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World Cup Willie: fifty years of fun on the field

Mascots have been an important part of sporting events for what seems like forever. An integral tool in the marketing of an event, a mascot personifies traditions and highlights positive attributes for a host nation at a World Cup for example, or local team, giving public identity to a community and bringing an element of fun into the proceedings.

These costumed characters also facilitate the creation of merchandise, enabling manufacturers of memorabilia to focus on a character when creating a plethora of products to sell on or around the event in question.

Bringing good luck

It’s true, mascots have been around for a very long time (not literally forever but not far off) and the term derives from 1880’s France. Initially, a mascot (or mascotte as it was known across the pond) was anything that was deemed to bring luck into your house or on board your ship and was usually an inanimate object. It could have been a locket of hair, a key or anything that the person felt would increase their luck with its presence. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that ‘good luck’ animals became a regular fixture at sporting events across the globe.

The first animal mascots were escorted to local events in order to entertain the crowd and in some cases, to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. These weren’t the cuddly characters you see today; tGeorge Tirebiterhese were the real deal. Lions, tigers, bears, dogs, pigs, horses and birds of prey were all used by sporting clubs and instantly became a popular feature with the audience, who would cackle and hoot at the escapades of the animal and its trainer as they were paraded around the stadium. There was however something missing. That something was a unique identity and a charismatic personality. OK, now I can already hear you all saying (and I agree) that animals do have personalities, but have you ever seen a cat, bear or any other animal react to the cheers of a crowd and respond by ramping up the excitement? The only reaction I have seen is that of shock and running away when my cat is confronted with any loud noise….

Willie is a winner

WillieSo fast forward to the 1960’s and to one of, if not the FIRST costumed character at a MAJOR sporting event; World Cup Willie. Designed by Reg Hoye (who illustrated some of Enid Blyton’s books) for the 1966 World Cup, Willie was the personification of the proud British spirit. The stocky little Lion, sporting a full Union Jack football kit and boots could be seen everywhere during the competition, invoking national pride into the people of England and cheering the lads on from the sidelines. A full range of merchandise was created to compliment the character and the notion of modern day sporting memorabilia was defined. Nowadays, memorabilia has grown to become one of the most important sources of income for a club or competition. The significance of World Cup Willie did not go unnoticed by other countries, who started to realise the potential of such a character and soon even West Germany and the Soviet Union were joining in with the fun. 1966 was the first and last year that England won the World Cup. Whether or not Willie had anything to do with it I’ll let you decide….

Mascots march on

It’s been 50 years, almost to the day since people flooded through the turnstiles to watch the first game of the competition and mascots have had a place at almost every major sporting event since. Every top flight football game, baseball game, athletics event, social gathering you name it, has some form of mascot character evoking the spirit of competition and ultimately maximising the revenue streams before, during and long after the celebration has died down. By this time, corporate businesses had already begun to embrace the idea and were designing characters to personify their core business ideals. This proved to be just as successful off the pitch and recognisable characters feature prominently in our day-to-day lives, sometimes even without you noticing them. Some great examples of company mascots that you are sure to know are Geoffrey the Giraffe (Toys R US) who has been around since the 60’s, Ronald MacDonald (arguably the most well-known character of all time), Tony the Tiger, Mickey Mouse and the Michelin Tyre Man to name a few but I digress…

Modern day magic

From their humble beginnings to the mascot of modern day, the complexity of sporting mascots has increased with the advancement of technology, allowing mascots to be more lifelike, or even more outrageous than was previously thought possible. Take for example London 2Wenlock and Mandeville012’s very own Wenlock and Mandeville. Gone are the humanoid shapes that were once the staple mascot style, only to be exchanged with weird and wonderful body types as you see in the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic mascots. Although ultimately criticized for their wacky shapes, Wenlock and Mandeville were a large reason for the success of the London Olympics and brought in millions of pounds of revenue with their merchandise, only being surpassed by the sale of the GB team kit. One disadvantage of this body style is maneuverability and top flight sporting clubs prefer to stick to a humanoid body shape so that their characters can race around the pitch, egging on or poking fun at the crowd, coaches and players alike.

