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Kraft is launching a line of bears for sale. The dolls are designed after the bears that appear on the company's peanut butter labels – one with a red bow tie for crunchy, and a green bow tie for smooth. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Kraft is launching a line of bears for sale. The dolls are designed after the bears that appear on the company's peanut butter labels – one with a red bow tie for crunchy, and a green bow tie for smooth. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

persuasion

From teddy bears to couches: Why brands use symbols to win your heart Add to ...

It is difficult to get emotional over peanut butter.

But a teddy bear – that symbol of childhood, home and security, often among the only items to survive countless Goodwill purges and to be carried sheepishly into adulthood – a teddy bear is a different matter.

That was the idea behind an advertising campaign for Kraft Canada that launched in April. Telling the story of a girl growing up with the bear her mother gave her, and then giving one to her own child, the ad aimed to make an emotional connection with consumers that would build their affection for its peanut butter brand.

Now, Kraft is going one step further: it wants to be the source of the little teddy bears that people give to children they love. On Monday, in time for the holiday season, the company will launch a line of bears for sale. The dolls are designed after the bears that appear on the product’s labels – one with a red bow tie for crunchy, and a green bow tie for smooth.

Unlike many pieces of brand-related merchandise, however, the bears are logo-free. The Kraft name appears only on the tags that most customers tend to cut off.

“It’s an emotive piece. It’s not pushing the hard sell,” said Leisha Roche, senior director of marketing for grocery brands at Kraft Canada.

According to Ms. Roche, consumer recognition of the bears is high: even without the Kraft logo, many people associate them with the brand. While the company has offered teddy bears for sale before, the new ones are of higher quality and are meant to feel less like a cheap bit of merchandise. (Kraft partnered with plush toy manufacturer Gund for the new line.) The company is hoping that by choosing not to slap a logo on the toys, adults will be more inclined to buy them as gifts – and families will be more likely to make that emotional bond.

A set of two bears will go on sale Monday on the company’s website, StickTogether.ca, for $34.99 (including shipping). Starting in early November, they will also be sold at grocery stores individually for $14.99, with a jar of peanut butter. The company will also launch an ad featuring real children surprised with teddy bears, to promote the new products.

The bears are just one example of how companies can become more memorable by using inanimate objects as symbols for their brands. Unlike a logo, consumers do not associate these symbols as immediately with advertising messages. People who are resistant to the hard sell, then, may be more receptive to the associations the symbol is trying to convey.

“Symbols have the power to connect differently to people just based on a raw emotion,” Ms. Roche said. “If I showed you the same pack, and it just said Kraft Peanut Butter and it didn’t have the bears, you’d think differently about the brand… A descriptor, a word, doesn’t have the same impact.”

Symbols have come in handy as mnemonics for other brands. TD Canada Trust has its cushy green chair, a symbol of comfort in an industry many consumers find intimidating: banking. Staples Inc. created the “easy button” to suggest an almost magical ability for the retailer to solve all their shoppers’ problems instantly. Staples sells a version of the button as an office tchotchke. Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. may have lost its sponsorship of the National Hockey League to rival Molson, but in 2013 its Budweiser brand launched its Red Light, a real product for sale that people could rig up to go off every time their favourite team scored a goal. That symbol helped to cement the beer brand’s link to hockey in consumers’ minds. It even raised the ire of the Canadian Olympic Committee this year, which objected to ads featuring the Red Light that it said suggested a sponsorship of Team Canada.

When ING Direct rebranded as Tangerine this year, the new spokesperson in its advertising campaign was shown always holding an orange mug – even when hanging off the side of a moving train, or on the back of a jet ski.

“We chose a coffee cup because it’s often what you have in your hand when you’re sitting down with someone to figure things out,” said Angus Tucker, partner and executive creative director at Tangerine’s advertising agency, John St. That symbol was perfect for the approachable image the bank wanted to convey: it already referred to its branches as cafés.

“It takes a long time for a logo to stand on its own and have immediate, emotional weight, Mr. Tucker said. “Like Apple. Now, if I just see that apple with a bite out of it, it makes me feel certain things. Nike, the swoosh. But that’s years of advertising. Sometimes these icons, whether they are visual or audio, can quickly establish a more emotional connection than a pure logo can.”

There is good reason for companies to try to make a connection: research has shown that emotional messages can actually lead to higher long-term sales than rational messages.

And since “people hate advertising” – a reminder that John St. has actually painted on the walls of its offices – a logo is often not the best vehicle to establish an emotional bond.

In 1997, TD decided it needed a symbol for comfort. It considered many options – including slippers, a robe, and other objects – and finally landed on the chair. It tested different chair styles and materials before landing on the final design that is custom-made for the company by a manufacturer just outside Toronto.

“It helps us differentiate who we are. When people see it, they have a real, personal connection with the brand,” said Chris Stamper, senior vice-president of corporate marketing at TD. That is huge in retail banking, an industry where all the competitors offer essentially the same services, and customers tend to see little difference between them.

Now, TD’s research shows that 85 to 90 per cent of its customers recognize the chair even when not accompanied by the TD logo. Among non-customers, recognition is still two out of three. The chairs are found in special seating at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, in Ottawa at TD Place, and onstage at the Junos this year.

“One of the things that we hear the most – and you’re going to laugh – ‘Can I have one?’” Mr. Stamper said. “People want them for their basement.”

(The chairs are not for sale.)

In marketing, companies make use of a number of things known as “brand elements.” These can include the name, the logo, a colour, a typeface, a melody – think of the whistled Old Spice tune – or an object or symbol.

“One [reason to use a symbol] is a diversity of customers,” said Sarah Wilner, a marketing professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “For a financial services company, the idea of comfort and ease of use is a message that may not be as important to someone making trades, for example, where efficiency is more important. Where there is a diversity of meanings needed, you can introduce these objects without diluting the brand as a whole.”

Kraft executives believe the dolls have the potential to speak to consumers, through a symbol that is more powerful than an ad.

“The bear itself is the icon,” Ms. Roche said. “It’s not the brand, it’s not Kraft.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article spelled Wilfrid Laurier University incorrectly. This version has been corrected.

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