Why Hotels.com Is Right To Keep Its Mascot

Usually when a brand makes a change of agency, it means a big change in creative. The planners set about redefining the strategy, the creatives comes up with a whole new world of possibilities and the account team look forward to some extra billing. After all why change agency if you don’t want to change creative. But Hotels.com’s first work with new agency Tombras bucks that trend. It stars the existing brand mascot Captain Obvious, created in 2014 by CPB and the mainstay of Hotels.com’s commercials ever since.

There’s no new look for the Captain, no new actor, and no real new gimmicks either – he’s now taking the role of a tour guide for Resorts World Las Vegas, but otherwise he’s still the same old Captain getting up to the same old shenanigans in a series of brief but entertaining 15-second clips.

So is Hotels.com being over-cautious in sticking with the Captain, or showing a lack of creativity? No. The decision is absolutely the right one, and suggests they know precisely what they are doing, that a consistent brand mascot can be one of your most effective assets.

Brand mascots aren’t new, and many have been around for decades. Most of the time they’re used as a distinctive asset for a brand – just another way to remind viewers who they’re watching. The Pillsbury Doughboy, for instance, doesn’t go on adventures – he just shows up in Pillsbury’s ads as a familiar presence, like a walking logo.

But there’s a class of brand mascots who play a much more prominent role – the ads are about them and they drive the stories. Think of the M&M “spokescandies”, for instance, whose antics are the basis for every new M&Ms ad and who’ve become a successful merchandising line in their own right. We call this type of super-mascot a “Fluent Device” – they build Fluency, or ease of brand recognition, but they’re also a strong creative device.

Captain Obvious is a Fluent Device, and a great one. He can show up in almost any situation and make it funny while also delivering whatever vacation-based message the ad requires. He may be less than a decade old but he’s become a very familiar figure – in an interview this year, actor Brandon Moynihan described how kids recognise him when he goes to pick up his children from school, a sure sign the good Captain is becoming part of popular culture.

So he’s been a success – but doesn’t any brand need to refresh its assets sometimes? This is the crucial thing about Fluent Devices, though – they are perfect for long-term brand building, so marketers need to keep hold of successful ones. A 2018 study using the IPA case study database showed that campaigns which used a Fluent Device character were more likely to lead to new customers, profit gain and market share gain than ones which don’t. Keeping Captain Obvious is one of the smartest decisions Hotels.com could have made.

Why do Fluent Devices like Captain Obvious work so well? They solve a hidden problem in advertising effectiveness. For effective long-term brand building your ads need to make people feel good – so they reinforce positive mental associations with your brand. For effective short-term activation your ads need to be strongly branded – so people know right away who you are. The hidden trap here is that strong branding often reduces positive feelings – it erodes the entertainment value of the ad.

But a Fluent Device like Captain Obvious can do both at once. He’s entertaining and makes viewers smile, but once he’s been established as a brand mascot he also means they immediately know it’s a Hotels.com commercial. Positive emotion and branding in one package – no wonder mascots are so effective.

The thing is, you only get this benefit once you’ve put the work in to establish the brand mascot in people’s minds as a distinctive asset. The more you nurture one, the more effective it gets. Some brands are creating mascots or returning to their old ones, like Chips Ahoy who brought their “Mr Cookie” character back last year. If Hotels.com had asked their new agency to scrap the mascot and start from scratch, it would risk all that stored-up familiarity. From a long-term perspective, keeping Captain Obvious is the most obvious decision of them all.

But whilst it may be obvious to them it is sadly not as obvious to everyone else. Orlando Wood in his book Lemon looked back at IPA effectiveness award submissions which revealed that back in the 1990’s around 40% of all work used a Character or Scenario fluent device but this had fallen to around 10% more recently. We also looked at our System1 database of US adverts and found the picture is even worse with only 4% of Adverts using a Character Fluent Device. Keeping a familiar mascot, even when you change agency, may appear to be an unusual decision but should be a very profitable one. I hope more brands realise that obvious truth.

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