Behind the Mask: Why Financial Services Companies Use Characters for Brand Messaging

Written byPerformance Storytelling
February 27, 2020

Fictional mascots pervade financial services and insurance — why are they so prevalent, and what’s behind the most successful ones?

Brand mascots are nothing new. Many of today’s most iconic characters — The Michelin Man, Mr. Peanut, Betty Crocker — date to an era before the notion of branding even existed (Arons 2011). Though corporate mascots have figured in American consumer consciousness for over a century, they were largely siloed within consumer packaged goods and fast food chains. 

That is, until the GEICO Gecko.


American TV audiences first met the genteel green reptile in 1999. In the debut spot, voiced by Kelsey Grammer with a Cockney accent, the gecko crawls up to a mic stand and issues the following public service announcement: “I am a gecko, not to be confused with GEICO, which could save you hundreds on car insurance. So stop calling me!” And a revolution began.

The gecko was conceived as a one-off brand-mnemonic, a comically urbane character to help consumers remember the company’s name (Vranica 2007). But when the Screen Actors Guild went on strike later that year, barring advertisements from using live actors, GEICO had no choice but to bring the gecko back. To the company’s great surprise, people began calling in and writing to express delight over the spots, and for the first time in decades, GEICO’s revenue took an upward turn (Lovel 2005). 

The gecko’s unbridled success moved other players in the financial sector to rethink their corporate communications (Kaufman 2017a). Before 1999, the category relied on two commercial formulas: saccharine visions of happy families behind white picket fences and fear-mongering cautionary tales of what could transpire if the worst happens. The gecko proved that, in an industry revolving around numbers, technical jargon, and momentous life decisions, a little humor goes a long way. 

In an industry revolving around numbers, technical jargon, and momentous life decisions, a little humor goes a long way. 


Story Tone—Video Assets in the Banking Category

But there is more than humor at play. The most successful brand icons trigger our vast reservoir of unconscious myths, aspirations, and impulses — the primordial forms of understanding that Carl Jung called archetypes (Jung 1968). They speak to deep-seated inclinations and motivations, the psychic pre-conditions that invariably factor into how we relate to the world — and forge brand loyalties. In marketing an enduring brand mascot, the central device at work is metaphor, what the acclaimed marketing scholar and Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt defined as “a promise, a cluster of value expectations” (Levitt 1981). What those expectations are may change — indeed, the most successful mascots adopt new messages as their parent companies evolve — but the promise itself, and its symbolic weight, endures. 

Before initiating or developing a mascot, it’s worth studying effective ones that already exist to deduce what will (and won’t) work for your brand. What follows is a qualitative taxonomy of popular mascots from insurance and financial services in chronological order. 

Aflac Duck

Aflac’s Duck 

When Daniel Amos became CEO of the American Family Life Assurance Company in 1990, the company’s name recognition was at 2 percent (Amos 2010). Determined to crest at least 25 percent before he retired, Amos shortened the company name to its acronym, Aflac, and invited dozens of agencies to pitch ideas for an aggressive awareness campaign (Amos 2010). The winning concept — a duck quacking “Aflac” at two men sitting on a park bench — came from a creative at Kaplan Thaler who, while muttering the company name to himself, realized it sounded like a duck’s quack (Kempner 2020). The duck was an instant hit: on the first day it ran, Aflac saw more website visits than in the entire previous year; by the end of the first year, the company’s sales were up by 29 percent (Amos 2010).   

According to Aflac, the duck is responsible for the fact that nine out of 10 people in the U.S. and Japan, its two largest markets, recognize the Aflac name (“Our History” 2019). That it still resonates is a product of strategic evolution. Not long after the duck’s debut, Aflac began manufacturing stuffed-animal versions and donating proceeds from the toy’s sales to the Aflac Cancer Center (Amos 2010). Today, the duck comes in the form of a robotic toy with smart response features, designed specifically to soothe children with cancer (Holland 2018). No longer just a name-quacking comic device, the duck has become the face of Aflac’s philanthropic initiatives, an enduring emblem of the company’s benevolent ethos. 