Fred and his Friends

Now, we know a thing or two about creating the perfect mascot. Be it for your club, event, corporation or whatever reason you decide, we work closely with some of the country’s biggest sporting clubs to provide them with the ultimate side-line entertainers. Take for example, Fred the Red – the official Manchester United mascot. I pick this example (without any club bias) because it fits in nicely with our article. Due to the success of World Cup Willie, Reg Hoye was asked to draw the original Manchester United Red Devil mascot, which can still be seen on the badge today. A far cry from the current Fred the Red character seen gracing the pitch at match days, United saw the importance of having a brand identity and became the Red Devils to coincide with their badge re-design. 1994 saw the first live version of Fred appear and he instantly became a firm favourite with the fans at Old Trafford and is just as popular today. We’ve been making Fred the Red for over 10 years and he joins the likes of Moonchester (Manchester City), Rover (Blackburn Rovers), Stamford (Chelsea), Deepdale (Preston NE) and many others in our Costumes with Character Sporting Hall of Fame.Football mascots

All for a good cause

I think it’s also worth mentioning that sports mascots aren’t just for the entertainment of the crowd or for lining the pockets of their local club/governing body, they are also a great tool in raising money and awareness for local and national charities. Clubs up and down the country lend their mascots to good causes because they know the effect that these characters can have on the final fundraising total, with studies claiming a mascot can increase the total amount of money donated to a charity when out and about with a bucket. One thing can be sure, the introduction of Willie and mascots in general at major sporting events across the world has been a positive thing and even in this digital age of computer illustrations and virtual characters, the physical performer still very much has its place at the sporting table and will continue to do so for many years to come.

You can view our range of sporting mascots here

 

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Making your mascot masterpiece – three design considerations

We discuss what it takes to be a great mascot.

Being astute, entertaining and passionate were some of the key criteria in the ability to perform successfully, along with other physical attributes; but these I felt held less importance as they could be achieved over time with regular performances and a little bit of personal motivation to improve fitness, which has always been a challenge for me…

So I thought this time we’d talk about what actually MAKES a good mascot. Not the physical process of manufacture, which I’ll approach in another blog at a later time, but more around character design considerations when thinking about the actual Costume itself from a promotional point of view. Of course, as with everything there are exceptions to the rule so look at this more as inspiration to give you a starting point when entering the world of the costumed character.

Making it Memorable

If you search the web for mascot design blogs, you’ll eventually come to find that the majority of these posts deal with the creation of a mascot character for your brand or Logo in graphical form. This is a great place to start if you don’t already have a character in mind. Some of these blogs briefly guide you through the design process and considerations for eye catching and simple designs, often giving examples of successful characters and the reasons behind why they work.

Business Insider article on brand mascot design

This article from 2012 goes through a small selection of the more memorable international brand mascots, and gives some of the reasoning behind why they are successful. The general consensus is that the character re-enforces the company message, personifying (or anthropomorphising) the company’s (or product’s) values and beliefs.

snap-crackle-and-pop-cleanOne of the examples briefly mentioned in the article is Snap Crackle and Pop from the popular cereal brand Kelloggs. The names of these characters represent the appealing sound made by Rice Krispies whilst the appearance of the cheeky little elves, with their bold, contrasting colours appeals more to children, giving the cereal a persona and physical appearance they can relate to. A real testament to great character design, Snap, Crackle and Pop have been with us since the early 1930’s, obviously with slight adjustments to keep them fresh and current throughout the decades.

What makes these 3 little elves so successful is that they are memorable characters that have stood the test of time. Mention Snap, Crackle and Pop to someone and they will know exactly what product you are talking about without ever using the product name. For Kelloggs, this is mission complete. Michelin Man, Nesquik Bunny, Mickey Mouse and many others are pinned to the forefront of our minds because they are well thought out and easy to remember characters, irrespective of the multi-million-pound marketing campaigns behind them. Starting off with a good character design is key to the success of your costumed compadre, so take time to consider your original character artwork, the message you want to portray and who you are targeting your message at.

Personality

So once you have thought about your memorable mascot and have an idea of what it is you want to create, the next step is to give it some character. Think about your character’s personality and how you would like to portray the sentiments of your business, club or charity to a wider audience of people, some of which will already know your business but the majority may not. This could be your chance to make a lasting impression so getting this right is key to its success.

sad duckOne way to give your mascot a personality, is through the art of expression, and I don’t mean freeform dance (although a dance routine for your costumed character isn’t a bad idea), what I actually mean is the expression on your furry friend’s face. Designers for high profile mascot campaigns spend countless hours, if not days experimenting with various eye and mouth positions to make sure that they are getting the right message across and ensuring their Mascot fits the characteristics of the company. For example, a Halloween based character may have more of a scowl than a smile but it’s all about context.

