a mischievous mascot also targeted at adults. The radical personality change introduced two years ago, says the company, was inspired by research from agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners that showed the Frito-Lay brand was a guilty pleasure among adults. Chester first appeared on the snack food scene in 1986 and coolly noted in animated commercials, “It’s not easy being cheesy.” He still sports a similar look on packaging, but the latest work from the San Francisco shop, which initially had the cat playing pranks with the chips, encourages people to join the “Battle of the Cheetos,” fluffy vs. crunchy. A brand rep says the adult-driven approach is reaching its intended target. New ads break in January.


When a company founder is literally the face of a brand, companies often find themselves floundering with their advertising after their spokesperson’s death. Orville Redenbacher, who died in 1995, made an eerily unwelcome return to TV in 2007, when Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Boulder, Colo., and the filmmaking talents of David Fincher and Digital Domain resurrected him and modernized his image with a commercial that mostly just creeped everyone out. No one, consumers, bloggers and ad critics alike, appreciated Redenbacher’s return from the grave and uncharacteristic attempts to modernize his image, like giving him an MP3 player and earbuds in the spot, only furthered the absurdity of it all. The controversial ad seemed to do more for Fincher’s prep work for Benjamin Button than the popcorn, and ConAgra Foods later shifted the account to Venables Bell & Partners.


The Michelin Man is more than a century old but instead of getting creeky with age, the bulbous giant is getting more active and buff and, in his latest incarnation, is showcasing superhero-style strength in order to illustrate the theme “The right tire changes everything.” TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York, which picked up the business two years ago, introduced the new “Bibendum” last fall with animation from Psyop, New York, and his weapon of choice against everything from “evil gas pumps” to dangerous roads is, naturally, the tire. The global effort is resonating well, says Lisa Hickey, director of image and brands, Michelin North America, who attributes the positive response to the fact that it provides “a real solution to a very real problem.”


Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, known now simply as KFC, is attempting a comeback of sorts. As part of a yearlong celebration of the 120th anniversary of his birth, KFC launched a PR push this fall to introduce the founder made famous for his “finger lickin’ good” chicken to younger consumers who thought the bow-tie wearing entrepreneur and once ad star was simply a fictional character. A national Halloween costume contest was held to promote its “Doublicious” sandwich in October. But while the world’s largest chicken chain still uses the image of its goateed founder who died in 1980 on its packaging and promotions, the Colonel (or imaginative renditions of him) hasn’t appeared in advertising since the late ’90s, when then-agency Young & Rubicam created an animated version voiced by Randy Quaid declaring, “The Colonel here!” who unnaturally appeared dancing and singing in the ads.