Build­ing char­ac­ter

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY BARKER DAVIS

It usu­ally is not pru­dent to med­dle with your mas­cot.

When an an­drog­y­nous blob named Gun­ston is part of the only Fi­nal Four run in school his­tory, per­haps it’s not best to spurn karma nor its fuzzy green in­car­na­tions for a sleek new look (see Ge­orge Ma­son).

When a men­ac­ing, toothy Jack the Bull­dog has per­fectly mir­rored your team’s re­lent­less style since the beginning of Big East play, don’t be sur­prised when alumni cringe at the in­tro­duc­tion of a kinder, gen­tler, smil­ing ver­sion of the ca­nine (see Ge­orge­town).

Be­lieve it or not, th­ese ca­per­ing, furry car­toons have power. It’s called char­ac­ter brand­ing. A good mas­cot en­gen­ders sol­i­dar­ity, in­spires loy­alty and pro­vokes in­stant recog­ni­tion. A bad one — or a poor tweak to an ex­ist­ing one — ran­kles an in­sti­tu­tion’s fan and fi­nan­cial base and pro­vides spot­lighted fod­der for the com­pe­ti­tion.

David Ray­mond has been gam­bol­ing for a liv­ing since 1978, when as a young in­tern with the Philadel­phia Phillies he be­came the first per­son to raise his hand as the orig­i­nal Phillie Pha­natic.

“They needed some­body stupid enough to get in the suit and run out in front of the world’s most in­fa­mous fans,” said Ray­mond, who re­tired as the Pha­natic in 1993 and opened up a mas­cot con­sult­ing and cre­ation firm called the Ray­mond En­ter­tain­ment Group in 2000. “The mas­cot or char­ac­ter-brand­ing in­dus­try has come a long way since then.

“On the sur­face, mas­cots are all about en­ter­tain­ment. But they are also pow­er­ful mar­ket­ing tools that build recog­ni­tion and brand eq­uity. A char­ac­ter of­ten takes years to es­tab­lish. And once es­tab­lished, it can be very dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to change. In that re­spect, char­ac­ter brand­ing is a very del­i­cate busi­ness.”

This is the un­pre­dictable en­vi­ron­ment into which St. John’s will in­tro­duce a new mas­cot later this sum­mer. Fif­teen years ago, the uni­ver­sity dropped its long­time nick­name be­cause of con­cerns over racial sen­si­tiv­ity, though the team was known as the Red­men only be­cause of the color of the uni­forms. In 1994, how­ever, St. John’s be­came the Red Storm. And soon a ca­vort­ing crea­ture will at­tempt to bring some sub­stance to that ab­stract nick­name.

More than 11,000 St. John’s fans par­tic­i­pated in the on­line se­lec­tion process be­tween April and May, vot­ing for one of six mas­cot fi­nal­ists nom­i­nated and cre­ated by a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween St. John’s stu­dents and fac­ulty and mas­cot mono­lith Olym­pus Flag and Ban­ner.

“We’re at the tail end of what has been quite a long process with St. John’s,” said Tracy Jones, prod­uct man­ager for Olym­pus, a Milwaukee-based com­pany that has made more than 8,000 mas­cots over the last 40 years, in­clud­ing no­ta­bles like Ron­ald McDon­ald and Tony the Tiger and col­lege sta­ples like Florida’s Al E. Ga­tor and Wis­con­sin’s Bucky Badger. “It was very un­usual for a client to come to us and re­quest six or seven de­sign con­cepts. Usu­ally, they have a pic­ture or a logo or one def­i­nite idea. But they have cho­sen one, and we’re in the process of com­plet­ing the fi­nal tweaks on the cos­tume.”

The smart money is on Thun­der­bolt, though the school’s Big East ri­vals are un­doubt­edly root­ing for Thun­der Horse or Storm Hero, ei­ther of which in­stantly could be­come one of the league’s most lu­di­crous mas­cots and an im­me­di­ate, per­haps even jus­ti­fied, de­ri­sion mag­net.

From St. John’s per­spec­tive, notably ab­surd wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be a bad thing. Just ask Stan­ford or Syra­cuse, re­spec­tive own­ers of the painfully am­a­teur­ish stu­dent-built Tree and the gi­ant or­ange (Otto) some long to punch. Not ev­ery­body can have Notre Dame’s Lep­rechaun or Michi­gan State’s Sparty, mas­cots that ful­fill the holy trin­ity of char­ac­ter-brand cool by be­ing nat­u­rally linked to the school’s his­tory or tra­di­tions, re­spectably tough in ap­pear­ance and sar­to­ri­ally re­splen­dent.

“Some­times be­ing re­ally ou­tra­geous works,” said Ge­orge Ma­son se­nior as­so­ciate ath­letic di­rec­tor Adam Brick, who was on the 2007 com­mit­tee that sup­planted Gun­ston with the Patriot. “Some peo­ple claimed that we re­tired Gun­ston be­cause he was too off the wall. Ac­tu­ally, he might not have been lu­di­crous enough. If you’re not go­ing to shoot for log­i­cal, which is what we did with the Patriot, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off go­ing the other di­rec­tion with some­thing way, way over the top like the Stan­ford Tree.”

