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The Power of Fluent Devices

When brands use well-loved characters for brand building, they also provide a hint of invaluable familiarity.

This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Ellen De Kruijf will be speaking at IIeX Europe 2019 in Amsterdam. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX Europe. Click here to learn more.

The Duracell rabbit. “You’re not you when you’re hungry”. Colonel Sanders. The Geico gecko. Captain Birdseye (Captain Iglo in some countries). “Got milk?”.

For some of these – quite possibly for all – as you read the list images or memories popped into your mind of a character, or an ad you’ve seen. These are some of the most famous and popular ads and characters in the world, and they have one important thing in common: they’re all Fluent Devices.

A Fluent Device is more than just a brand mascot and it’s more than just a distinctive asset like a logo or colour. Like those things, it’s a repeated element in a brand’s communications. But it does more than just appear – it drives the creative. A Fluent Device is at the centre of the story of a video ad, or the creative framing of a display or poster ad. The communications wouldn’t work without it.

For instance, in Duracell’s latest Christmas ad, the rabbit is central to the plot: it helps Father Christmas by including batteries in presents. No rabbit, no ad. But the rabbit can and will show up in any number of other contexts for Duracell. That’s the mark of a Fluent Device. They’re a creative device – an idea – that’s designed to build Fluency for a brand, i.e. making it quicker to recognise and process.

Fluent devices are an elegant solution to one of the big problems in advertising. You need to make your audience feel something – it’s been proven that emotional ads are more effective, particularly for long-term brand building. You also need some kind of relevance to the brand and recognition of it – so audiences connect the good feelings back to your brand. But heavy branding, like logos everywhere, dampens emotional response.

Fluent devices let you have it both ways – you can “brand your cake and sell it”. The device entertains in its own right and creates rapid and strong associations with a brand.

One excellent example of a Fluent Device in action is the “Peperami Animal”, launched in 1993 in the UK as a way of advertising Peperami snack salami sausages. The Animal is an animated sausage with a hyperactive, aggressive personality that gets it into all sort of entertaining trouble. Agency Lowe’s, who created the Fluent Device, also created its tagline: “Peperami… it’s a bit of an animal!”

The Animal was a huge success and enjoyed an almost two-decade run on British screens, being retired in 2011, but now it’s being brought back by brand owner Jack Links’. This lifespan – huge for an ad campaign – is another great advantage of Fluent Device advertising: once you have a successful one, it will last you a very long time. In fact, Jack Links are now introducing a second creature – Beef, to go alongside the pork-based Animal. (As brands like M&Ms have found, expanding your universe of characters is a great way to keep a Fluent Device fresh.)

At System1 we’ve done a lot of work on Fluent Devices, using both the IPA’s database of award-nominated ads and our own System1 Ad Ratings tracker, with data for over 28,000 UK and US TV ads from the last 18 months. What have we found out? Two pieces of good news and one piece of bad news.

The good news first. Fluent Devices are effective. From the IPA database we discovered that Fluent Device campaigns gave brands a greater chance of generating profit gain and market share growth than campaigns which didn’t use them.

Second, Fluent Devices work across platforms. After uncovering the proportion of ads using Fluent Device characters in the UK, we partnered with Facebook, Twitter and Newsworks to explore how they are used in digital media. In an A/B test on Facebook we discovered that a Fluent Device ad (involving a penguin character used by British Gas) had greater engagement, dwell time ad response than the same ad without the familiar character.

But there’s also bad news. Fluent Devices are out of fashion. Our IPA work showed a decline in their use over time, and our Ad Ratings data showed that fewer than 1 in 10 brands uses a Fluent Device character, despite their benefit for effectiveness and strong cross-platform campaigns. The decline of the Fluent Device coincides with the rise of digital media, and it may be that the artifice and entertainment of Fluent Devices is seen as less ‘relevant’ to targeted and personalised ads.

We think this is a mistake – not only are these well-loved characters great for brand building but they also provide a hint of familiarity which is invaluable in a world of 6-second ads, skipping, low audibility, and other threats to creative work. Brands like Jack Links, who are using and expanding on their Fluent Device characters, are making a good investment. Fluent Devices are multi-purpose, efficient, and can power brands for far longer than most campaigns. A bit like the Duracell rabbit.

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Ellen de Kruijf

Ellen de Kruijf

Country Director Netherlands, System1