Meet Skeeter--the only squirrel in the world who's allergic to nuts. He's also the face of Skeeter Snacks, a line of nut-free cookies created by Dave Leyrer and Pete Najarian. Like most parents of children with nut allergies, Leyrer and Najarian were driving themselves, well, nuts, constantly reading labels to see what their kids could and couldn't eat. So the pair, who met in college, set out to create a nut-free snack that would be affordable and appealing to kids. In the interest of being more playful than other allergen-free brands, they dreamed up the idea of Skeeter--a mascot who faced the same challenges as kids with allergies. In June 2011, three months before launching Skeeter Snacks in Westport, Connecticut, the co-founders hired freelance designer Alex Adams to determine exactly how a quirky creature like Skeeter should look.
The Drawing Board
Leyrer and Najarian wanted Skeeter to be two-dimensional to fit in with the classic mascots already on store shelves, such as Snap, Crackle, and Pop and the Keebler elf. "We also wanted people to get a sense that he was a little bit off," Leyrer says. "He has a healthy neurosis about taking nuts out of everything, so he should be quirky looking in a lovable way."
The co-founders chose the three sketches they thought looked the most like squirrels, and Adams began exploring colors and type designs to go with them. While the company's name was being finalized, Adams played with the placeholder name NutJob Snacks and chose bold fonts that were reminiscent of Nabisco brands such as Chips Ahoy and Oreo. Leyrer, who is also a technology venture capitalist with the firm Nexus Group, felt the font should be cleaner. "In the tech world, it's all about having clean, crisp user interfaces," he says.
The Finished Product
None of the secondary sketches of Skeeter were considered quite cute enough, so Adams created a composite character, using the best parts of each sketch. He appropriated the overlapping eyes and ears from one and the protruding snout and slumped posture of another to create the final outline for Skeeter. Adams also got rid of Skeeter's net full of nuts: "The net made it look like Skeeter was all about nuts, instead of all about eliminating nuts." To make it clear that Skeeter is explicitly against nuts, Leyrer and Najarian decided to depict him as an antinut protester.
The Bottom Line
Skeeter Snacks debuted in August 2012 and were picked up by hundreds of Costco, ShopRite, and Walmart stores. Now, Leyrer says, he and Najarian are focused on bringing the drawing to life through viral videos and radio ads. They're also designing a Skeeter suit that mascots will wear to events such as concerts and movie premieres to spread the word about the brand.
The Experts Say...
Give Kids a Hero
Kids want to know what they are getting, not what they aren't. Skeeter is charming, and his story would make a great children's book, but it's tough to tell that story in one frame. A better character might be a superhero with the No Peanuts sign as his Superman badge. He has superstrength, but nuts are his kryptonite. It reflects that these kids have one flaw but are strong in every other way.
Creative director, Culver Brand Design, Milwaukee
Cheer Up, Skeeter
I think the illustration is a little too cartoony. I also don't think Skeeter goes with the font, which lacks character. It needs to be more playful and loose. Even Skeeter could look happier. Right now, he's just protesting something, rather than happy to have found the answer to his problem. He should be superstoked. Instead, he just looks neutral.
Creative director, Graphic D-Signs, Washington, New Jersey
So, What's the Message?
Skeeter Snacks is a great name, but I would never understand that it is nuts free. When you see a squirrel, you automatically think of nuts. I like the character, but if you'resold on having a squirrel for your mascot, then the messaging needs to be stronger. As a character, he's great; they just have to work harder with the messaging.
Global director of consumer brands, Siegel+Gale, New York City
Creating an Icon for the Ages
Leo Burnett is the Chicago-based branding agency behind such famed brand mascots as Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, and Charlie the Tuna. Chief creative officer Susan Credle discusses what it takes to create a popular and lasting character.
Why are brand characters important?
Characters give people a very quick way to identify a brand. It's not unlike a jingle. It's also something that becomes a source of nostalgia over time. Characters are the hardest equity to part with. We prefer to throw tag lines away over a well-seasoned character. Moms today remember what they loved about Snap, Crackle, and Pop and pass that on to their children. That's what makes them successful.
Are there any brands that aren't a good fit for a mascot?
That's hard to say, because characters are so strong. It's not about any one brand that's not a good fit. It's more a question of using the character responsibly. It's dangerous to use a character simply for the sake of having a character. Just like any character in film or on Broadway, you need to know why it exists.
What should a good mascot accomplish?
I think great characters start conversations. We have a character for McDonald's right now who's a goat. His story is that he's not a discriminate eater. We're using him to talk about food choices. He has a purpose. He's not just a funny character kids might like.