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The Tricky Business of Redesigning Mascots

The Tricky Business of Redesigning Mascots

A recognizable mascot—one that becomes part of the cultural language of the target of the audience—is undoubtedly a boon for any business or organization. But the most successful mascots are the ones that outlive the eras in which they were created, and that sort of longevity means updates and design overhauls are inevitable. Some redesigns are to keep with changing aesthetic tastes, while others are meant to remove or alter elements that no longer conform to cultural norms.

Done successfully, a mascot redesign preserves what existing fans love while tapping into the sensibilities of potential new fans. Unsuccessful redesigns, on the other hand, can alienate existing fans and potential new fans alike. Kellogg’s recently learned the latter lesson the hard way with a poorly received redesign of Toucan Sam—ironic given the company’s history with mascot updates.

Toucan Sam has been the Froot Loops mascot since 1963, and from that debut year through the first half of 2020 Sam’s appearance went largely unchanged. His original grey coloring transformed into its familiar ultramarine shade, the stripes on his beak became thinner and less numerous, and the three feathers that make up his tail changed color. The most substantial changes were to the style of animation used to render Sam, not the mascot itself. Then, earlier this year, Kellogg’s rolled out a significantly overhauled Toucan Sam and drew the ire of its customers almost immediately.

The new Toucan Sam has a tie-dyed beak, a sickly-looking turquoise color scheme, and, mostly confoundingly, human teeth. Froot Loops lovers young and old have taken to social media to express their distaste for the update, and now Kellogg is left holding the proverbial bag. Toucan Sam’s overhaul wasn’t necessary. The character wasn’t dated in appearance or appeal, and there were no culturally insensitive or problematic elements of the character. In other words, the Toucan Sam redesign is a textbook example of why we shouldn’t try to fix things that aren’t broken.

That Kellogg found themselves in this position to begin with is surprising, because the company has a history of successful mascot redesigns. Tony the Tiger—perhaps the most famous breakfast cereal mascot of them all—is also a Kellogg property, and he’s undergone at least one drastic design overhaul since being introduced. The original Tony had a diamond-shaped head and no anthropomorphic qualities—he didn’t talk, and he walked on four legs. But when daily breakfast started to be marketed as part of a healthy diet in the mid-1900s, Tony the Tiger started to walk (very tall) on two legs and suddenly developed an athletic silhouette. The red handkerchief was carried over from the original design, though.

In Tony the Tiger’s case, the redesign was probably successful because it was spurred by and spoke to a specific change in cultural views. Toucan Sam’s overhaul wasn’t in service of a societal evolution or making the mascot more inclusive. Instead, it comes across as something Kellogg did just for the sake of doing. Worst of all, the character retains almost none of what defined it for the last five decades. Tony got to keep his stripes and handkerchief, at least.

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