Ray­mond agrees, cit­ing both West­ern Ken­tucky’s Big Red and the Stan­ford Tree as whacky mas­cots that work.

“From a per­for­mance stand­point, Big Red is one of the worst cos­tumes out there be­cause it’s very re­stric­tive,” Ray­mond said. “But they’ve done a great job of de­vel­op­ing like eight sig­na­ture moves for his rou­tine. He swal­lows things. He does a floor slide. And Big Red works. The ESPN ad where he has an iden­tity cri­sis and can’t de­cide whether to use the men’s or women’s re­stroom is a clas­sic.

“And the Stan­ford Tree is bril­liant. It’s prob­a­bly the worst cos­tume you’ll ever see be­cause they let a stu­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion re­build it ev­ery year. And it seems like some­one is al­ways get­ting ar­rested in it for per­form­ing while ine­bri­ated or ha­rass­ing an­other mas­cot or fan base. But all that gives it a niche and an iden­tity, which is the whole point.”

In most cases, how­ever, a mas­cot needs a his­tor­i­cal hook — a log­i­cal con­nec­tion to its in­sti­tu­tion. The best mas­cots have a back story in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the school.

“The crit­i­cal step which is too of­ten skipped is story,” the 53year-old Ray­mond said. “We tell all of our col­lege clients, ‘Take all of the ideas you brought with you and put them away for now. Spend a week re­search­ing the his­tory of your school, its build­ings, tra­di­tions, leg­ends and com­mu­nity, and make a new list based off that.’ That process al­most al­ways gives birth to the char­ac­ter.”

Un­like larger com­pa­nies like Olym­pus, Ray­mond’s firm prides it­self in not just build­ing cos­tumes but cre­at­ing char­ac­ters.

For be­tween $50,000 and $55,000, Ray­mond En­ter­tain­ment will spend sev­eral days tour­ing a col­lege or cor­po­rate cam­pus, en­gage in mul­ti­ple creative brain­storm­ing ses­sions with all in­ter­ested par­ties, build a back story, cre­ate a char­ac­ter, copy­right the de­sign, sup­ply two cos­tumes (custom-made in New York and de­signed to last for seven years) and han­dle all of the post-de­sign con­sult­ing work — from lo­cat­ing and train­ing per­form­ers to ed­u­cat­ing you on proper pay­ment and salary struc­ture to in­tro­duc­ing a party to a num­ber of ap­pear­ance-fee and mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. The en­tire process takes about eight months from start to fin­ish.

For as lit­tle as $1,800, Ray­mond’s firm will han­dle all the ini­tial creative con­sult­ing and twodi­men­sional de­sign. Ge­orge Ma­son con­sulted with Ray­mond on its cre­ation of the Patriot, and Ray­mond re­ferred the school to Avan­tGarb in Indianapolis for a more bud­get-con­scious set of cos­tumes. The school was so im­pressed with Ray­mond and his ideas, one of which was to make the Patriot less sports-spe­cific than the hoops-clad Gun­ston, that they still use his con­sul­tant ser­vices. So who has the best mas­cot? Though Notre Dame’s Lep­rechaun and Duke’s Blue Devil are per­haps more rec­og­niz­able be­cause of the over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar­ity or peren­nial suc­cess of the teams they rep­re­sent, Michi­gan State’s Sparty was the only mas­cot every­one in­ter­viewed uni­ver­sally sanc­tioned. And he’s one of the most com­plex.

“We’ve made Sparty’s chest plates for a while now, and they posed some chal­leng­ing prob­lems,” Jones said. “They had to have the look of some­thing very hard while ac­tu­ally be­ing quite durable for the per­form­ers. Michi­gan State was un­sat­is­fied with the tra­di­tional foam and plas­tic ma­te­ri­als used in the busi­ness, so we came up with a car­bon­fiber ma­te­rial painted with high­grade au­to­mo­bile paint. We have a lot of high schools call and ask us to make them some­thing which looks ex­actly like Sparty. Not only is that im­pos­si­ble due to patent is­sues, peo­ple tend to choke when they hear the price. They have no idea about the cost of such a com­plex de­sign.”

In­ter­est­ingly, most of what were con­sid­ered the worst mas­cots in­habit the high-vis­i­bil­ity Divi­sion I mar­ket­place. Reg­u­larly men­tioned of­fend­ers were the Prov­i­dence Friar, Saint Louis Bil­liken, Pur­due Pete and Wake For­est’s De­mon Dea­con.

“The worst mas­cots are what we call ‘Franken­steins.’ Those are the big­headed, pa­jama-wear­ing mas­cots which demon­strate lit­tle or no creative de­sign,” Ray­mond said. “They’re very dif­fi­cult to work in from a per­for­mance per­spec­tive be­cause they are top heavy and of­fer ex­tremely lim­ited vi­sion and ven­ti­la­tion. They are ba­si­cally the scourge of the busi­ness.”

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION; PHO­TOS BY GETTY IM­AGES

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