Progressive’s Flo 

Back in 2007, Progressive was grappling with a critical lack of consumer awareness (Beer 2018). The company needed to conjure a memorable personality, one that could appeal to universal emotions and relatable experiences. 

Striving to show that shopping for insurance can be easy and even fun, Progressive ideated a campaign set in a “Superstore”: an all-white outlet with neatly lined shelves and labelled boxes of insurance products. To humanize the mise-en-scène, Progressive created Flo, an effervescent, exceptionally helpful sales clerk played by the actor Stephanie Courtney. Shown surprising regular people with miraculous savings and munificent add-ons, she is an angelic embodiment of Jung’s Caregiver archetype. As noted by Jeff Charney, Progressive’s CMO, “Flo was envisioned as an angelic creature — insurance can be heavenly or hellish. We wanted to make it heavenly” (Viveiros 2014).

As of this writing, Flo has 63.9K Twitter followers and 4.4M Facebook fans. Her cult status has been secured by a generative marketing approach: over the years, Progressive has introduced foil characters, novel set designs, and spin-off “episodes” to Flo’s narrative (Rodriguez 2014). By taking Flo seriously — launching topical campaigns like a “Dress Like Flo” Halloween contest, taking her out of the fictional Superstore and into everyday life, and introducing her to real-world celebrities like LeBron James — Progressive transformed her from a static brand awareness ploy to a perennial totem of its positioning and values. “She’s the personification of our 32,000 employees,” said Charney (Kaufman 2017b).

All State's Mayhem

Allstate’s Mayhem 

In the wake of America’s 2008 recession, Allstate revenue was flagging (Rodriguez 2015). To financially strapped Americans, especially millennials, the price-focused messaging of discount insurers resonated louder than Allstate’s long-standing “In Good Hands” campaign, an uplifting series of direct addresses from the reassuringly paternal Dennis Haysbert. Allstate needed a new direction to level with increasingly cynical audiences.

That new direction came in the form of Mayhem, a sadistic villain played by the actor Dean Winters. Loosely based on the character of Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs, Mayhem is a darkly comic impersonation of everyday perils that Allstate can protect against: a distracted teenage driver, an out-of-date GPS system, a raccoon in the attic (Renee 2019). 

The pivot worked. The quarter before Mayhem launched, Allstate’s revenue declined 1.7 percent; the quarter after, revenue increased 4.3 percent (Edwards 2011). The campaign garnered praise from both consumers and industry insiders, receiving close to 80 awards by mid-2011 (Pollack 2011; Quinn 2019).  

Since his conception, Mayhem has taken on a variety of roles (like a cleaning lady, a windstorm, and a beauty blogger) and channels (he has his own Twitter and Facebook profiles). In 2019, he had his first encounter with a celebrity, Tina Fey, in a campaign for Allstate’s speed-monitoring app (Pasquarelli 2019). In the spots, Fey circumnavigates car crashes by paying more attention to the app than Mayhem, representing a pivotal development in his narrative arc: for once, he is unsuccessful in wreaking havoc. Will the brush with failure humble him? Judging by his past behavior, it seems more likely he’ll enact revenge. Either way, viewers will be paying attention.


Voya’s Val and Vern 

When ING U.S. separated from its Amsterdam-based parent, ING Group, in 2013, it needed a new name, logo, and voice to announce itself as a wholly independent, U.S.-based brand (Loparco 2013). To espouse the belief that financial security is a lifelong journey, the company chose the name Voya, a truncation of “voyage,” and launched a $100 million awareness campaign (Buss 2016).

