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23 Mar

Useful fiction

I can't recall a single compelling modern-day brand mascot. Duolingo comes to mind. But besides its antics on socials that are totally unrelated to the product it's selling, there isn't much to talk about.

Do we even have mascots anymore?  I remember the Vodafone Pug and the ZooZoos. But that was long ago.

What a brand means has undergone a sea of change in the last 15-odd years.  

Businesses' effort to create a lasting brand symbol is increasingly being automated. Think of the chatbots that appear when you use a banking website. AskEva for HDFC is the most recent one I used.

To be fair, I wouldn’t call AskEva a  brand mascot either, but we see brands attempting to create symbolic relatability after automating functions. HDFC aims to get basic tasks a customer would need to do by Asking Eva to take care of them. But this kind of automation is drab and fails to create any lasting impression or memory of using the service.

It's difficult to associate HDFC with their chatbot.

Now you may probably wonder why a brand needs a mascot anyway.

Hey, it's a valid question.

But a mascot could make a difference if you think about building brands from the perspective of building conviction in your product or service by giving it a face and a personality people can relate with. Or just something more memorable and endearing than a logo, at least.

A mascot can become a consistent element in your communication. If you craft its identity well and communicate smartly, it will create a long-term association, difficult to shake off.

The Amul girl is a great example, I think. Not much personality even there, but combined with the consistent communication strategy of using puns and topical themes to market Amul Butter, it still manages to create a lasting impression.

However, there’s another story of a mascot that became a roaring success and helped a business sell products, innovate, and sustain in the long term:

Betty Crocker.

It all started when the makers of Gold Medal flour, Washburn Crosby, asked customers to send in a completed jigsaw puzzle in a nationally held contest. The winner would get a pincushion shaped like a flour sack.

But instead of puzzles, the company was flooded with letters from home cooks asking for kitchen advice. Using this opportunity, Washburn-Crosby responded to all the letters using a fictional woman’s name.

Betty Crocker appropriately fit the company and the country at the time. And female employees at Crosby responded to the letters. The letter exchange was so successful that the company eventually had an entire department of women who knew their way around the kitchen.

But more than an advice column, Betty Crocker was a fictional marketing tool used by Crosby to sell flour, pancake mixes and other American staples at the time.  

The company continued responding to letters from homemakers and, in 1924, launched The Betty Crocker Cooking radio show, America’s first radio cooking programme. In 1928, all flour mill companies merged to become General Mills.

The voice of reason: Marjorie Husted

The Betty Crocker radio show was scripted and hosted by Marjorie Husted, who joined as a field representative (sales) in 1924. By 1926, Marjorie had taught Gold Medal cooking schools in all of America. She was made Director of the Home Service Department at Crosby — leading the team tasked with an advice column functional under the Betty Crocker moniker.

Husted’s on-field experience gave her insight into learning about cooks, their problems and their interests. In every city she taught cooking, she interviewed local cooks. Understanding her audience closely helped her turn Betty Crocker into a radio and television star, a newspaper columnist, and a book and pamphlet author who sold food and eventually silverware and small appliances.

But General Mills took over all mill brands by 1928. They realised that to sell more flour, they needed more recipes. Husted stepped in and set up the process for it.

Husted established that the recipes had to be perfect to maintain Betty Crocker’s aura of all-knowing culinary prowess. She achieved this by developing triple-testing, which meant that first, the staff thought up a recipe, adjusting measurements and baking times over and over. Then, the recipes were sent to hired home cooks in the Minneapolis area, who tried the recipe and took copious notes. Those notes went back to company headquarters, where kitchen staff under Husted incorporated the suggestions into the final product. If a recipe successfully made it through this testing gauntlet, then it was good to go.

The mascot’s communication was used as a benchmark to set up business processes that would generate revenue.

By 1948, Betty Crocker was known to 91% of homemakers, and by 1945, Betty Crocker received 4000 letters a day asking for homemaking help.

For General Mills, this meant more audiences to market their products to.

“General Mills began releasing recipe pamphlets under her name. There was 1933’s Betty Crocker’s $25,000 Recipe Set Featuring Recipes From World Famous Chefs For Foods That Enchant Men and Betty Crocker’s 101 Delicious Bisquick Creations As Made And Served by Well-Known Gracious Hostesses; Famous Chefs, Distinguished Epicures and Smart Luminaries of Movieland. These booklets often featured fast dinners, innovative treats for shock and awe at the church potluck, and culinary knowledge, with most, if not all recipes containing at least one General Mills product for homemakers to buy.”

The spillover effect of creating such a strong brand identity is also reflected in more women aspiring to be employed at Betty Crocker and fulfilling the requisite demand for a Home Economics degree.

It became prestigious to work at Betty Crocker. If you were hired, your picture would be featured in the ad. Apart from the fame that the brand enjoyed, the intrigue was such that it was able to pull customers for physical visits to the Betty Crocker kitchens.

And General Mills doubled down on this by partnering with tour operators, and in 1958 turned Betty Crocker Kitchens into a fantasy-themed destination.

Their love for Betty Crocker literally made people cry!

Most visitors to the destination kitchens would demand to see the real Betty Crocker and would be handed tissues by the receptionist to find out that she was fictional.

And all of this impact at a time when women were discouraged from working outside the home.

I think reading this story made me interested in the idea of a mascot. I think it is an interesting way to sustain the legacy of a brand consistently. And from whatever I have understood so far, good branding is, at its core, building conviction in your offering through symbols and ideas people deeply relate with.

And a living mascot is as obvious a symbol as it can get.

Will Stoa have a mascot? I am not decided on that yet, but I do sense that all the old ways of branding will make a comeback soon.

Who becomes as legendary as Betty Crocker, though, remains to be seen.

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