Image: Geico caveman
The Martin Agency
Three years after their debut, the Geico cavement are America's sweethearts, and an upcoming sitcom.
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updated 6/22/2007 2:32:05 PM ET 2007-06-22T18:32:05

Geico's prehistoric pitchmen have taken over the ad world, and they've made it look so easy that even a caveman could do it.

Now the characters, created by the Richmond, Va.-based Martin Agency, will make the leap from advertising to entertainment when they debut this fall on Cavemen, ABC's aptly titled sitcom. But whether the prime-time gig will prove advantageous for the Berkshire Hathaway brand will depend on both the direction of the story and the success of the show.

Working in the characters' favor are the familiarity and likeability that they've already garnered during their three years on television. According to Manhasset, N.Y.-based Marketing Evaluations, which measures both attributes for 600-plus characters as well as myriad other personalities, programs and brands, the Geico cavemen earn a "Q-Score" of 28, placing them seventh on our list of America's Most-Loved Spokescreatures.

The average character garners a score of 22 on the Q-Score scale. Among the other brand mascots that audiences adore: Mars' list-topping M&M's characters (Q-Score: 45), Kellogg's Tony the Tiger (34) and General Mills' (silly) Trix Rabbit (28).

So what makes a character successful in its ability to not only push products but also resonate with audiences?

An emotional connection, according to Jim Hardison, creative director of Character, a Portland, Ore.-based firm that revitalized many of the characters on our list. Kellogg's Snap!, Crackle! and Pop!, Frito Lay's Chester the Cheetah and General Mills' Pillsbury Doughboy were all projects.

Creating a character that merely looks like its consumers will only foster a superficial connection. For consumers to connect on a deeper, more emotional level, a character's struggles need to be familiar to them. "Characters are much more interesting when they have some vulnerability built into them," explains Hardison.

The catch: The conflict can't be made up for the sake of a good story. Instead, companies fare better when they examine what conflicts are really present in their brand, and then use those to power their characters.

Consider the M&M's. The colorful icons desperately seek attention, but they can't steal the spotlight, because every time they get noticed, they get eaten.

Being memorable and different doesn't hurt either, says Steve Bassett, a creative director at the Martin Agency. "A talking gecko, a caveman that lives today or a bunny that beats on a drum are both."

Another challenge for corporate mascots is staying relevant. Longtime faves often fall off the cultural radar. The key here: It isn't about how a character looks, but rather how that character looks at things. "It's not at all about whether the character has on a baseball cap, rides a skateboard or uses hip language," explains Hardison. "It really has to do with what the story is about at its core and whether that message is still relevant to people."

That's where KFC's Colonel Sanders went wrong. Nearly a decade ago, the fast food chain attempted to modernize its icon with a Colonel who rapped and danced. Shortly after strutting about to "Go Colonel, Go Colonel" chants, the animated southerner fell from America's favor.

Whether Geico's cavemen will fall into the same trap won't be known until the pitchmen hit prime time this fall. The good news: If the Geico characters don't stay relevant and loved, the car insurance brand always has America's second-most-loved spokescreature, the green gecko, to fall back on.

In the meantime, Bassett remains optimistic: "I think it'll be good for everybody: ABC, Geico and, of course, the cavemen," he says. "They need some recognition and respect; they've been beat on for, what, 750,000 years?"

© 2012 Forbes.com

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