CreeperOf course, not all mascots have facial features as some can be inanimate objects, or the traditional teddy bear type. In this instance, think more about how your character moves, what they should and shouldn’t do, what they are wearing and how your character interacts with its audience. For example, a football club mascot may be mischievous and active on the pitch, whereas a mascot for a respected high end shop would want to portray itself with a little more decorum…for the most part… The main thing is to make your mascot interesting. It doesn’t necessarily need to be liked (as it could be portraying a villainous character) as long as it does what you set out for it to do.

Customisation is Key

harrods meerkatCustomising your characters appearance to include physical accessories or clothing emblazoned with a company logo for example is a great way to get your message shown to the masses. Not only to the immediate audience, but to people right across the world via the medium of the internet. Over 1 Trillion (1,000,000,000,000 to put it in numbers) photos and videos are taken annually and the vast majority of these find their way on to the internet. Mascots make great talking points and photos of your character are almost certain to end up on the World Wide Web.

Making sure that your brand message is clear and visible to everyone, either through your memorable character design or through other forms of customisation is paramount in catching the attention of potential customers and creating an interest in your brand. Customising your character also makes it unique and specific to your needs allowing you to really get behind it as the face of your company.

Memorable design, personality and customisation – the three buzz words to think about when creating your character design. As long as these are taken into consideration, your bear, alien, humanoid or whatever it is you choose to create will stand out from the crowd and shout your message louder than any megaphone possibly could. There’s nothing wrong with looking at other characters for inspiration, of course there are many Lions, tigers and bears out there but just make sure you personalise your character so that it is relevant to you, your business, sports club or charity.

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Six degrees of Welephant

I think it’s fair to say that a large portion of the UK population has heard of Welephant. When someone recently mentioned it to me, I couldn’t help but smile and drift off on a wave of nostalgia about the first time he came to my school.

6 Degrees of Separation

 

The lesson was fire safety and more importantly, how to use a fire alarm correctly. The impact of this big red elephant in his shiny yellow fire helmet was a sure fire reason why my house was safely guarded from combustible hazards and that my smoke alarm battery was regularly tested (much to the annoyance of my parents). Still in use today, Welephant is now the mascot ambassador for The Children’s Burn Trust and an iconic figure in the history of the costume character.

Welephant Shopping WEB

Welephant came to life in 1978 when the Greater Manchester Fire Service ran a children’s competition to design a character to teach young people about fire safety. A 14-year-old girl entered the competition with a big red elephant sporting a yellow helmet, black boots and a fire axe. The name she gave him was Welephant. As a clear winner, the GM Fire Service adopted Welephant and children across the North West began to learn of his existence. The big friendly elephant proved to be a successful acquisition for the GM Fire service who founded The Welephant Club for children in 1984. Being inundated with club applications, other fire departments across the country heard of its success and began to adopt the red elephant for use in their own district. Welephant went nationwide!

1st Welephant

 

By 1986, the first Welephant mascots were being manufactured right here in Manchester by Liz Milnes, founder of Situation Clothing (now Costumes with Character) and were deployed across the country for fire departments to use, promoting fire safety within schools and at family events throughout the eighties, nineties and early noughties. Costumes with Character still produce Welephant mascots to this day, albeit with a few minor adjustments to bring him trumpeting into the 21st century but he is still the same cuddly and conscientious elephant he has always been.

 

So where do the six degrees of separation come in? We’ve all heard the theory that everyone is connected to everything by six steps or less (3.5 steps if you’re a Facebook user) and Welephant is no different. Whether it was on a school visit, or at a local event, someone you know will have a story or have at least had an encounter with Welephant over the last few decades. Here at Costumes with Character, most of us have a story to tell that dates back to childhood, or to when our children were young.

 

Take for example Welephant and AlisonAlison Dermott. Alison was just a young girl when she first encountered Welephant during a firework safety campaign. Being a talented individual even at that age, Alison shone brighter than the other children and won a colouring competition, resulting in some fantastic prizes and the opportunity for a photo with the iconic elephant. It didn’t stop there, Alison’s mum even wore the costume throughout the nineties in the school that she worked for, using it to teach local children the principles of fire safety. Little did Alison know that when she joined the team at Costumes with Character, Welephant would once again charge into her life.

 

Now I’m almost sure you’re sat reading this article with a smile on your face. Not because of my witty wordsmanship or carefully crafted sentences, but because you are remembering your first encounter with the popular figurehead of fire safety. Be it at school, at a summer fete or even in front of a supermarket, Welephant has popped up everywhere and has helped spread the message that fire can be dangerous to children across the country for over 30 years. Here at Costumes with Character, we are proud to have made this mascot since its inception and will hopefully do so for many years to come.