How Can Brands and Agencies Redefine Female Representation in Brand Mascots?

Female brand mascots have been getting stuck with the short end of the advertising stick longer than you may realize. An unfortunate amount of stereotypes have clouded these icons for decades, from being given sexualized or ditzy characteristics to existing solely to be kitchen helpers and even substituting a personality in favor of silent behavior.

But the most alarming aspect may be that there are so few female characters created for consumer goods, period. Earlier in February 2018, actress Geena Davis gave a presentation on Mascots Matter: Gender and Race Representations in Branding at the Kidscreen Summit keynote in Miami. The study, conduced by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and food and beverage manufacturer The Jel Sert Company, revealed troubling findings. Male characters outnumber female characters two-to-one. Female mascots are more likely to be presented as gender stereotypes than their male counterparts — 25.4% versus 15.9%. Surveying 1,096 character representations, the study also noted that male mascots were shown to be funnier and more active than female characters.

Let’s pause to really think about those numbers. If agencies and brands stay the course, they miss a valuable opportunity to reflect the changing times and impact millions of kids, teens, and adults. What do we need to do next to create female mascots that speak to the modern-day woman?

Joining us today are a roundtable of panelists to discuss how brands and agencies can buck the existing status quo for female representation in mascots. Let’s welcome Aniesia Williams, Director of Content at Barkley, Pat and Amy Giles, Owners of Danger Pigeon Studios, and Skyler Mattson, Managing Director for WONGDOODY and Co-Founder of June Cleaver is Dead, an in-house consultancy at WONGDOODY dedicated to challenging how brands are marketing to moms. We are also joined by Heather Wright, Executive Producer at animation studio Aardman, Kelly O’Keefe, Professor and Head of Creative Brand Management at VCU Brandcenter, and Julia Mellon, Vice President at Bliss Integrated Communication.

We need diversified female representation in brand mascots now, but also don’t want to risk churning them out like they’re on an assembly line either. Before getting started, what should brands and agencies consider first?

Skyler Mattson: Often marketers and advertisers won’t leave outdated stereotypes behind until they see the financial value of doing so. Women are responsible for 85% of all purchases. 85%. Many of these women are mothers. If you want to build brand loyalty and preference, and if Mom is your target, portray females in a positive way that avoids stereotypes, from the mothers in your advertising to the brand mascots you create.

Pat Giles: One of the barriers in creating a strong female “lead” brand character is the belief that males will not buy a product that looks too “feminine.”  Getting good female brand characters has everything to do with how males respond. I think agencies have to tackle it from that standpoint in order to break through.

Aniesia Williams: If your brand only uses female-gendered mascots to market products our society thinks are ‘girly,’ like cleaning products or cupcakes, you’re revealing that your brand’s still operating by an antiquated belief system. Brands and marketers have an opportunity here. Mascots aren’t beholden to reality, so we can wipe free our mental biases and make anything happen. They’re an open invitation to getting really creative.

Where do you believe diversified female characters are needed the most?

Amy Giles: What was great about the Geena Davis study is that it crossed all categories, so I think all categories would benefit. Especially in categories where women are unnecessarily underrepresented, like automotive. I’ve been driving since I was sixteen, but mechanics will talk to my husband first. He has no clue how to even open the hood. Female brand characters could become instructive role models for all of us.

Pat Giles: I think the world is way overdue for an original female cereal mascot.

Julia Mellon: Female mascots are needed to advertise STEM toys. Pioneer brands that design strong, smart, and capable female mascots will allow young girls to visualize themselves in fields and industries historically prone to gender imbalance.

Skyler Mattson: Certainly any products that are marketed primarily to children – and the mothers who buy the products – would be a strong place to start. Let’s not just pay attention to gender – mascots should be more ethnically diverse and avoid racial stereotypes as well. 50% of the children born in the US are not white. The mothers of those children are going to be paying attention to both race and gender stereotypes in all aspects of marketing.

KFC announced country singer Reba McEntire will play Colonel Sanders — a revolutionary move for getting female representation in the notorious boys’ club of fast food. Which female mascots do you currently see acting as game changers?

Amy Giles: Progressive’s Flo is a break from the traditional stereotypes: she’s smart, strong, funny, relatable, attractive but not objectified, and she’s talking about something other than home making. She is given the benefit of representing a product marketed to both men and women.

Kelly O’Keefe: We rarely get to see women mascots who reflect positive attributes like strength, humor and adventure. One recent exception is Progressive Insurance’s Flo, who takes a spirited approach to pitching car insurance and has become the Mr. Whipple of our time. It’s time for every creative director reading this to realize that bucking stereotypes makes for more memorable, realistic and engaging characters. We can not only invent new characters, but reinterpret old ones. There’s no reason Green Giant or Smokey the Bear have to be male. Let’s shake it up and show young people the power of strong, confident female characters.

What traits can we give female characters to ensure they are trustworthy, adventurous, and skewer traditional stereotypes?

Julia Mellon: The ideal female brand mascots of tomorrow will be strong, independent, and curious. They will be brave, bold leaders that accurately represent the patchwork of American diversity. Girl brand mascots won’t always wear dresses, and will sport shoes for running and playing. They’ll be shown doing activities outside the kitchen and outside the home. They’ll climb trees. The female brand mascot can stand on her own two feet and charts her own path.

Skyler Mattson: Female mascots should be active, empowered, strong and brave. They should speak and not just decorate.

Amy Giles: When the female characters are relatable to real people, men or women, they will succeed. If you can give them stories that invite everyone in, we will make it easier for other female characters to break through.

Everything is leading up to this question: what do brands and agencies need to do right now to craft lasting female brand mascots?

Skyler Mattson: Make sure that women have a voice in all of your marketing decisions – from corporate leadership, through the marketing department, to the advertising agency creative department.

Heather Wright: We value the importance of promoting female perceptions in this space. At Aardman, we’ve revamped our own team by adding four female directors in the past couple years, and elevated other women within the company to roles that had traditionally been held by men.

Julia Mellon: Marketers have a real opportunity here to create new icons that appropriately represent the modern day female and her core values. In the era of the Women’s March, #MeToo, and successful brand plays such as Always’ #LikeAGirl, leveraging female brand mascots that are too domestic, demure, or sexualized is a significant brand liability that risks ostracizing an emerging generation of strong and wealthy women with the buying power to purchase your products.

Aniesia Williams: Brands’ core values aren’t inherently masculine or feminine. If we want invite women to buy into a brand’s story, it’s up to us to figure out what the feminine embodiment of that brand’s values would look like. If you want to talk about a brand’s horsepower, mares are just as real as stallions.

Julia Mellon: When designing a female brand mascot to endure the test of time, brands and agencies have to skate where the puck is going and reflect the independence, strength, confidence and smarts of the next generation of women.

Heather Taylor

Heather Taylor

Icon Researcher & Blogger at Advertising Week
Heather Taylor
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