It's hard to see a gecko and not think immediately of the GEICO ads. The little chap with his English accent and charming personality has become a visual representation of everything the insurance company stands for - he's helped to boost its reputation and customer base.

Many brands have earned similar fame from the image or voice of their company mascot or a colorful executive, which proves it's not just how you look but what you say that grabs an audience. Leaders, as well as company symbols, can generate a following through a skillful marketing campaign. They can build familiarity and affection for the brand.

The following eight fictional and real-life characters have driven their personal and/or company brand recognition to levels they had not known before.

1. The "Mayhem" Guy, Allstate

We've all experienced mayhem, but until a few years ago, it didn't have a face. Thanks to Allstate, we have one now, and it's elevated the brand. Dean Winters plays the Allstate "Mayhem" role to a T.

The "Law and Order: SVU" and "30 Rock" star initially turned down "Mayhem," with the remark that he "got into acting so he didn't have to sell insurance." Nevertheless, he wound up accepting the gig and earning more from his ad campaigns than he ever did in Hollywood.

Take a lesson from Winters: do more than the minimum, and expect success. Not only did it help him, but it also illustrated how a creative campaign and an engaging character can redefine a brand.

2. Elon Musk, Tesla et al.

Elon Musk, best known for founding the electric automaker Tesla, as well as other ambitious ventures such as Space X and now Neuralink, is a formidable figure who represents innovation at its finest and the personification of the idea that electric cars can be cool, elegant, and luxurious. This intriguing personality has tackled all kinds of projects - from a tunnel under West Los Angeles that aims to get you from the far side of town to the airport in five minutes or less.

Then there's SpaceX and the first rocket to be successfully landed and re-used. And don't forget solar roof tiles and the superconductor, as well as the dozen or so other projects Musk reportedly has in the works. Does this man ever sleep?

Such an innovative leader who is passionate about everything he does can't help but inspire other people's excitement about technology, even if they don't understand it to the extent he does. What they do get is that here is a personal brand that will solve complex problems and give us plenty of cool stuff.

3. Steve Jobs, Apple

Apple was launched by an interesting array of characters, but none more fascinating than Steve Jobs, who set a tone for innovation and created a cult-like following of consumers and firms that responded like groupies every time a product release occurred. He hosted these events in P.T. Barnum fashion, with dramatic unveilings.

Though intensely private, Jobs went public with energy when it came to Apple, because he understood there had to be a human figure to represent the technology and what the company was offering its customers. No one has ever made the turtleneck as dynamic as Steve Jobs did.

4. Colonel Sanders, KFC

This iconic brand character continues to resonate with consumers to this day, despite alluding to an era long past. By mixing the idea of tradition with an eccentric, updated-looking Colonel, KFC has been able to keep its quaint brand figure relevant.

Colonel Sanders is more than a character; he is a representation of the company's founder. Giving the character a more humorous take than in the past has helped to win new fans who enjoy the fried chicken and home-cooked menu that has always defined this chain.

The new-model Colonel has managed to connect the past to the present while offering the familiar comfort of the company's the original recipe, still known for being "finger-lickin' good."

5. Flo, Progressive

Who doesn't recognize Flo, the cheerful pitch gal for Progressive? Portrayed by improv actress Stephanie Courtney, Flo has become synonymous with Progressive and its campaigns. Courtney revealed in an interview that she didn't land the job of playing Flo until she was nearly 40 years old.

"I'm a late bloomer," she observed. "But it tastes just as sweet when it's late." In return, Flo has massively raised company recognition among consumers, which puts her in a league with the gecko and the Mayhem Guy.

The lesson for the rest of us? Things happen when they're supposed to, not when we think they should. Stay the course with your passion and wait for the world to catch up.

6. Steve Ballmer, Los Angeles Clippers

Formerly an executive at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer has become better known as the omnipresent team owner at every Los Angeles Clippers game. He redesigned the brand's visual identity and turned the team into a force to be reckoned with in basketball - it had previously been recognized only for losing.

Ballmer's presence at the games and his reshaping of the team's brand have been driven by his enthusiasm and outspokenness. The passion he feels for basketball manages to transmit itself to every fan in the arena; his involvement as their leader proves that Ballmer is more than just an executive behind a desk.

He is on the field, which has enabled Ballmer and the team to attract many more fans. The club made it to the Western Conference playoffs, which has been both a result of the owner's efforts and a reward for them as well.

7. Daniel Wesley, Quote.com

Daniel Wesley, the founder of Quote.com, lives by the personal mantra, "Never be denied." It's a shorthand reminder that quitters never succeed and successful people never quit.

You might not win all the time (in fact, the odds are you won't), but the only time you truly fail is when you throw in the towel. No matter what, you need to keep pushing. Wesley's positivity and drive give his brand a fresh approach that is appreciated and admired by consumers - and has contributed immensely to the growth of the brand.

8. Bunny, Energizer

The Energizer Bunny doesn't really say anything. His cool attire and ability to just keep going against all obstacles speak for him. This iconic brand character not only continues to entertain us; he has even become a cultural phrase with reference to anyone or anything that continues to perform no matter what.

When you have turned your brand character into a common phrase, you know you've had an unprecedented impact on the culture. It also proves that you don't have to come up with anything too complicated, but can unleash a simple character that has lovable traits but persistence, like this cute, fluffy bunny.

The Energizer Bunny has become so popular that the company has reached a place where no one could imagine how it could ever substitute a different representative brand character.

Lessons for Brands

You don't want to create a trendy character for your brand that will wear out with customers over time (anybody remember the Taco Bell chihuahua, circa 1997-2003?). What you can do, though, is develop likable and engaging characters that appeal to a large cross-section of your audience - whether they're fictional or real.

Give them memorable traits that other people can relate to and will stick in their minds. Enhance that with a memorable saying or catchphrase, and you might do even better.

Published on: May 17, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.