Rocket Science II

Note II from an interview with David Altschul, CEO of Character

Yesterday, we noted a new and urgent task, identifying the “smart ones” in marketing, and we observed that David Altschul is one of these.

David helped invent characters like the California Raisins and he uses these to help companies build brands.

Many of us have an unsophisticated view of what a character is and how it adds value. As David puts it, “some people think it’s putting sun glasses and tennis shoes on the package.” When David talks characters, some of us think cartoons.

David believes that characters help create strong brands when they are not a cartoon, but something more fully developed. He is thinking of something closer to the characters that now pour out of Hollywood: Shrek, Nemo, Scooby-Doo, and so on. David is talking about brand characters with range and depth. In the place of sun glasses and tennis shoes, David wants characters with a deeper story.

Why does this matter? It gives us, through the character, a claim to a bigger, more persuasive, piece of cultural meaning.

Here’s how David and his team put it:

Brand characters are unique in that they straddle the worlds of marketing and entertainment. Clearly they exist to represent a brand, but they live in a consumer frame of reference that puts them in competition with characters from television, movies, video games and novels. To be truly effective, brand characters have to combine the best of both worlds. They have to be engaging characters in their own right while staying authentically rooted in the brand.

I think they are on to something. We need to build brands that have deeper connections to culture. And he’s right. Brand characters are a particularly potent way of getting the job done.

A brand is many things. It’s a promise of quality. It’s badge for the utilities of the product.

It is also a bundle of meanings. Coca-Cola stands for “refreshment.” Marlboro stood for the “freedom of the open range.” Starbucks branded an urban ‘third space.” Pontiac stood for “excitement.” Philip Kotler, the dean of marketing, puts these meanings at the core of the product. One of his favorite examples is Charles Revson of Revlon who said: ‘In the factory, we make cosmetics; in the store we sell hope.’” Brand meanings are what Sidney Levy meant by “symbols for sale.” They are what Theodore Levitt called the “intangible properties” of the product. (References below.)

The problem is that there is now a certain amount of wear out. It is getting harder and harder to source effective meanings. And it’s getting harder and harder to build them into the brand in an appealing, persuasive and enduring way. We’ve got too many brands chasing too few meanings in a manner that is haphazard, contradictory, unpersuasive. We are not making substantial connections between brands and culture.

We know the reasons why: consumers are fickle on the one hand and skeptical on the other. They have been told once too often that, “Pontiac means excitement.” We can hear them yawning in response, “if you say so.” Increasingly, they want brands that do not merely claim “excitement,” but actually fashion a more substantial connection to excitement.

Enter David Altschul, Brian Lanahan, and Jim Hardison. Brand characters give the marketer a kind of “middle space” between the brand and the culture (or, as David’s call them, “marketing” and “entertainment”). The brand character has a foot in both domains. (One can only imagine the image David would make of this.) On the one hand, the character is fully the creation of the brand. On the other, with a back story in place, it is rooted in the culture “out there.”

As a middle space, the character gives us a staging area in which we can cultivate all and only the meanings we want for the brand, and a meaning delivery device that we can use to get these meaning into the brand. In short, a character gives us a better platform to create and claim more powerful meanings for the brand.

A lot of innovation in marketing these days is “middle space marketing.” The move towards branding the in-store experience is middle space. The move to experiential marketing, urged by Pine and Gilmore, and Schmitt, is too. (Reference below.)

In sum, brand characters make a powerful, timely addition to the marketer’s tool kit. It is a step beyond the old methods of meaning manufacture in which we were inclined merely to shout “excitement” over beautiful images of cars driving through pools of water. The character is one way to claim this middle space and to build a staging area for better brand construction. It is especially potent as marketers learn to come to terms with the new realities of contemporary culture and the market place.


Kotler, Philip, and Gary Armstrong. 1999. Principles of Marketing, Eighth Edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, p. 238, 239.

Levy, Sidney J. 1999. Brands, Consumers, Symbols and Research: Sidney J. Levy on Marketing. Dennis Rook, editor. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Levitt, Theodore. 1980-1986. Differentiation–of Anything. The Marketing Imagination. New edition., 72-93, New York: The Free Press, p. 74.

Pine, Joseph, and James H. Gilmore. 1999. The Experience Economy: Work is theatre and every business is a stage. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Schmitt, Bernd. 1999. Experiential marketing. New York: Free Press.

2 thoughts on “Rocket Science II

  1. Micah

    Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding this, but…you say commerce is a “net importer” of cultural meanings, and you want to make it a “net exporter”–why would you want to do that?

    Is there anything in any culture, be it commerce, art, or popular belief, that is a “net exporter” of meaning? Nothing could “export” any meaning without reference to even more meaning that is acknowledged by the audience. Coca-cola ads shaped our notion of Santa Claus, and Christmas, but they didn’t create them out of thin air. They drew on “imported” meanings of what it means to be a child, to be in a family, and to get a present.

    A “meaning” is like a piece of information–when you “export” or “import” it, you don’t take it away from anything. In an information economy, everybody is a “net importer.” I’d imagine it’s the same in the economy of cultural meanings.

    Except that I have a feeling that I don’t understand what you mean by “import.” Perhaps you will explain in your next post…

  2. Grant


    Thanks for your post.

    I may have been getting carried away with my economic metaphors again.

    But I do think that culture and commerce are engaged in a very interesting relationship, with both parties engaging in extraordinary new acts of innovation.

    It is mostly for the marketers purposes that I think the commerce camp should be more creative and less presupposing, to use Silverstein’s terms.


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