As part of the campaign, called “Orange Money” to differentiate between money for spending (green) and money for saving (orange), Voya created Val and Vern, two computer-generated origami animals that are folded from orange dollar bills. Flitting across the brand’s integrated marketing communications, from TV ads with live sitcom stars to social-first content, Val (a squirrel) and Vern (a rabbit) are lighthearted aural/visual reminders to forgo short-term gratification in the interest of long-term prosperity. They show up unannounced in the kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms of relatable people — including a tired-looking housewife in a robe, a boomer-aged couple packing for vacation, and a college-bound teenager at his desk — and after brief introductions, gently nudge their human listeners in the right financial direction. Made by artists at The Mill, a production studio specializing in animation, Val and Vern are designed so as not to appear didactic, with childlike vocal tones, buoyant and somewhat flighty graphic movements, and diminutive builds. 

Bright, friendly, and preternaturally positive, Val and Vern are strategically poised to address an inherently anxiety-producing project: saving for retirement. In posthumanist media theory, animaloid mascots are understood as reliable mediators between consumers and products. In the words of Jody Berland, a cultural scholar at York University, they “capture a space midway between the utopian ideals of freedom and self-expression… and the corporate trajectories of information management” (Berland 2019). Especially in industries where the product or service is somewhat abstract — think financial planning, software, and technology writ large — animal imagery helps temper an overarching consumer stance of unease and evasion.

Animal imagery helps temper an overarching consumer stance of unease and evasion.

Though Val and Vern tend to surprise people in their private living quarters, their bite-sized stature, cartoon animation, and charming nature ensure they are quickly accepted and assimilated into each scene. Offering up small talk and sometimes even teasing their human hosts, they effectively mediate between people — wrapped up in the pressing concerns of life right now — and the financial products that will matter in an all-too-ambiguous future.


TD Ameritrade’s Green Room Guy 

With the recent proliferation of financial technology, traditional brokerage firms and non-bank startups are racing to differentiate their products from one another (Milanesi 2019). Amid the cacophony of marketing messages, TD Ameritrade’s Green Room campaign, featuring the Green Room Guy, stands out with conceptual simplicity that firmly reinforces its brand values. 

Debuted in 2017, shortly after TD Ameritrade expanded its suite of digital investment services, the Green Room ads highlight the company’s user-friendly approach to financial advising (Niiya 2017a). Set in a green-hued office, inspired by the room in show business where performers relax offstage, the campaign stars the actor Jim Conroy as the ever-approachable Green Room Guy (Niiya 2017b). Laid-back, patient, and speaking with a slight lisp, he assuages the financial concerns of relatable people — including a working mom, a guy who watches British baking competitions on TV, and a man with analysis paralysis — by offering concrete advice in everyday language. 

The Green Room setup builds on TD Ameritrade’s long-standing promise to hear “the voice of the customer” (Davenport 2019). Following the campaign, the company released an ambitious AI initiative to analyze its call center conversations, hoping to better understand client sentiment and consequently optimize user experience. In addition to phone call analysis, TD Ameritrade is using machine learning to power its chatbot platforms, map user journeys across its digital channels, and send personalized emails with news items from outside sources (Castellanos 2019). In the context of TD Ameritrade’s extensive back-end implementations to literally listen to its clients, the Green Room Guy is more than a surface-level awareness tactic. 

As TD Ameritrade expands its machine learning applications, it will be worth tracking how the Green Room Guy evolves in tandem. Already in 2020, he’s had a major growth spurt: in the recently released Training Montage campaign, he leaves the Green Room set to recreate various iconic scenes from the Rocky film franchise (Havas 2020). Though there’s no sure formula for a lasting brand mascot, the Green Room Guy certainly looks promising. 

Literally standing in for the brand from which it was spawned, the mascot is a convincing figurative totem: an imagined icon who transliterates the values, aspirations, and promises of a corporation to prospective customers. From the Geico Gecko to the TD Ameritrade Green Room Guy, the financial services sector is rife with characters whose function is largely, if not completely, symbolic. Strategically obviating the particulars of liability coverage, Roth IRAs, and other obscure shop talk, financial brand mascots deliver an entirely different class of information: narrative storytelling. For sectors like finance and insurance with high barriers to entry in terms of consumer understanding, universally accessible mascots are especially powerful tools for communicating unique brand positioning.

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