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‘Characters can help develop awareness and empathy’

Greenlight’s Sonia Bouadma on how characters can help brands boost consumer affection.

How many of your favourite fictional characters have you seen appearing in ads in the past 12 months? From Spider-Man and Fred Flintstone to Darth Vader, brands are increasingly seeking to licence these characters for a broad range of campaign activations, and there are a number of good reasons why.

For starters, popular characters can be a good shortcut for developing awareness and empathy. Brands that have historically struggled to generate positive sentiment can use endearing characters to capture consumer affection and imagination and boost their broader customer engagement efforts.

British energy firm Npower’s partnership with Wallace and Gromit neatly demonstrates this point, bringing the humanity and warmth of these enduring animations to a sector that regularly has to bear the brunt of residual consumer negativity around pricing and customer service issues.


Unlike actors or models, who may be susceptible to popularity upheavals, characters such as Spider-Man – recently deployed by Phillip’s in a major online-led campaign – are highly unlikely to stray out of line or off message. Their popularity can be timeless, while on a purely practical level they are equally unlikely to struggle with scheduling issues or command the higher fees often paid to Hollywood talent.

Characters also live on long after the actors who play them. Turkish candy brand, Intermar used Charlie Chaplin’s iconic and slapstick-character ‘The Tramp’ from the film Modern Times in an ad to help sell its “wonderfully funny, wonderfully strange chewing gum”.


Of course, if Hollywood talent is being deployed, why not extract further value by utilising both actor and creative invention? Perhaps the best example of this in recent years is EE’s partnership with Kevin Bacon, which has seen the superstar deployed to great effect both as himself, as well as an ensemble of his most recognised characters.

Returning to the timeless world of Wallace and Gromit, with animated characters it’s easy and cost-effective to create imaginative special effects and abstract environments without any need to worry about logistical constraints. Similarly, they can also be integrated into live environments or set alongside human actors. Müller recently licensed the use of Yogi Bear and the Mr. Men to provide a fun and memorable new twist in a live action commercial.

Of course, both brands and licensors should tread carefully if they want to avoid potential criticism or a customer backlash. In some cases, there are regulations dictating the limitations of these collaborations – use of characters to promote alcoholic drinks is one such area. In others, such as less healthy food and drink options, it may be up to the brand to self-regulate, not always the easiest tightrope to walk. Brands have not always met their ethical responsibilities in this regard.

In 2013, First Lady Michelle Obama convened a summit in Washington, DC, to persuade companies to limit use of licensed media characters to market unhealthy foods and beverages. There’s no doubt that in our 24/7 social media culture the potential for customer backlash if brands make a misstep is today greater than ever.

But the responsibility for creating ethical character tie-ups does not sit with the brands alone – the licensors of popular characters also give thought to which brands they sign off on. A celebrity’s management team typically takes steps to ensure their talent is only aligned with relevant brands reflecting the celebrity’s public profile and values. It is no different in the case of a media character, many of which have achieved global fame at least equivalent to their human celebrity counterparts.


On the flip side, thoughtful and relevant tie-ups can deliver long-lasting and powerful campaign partnerships to the benefit of both licensor and licensee. Look at the recent Flintstones and Top Cat collaborations with Halifax, which do a great job of demonstrating that the financial services provider is open to anyone.

Or the Darth Vader and Volkswagen tie-up, which neatly aligns the car brand with both the magic of the Star Wars franchise, but also the nostalgia of youth.

The key to a successful outcome is for brands to do their homework, think through the positives and negatives of each possible alignment, and to be transparent with the licensors about their goals and objectives, so everyone can arrive at an informed decision as to whether the partnership is one to pursue.

Get it right, and they can breathe new life and vitality into both brand and character.

Sonia Bouadma is director, commercial rights and music licensing at Greenlight. She has worked at Greenlight for 13 years and, as head of the UK office, is currently responsible for all EMEA clients and operations. She began her career working on clearances and content licensing for game manufacturers but now is primarily focused on ad agency work, clearing various IP rights from music, and movies to talents for commercial campaigns.

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