Cartoons in marketing and on livestreams: How to decide when to use them for your brand

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Cartoons can help us tell stories. They may not always be on brand for every brand, but there’s a place for cartoons in marketing and our livestream podcasts. It’s simply a strategy worth evaluating and brainstorming about.

Cartoonist Dave MacDonaldCartoonist Dave MacDonald resurfaced this topic to me in 2020 and we discussed it on an episode of the Business Storytelling Podcast.

Dave mentioned two use cases for cartoons for brands:

  • Internal communication. HR departments instead of just sending out a wordy memo, can try to tell the story through a well-done cartoon.
  • Branding campaigns. The message is external and part of a marketing campaign.

This article focuses mostly on the marketing use of cartoons but keep in mind that you might be able to use cartoons for other messaging as well. For HR use – or external messages – consider recruiting an internal designer to help. Or you can hire somebody like Dave.

Where are cartoons in marketing  used today?

Some of the top cartoons that come to my mind are Marketoonist Tom Fishburne’s marketing cartoons and Dilbert.

I often see their regular cartoons passed around the web and many presentations I’ve seen over the years start with a Dilbert or Marketoonist cartoon. They are ice breakers, tell a story and are usually very true.

On Tom’s website, you can easily buy a license to use his cartoons for presentations, your newsletter, website or corporate blog:

Cartoons in marketing licenses

I’ve used a cartoon character before myself in a campaign. From 2011-2013 I worked at United Way as VP of Innovation and Communications. Every year we had a volunteer campaign chairman – typically a business leader who would lend their brand and time to help with fundraising.

One year it was Ron Olson. The team created an entire campaign around Flat Ron. The cartoon version of Ron looked like this:

Cartoons in Marketing - Flat Ron

Cartoons in marketing - Flat Ron

Cartoons in marketing - print materials

Flat Ron was then used in many aspects of the campaign, including:

How to decide whether or not to use cartoons in marketing?

Whether or not cartoons in marketing will work certainly depends on the particular brand but also the way the cartoon is designed. And of course the message you are trying to portray.

Some brands might not want to look cartoonish, but the concept of using a cartoon-type design to tell the brand’s story can work. Consider asking these questions:

  • What would lend itself with our brand to a cartoon-type campaign
  • How would we produce the content (is there an internal team or do you need to find an external cartoonist like Dave?)

Dave shared on the podcast that there are very few boundaries on what stories can be told through a cartoon. “All a cartoon really does is it takes the words off the page and creates them literally in an image but also figuratively in your mind,” he said.

Consider an overarching strategy with an owner. Having to run a cartoon through 16 committees and sub-committees can end up just killing the product.

Are cartoons in marketing always on brand?

That’s certainly something to keep top of mind. How do we make the cartoon fit and represent our brand well. Dave made a good point that many brands today use the same type of stock art images and they don’t make brands look unique.

”I see these people with great messages and then they have these standard and same boring images,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way to articulate what you are trying to share. Cartoons are unique and difference and can help you stand out.”

Read next: How original photos can help you rank higher in Google Image Search 

Dave MacDonald cartoon
Dave MacDonald cartoon

How do you come up with a character?

In the case of United Way, it was relatively easy. Flat Ron is a designed version of Real Ron Olson. A designer just create him and then asked for approval. Easy when everyone loved the design.

It certainly helps when the person portrayed loves it. I’ve had a cartoon drawn of myself before at en event. I really didn’t like it at all, so wouldn’t even promote it.

Dave explained that it comes down to a discussion with the client:

  • How do they want it to look like?
  • What do they want to see?
  • Do they want it to look like somebody or should it be something more generic?
  • What are the stories that we are trying to tell?

In other words, it’s what we should be doing for any campaign or initiative. Brainstorm what you are trying to do and how you can do it in way that is a differentiator.

Do audiences relate to cartoon characters?

They certainly can. The community responded very well to Flat Ron and lots of people took pictures and shared them.

The example of Mr. Peanut comes to mind as well. Mr. Peanut, a cartoon character, died in early 2020 in a marketing campaign. A lot of people had feelings about that.

Dave also mentioned that people remember cartoons.

Using cartoons on your livestreams

Another way to use cartoons, animations or even live drawings is to use cartoons on your live podcasts. Dave joined me on another episode of the livestream and podcast to discuss this area in more depth. The video can be found here and below.

Can cartoons in marketing be a differentiator?

They certainly can be. Based on my experience, I see few brands take advantage of this strategy, which is often an indicator that it might be worth trying. Case in point, in my Content Performance Culture book I have chapters on:

  • podcasting
  • virtual reality video

Why? Because those two content assets are not used by as many marketers as others – like PPC, blogging, email marketing. Voice strategy is another topic that is still somewhat new. Rocking those areas can be a differentiator.

Let’s take VR video. When I produced a lot of it, it was definitely a differentiator with the partners I was working with as well as the audience. It provided the picture of innovation to my partners while offering a new type of content experience for the audience.

Read next: What kind of virtual reality videos are worth watching?

Cartoons in marketing are worth a shot to try to stand out. Of course, make sure it’s on brand and actually telling the story you want to tell.

Also, be sure they can be read on mobile. For example, a horizontal cartoon can be hard to read on a mobile device.

You may have noticed that more brands are doing podcasts now. That can be a differentiator for a bit, but how about when everyone is doing a podcast? What’s the next differentiator? I think it’s livestreaming your podcast so I started doing that and wrote a book about it. What’s next? Maybe adding cartoons to my livestream as that market is getting more crowded.

The trick is to always keep looking for the next thing that can help us differentiate and using cartoons could do that.