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What a travelling gnome reveals about the power of mascots

Heidi Ollek, a keeper in the African Savanna pavilion, introduces a penguin to the Travelocity gnome at the Toronto Zoo on Friday last week. Travelocity staff were taking photographs of the company mascot in various locations around the zoo.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Wolfgang the penguin does not like the gnome.

Travelocity's mascot is in an enclosure at the Toronto Zoo looking for the perfect photo-op. It's just one stop on a summer tour for the world's most famous anthropomorphized garden ornament – and part of a Canadian campaign designed to encourage consumers to book more summer vacations through the discount travel website.

Travelocity employees have updated his Twitter and Instagram accounts with photos of the friendly cartoonish face visiting the Ripley's Aquarium, eyeing shots of tequila at a local bar and taking a dunk in a pool. Only one gnome has appeared in commercials and marketing material for the brand since 2003. It's a sturdy statue.

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But on this sunny morning, the gnome is taking some abuse. The penguin, apparently not liking the cut of his jib, pecks at the plaster beard before waddling away.

Still, Travelocity's vice-president and general manager for Canada and Latin America, Stuart Morris, does not look worried. His company is in the enviable position of having created a character that has gained some popularity and recognition. And while the adventures of a gnome may seem like fun and games, they can have real business implications for brands that make mascots work.

According to research from the firm Synthesio, popular mascots get consumers' attention. A study released last year looked at social media conversations over 30 days, to see how often spokespeople were mentioned in connection with brands. The best performing celebrity spokesperson was race car driver Danica Patrick, whose name appeared in 12.72 per cent of the mentions of GoDaddy. More than half of the celebrities the study looked at accounted for less than 1 per cent.

By contrast, the most popular mascots generated a large percentage of their brands' buzz online. The Doughboy was referenced in 22.14 per cent of Pillsbury's mentions; the Aflac duck accounted for 11.82 per cent of buzz; Progressive's Flo showed up 6.85 per cent of the time; and the Geico Gecko 6.15 per cent.

"It's hard to know, in advertising, when it affects sales; there are so many external factors. But for example, the marketing manager for Aflac tried to get rid of the duck … and their sales did go down. And they attributed it to a change in their advertising," said Barbara Phillips, a marketing professor at the University of Saskatchewan whose research focuses partly on the power of mascots for advertisers. "So they fired the chief marketing officer and kept the duck. Now he's in their logo."

When they work, mascots can play an important role in humanizing a brand, she said. The Geico Gecko and the duck managed to make insurance companies seem more personable. Countless food companies have used mascots such as Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger to appeal to children.

And that humanization has become even more important in an age where people are interacting more online. Ms. Brown, a candy-coated chocolate among a stable of M&M characters, has her own channel on the music service Pandora. And some older mascots have been modernized, so that companies can engage with people on social media with a less corporate face. Mr. Clean, for example, now pals around with moms on Facebook.

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Unlike celebrity spokespeople, mascots do not ask for exorbitant raises when they become more popular. And there is a low risk of scandal.

"He's not going to go Tiger Woods on us," Travelocity's Mr. Morris said.

U.S.-based Travelocity has invested significant marketing dollars behind the gnome, and has seen the benefits: Two-thirds of Canadians recognize the character and associate him with the brand, according to the company's research.

"Every brand is looking for some device to get a little memorability," he said.

This is not any garden-variety gnome. He was custom-designed by the company's ad agency, Durham, N.C.-based McKinney. Just this year, he has visited New Zealand, Ireland and Machu Picchu in Peru.

The character was inspired by pranks where garden gnomes are stolen and allowed to "roam free," which originated with a case in Australia in the 1980s, when a prankster sent photos of a gnome visiting far-off places back to its owner.

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The gnome's biggest brand value is that people associate the character with this type of fun, and not necessarily with commercials, Mr. Morris says.

For that reason, the company does not even like to refer to him as a mascot – though they can sometimes take this to extremes.

"We think of him as a traveller, and he happens to be associated with our brand," Mr. Morris says. "… He's a person."

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