The Life and Times of the Snuggle Bear

Lecturing us about laundry for 30 years, and now a social-media star

In 1983, Unilever took the wraps off of Snuggle, a new brand of fabric softener designed to take on Procter & Gamble's Downy, the unchallenged, 800-pound gorilla of the segment.

Since 1960, Downy had taught homemakers to pour a little capful of the blue liquid into the rinse cycle to bring “April freshness” to their wash. Downy ads glowed with photos of happy husbands, smiling children and lots of cute babies. Here, Unilever found a chink in Downy’s armor.

Snuggle was already strong on quality and price, but its secret weapon was softer than the towels and cuter than the babies. It was, in the words of a subsequent marketing analysis of the brand, “a magical spokesbear”—Snuggle Bear, as we have known him ever since.

“He was in every ad, and he was cuddly,” recalled Alexis Krisay, owner of Serendipit Consulting, which specializes in mascot marketing for brands. “He cuddled the sheets, the towels and even the logo. The brand has established him, and now there’s no one who doesn’t recognize the Snuggle Bear.”

This seems like a reasonable explanation for why these two ads—the first from 1986, the other from today—look so much alike. But lurking behind these ads is a cautionary tale. Using cute creatures to market a brand might sound simple. “But you have to be careful,” Krisay said. “If you try to make it cool, the public won’t respond.”

Snuggle Bear was born under an auspicious star. Unilever hired Kermit Love (who later worked for Jim Henson on Sesame Street) to create him. Voiced in TV spots by Corinne Orr (who’d done all the female voices in Speed Racer), Snuggle Bear snuggled his way into the hearts of millions.

Then, in 2003, Unilever decided an update was in order. Plucked out of the laundry basket where he’d nuzzled towels for 20 years, Snuggle Bear suddenly appeared poolside in Rio, wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and offering a towel to a lady in a wet bathing suit. The cute mascot went from being like a Care Bear to “becoming a devil-may-care bear,” said The New York Times’ Stuart Elliott. Even more to the point, what did Snuggle’s poolside concupiscence have to do with fabric softener? “When a mascot resonates,” Krisay said, “you need to stay in the realm”—and Unilever hadn’t.

As this 2014 ad shows, Snuggle Bear (today owned by Sun Products) is back in that realm: cute, cuddly and happily pitching the brand’s new Scent Booster Pacs. He’s the same old bear many of us grew up with. And while Sun has updated him, the tweaks are subtle (his fur and snout are a little different) and, significantly, digital. These days, Snuggle Bear has over 700,000 fans on Facebook. He tweets every day, too.

Happy 31st birthday, Snuggle Bear. See you in the spin cycle.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.