Travis Horner puts on the head as he dresses as Barney the Sea Dog to mingle with patrons at the Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland. When he appears, customers at the bar high-five him, cheer him and ask to have photos taken with him.
By Ray Routhier
When Travis Horner wears his dog suit at Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland, you’d think that Norm from “Cheers” had just strolled in.
As soon as Horner appears in the 15-pound costume – with a fan inside the head to make things cooler – customers at the bar high-five him, cheer him and ask to have pictures taken with him.
“Whether it’s adults or children, everyone reacts the same way, with smiles and high fives,” said Horner, 26, who regularly dons the costume of Barney the Great Pyrenees dog, Sea Dog Brewing’s official mascot. “Barney is the face of Sea Dog, and people are just always happy to see him.”
Imagine that, a tool of corporate relations and brand marketing that people are happy to see.
Costumed mascots have long roamed football sidelines and danced at minor league baseball games. Only in the past few years have they popped up all over Maine as ambassadors of small businesses, community groups and even local election campaigns.
Nationally, the boom in non-sports mascots helped prompt the formation this year of the National Mascot Association, a network for a growing industry that includes costume makers, performers and brand marketers.
Businesses and advertising people say that mascots are being used more as business and public relations tools because fuzzy, friendly characters can often connect with potential new customers on an emotional level. They can reach people, especially children and families, in a way that a brochure, a sign or a slogan just can’t.
“What better way to create an emotional connection to a brand than a character?” said Meredith Strang Burgess, of Burgess Advertising and Marketing in Portland. “People don’t remember cold hard facts, they remember personality. And a good mascot, one that’s right for that business, has personality.”
POLITICAL CAMPAIGN IN SCARBOROUGH
In the past three years, Mainers have been introduced to a pack of costumed mascots with personality, promoting everything from banking and bottled water to recycling and skiing.
There’s Nickles, Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution’s St. Bernard; Eco, the water bottle mascot of Poland Spring; Wilby (officially named Will B. Green), the evergreen ambassador of Yarmouth’s town recycling committee; Betty the Yeti, one of two snow monster mascots for the Sunday River ski area; and Sharon and Sayno Scarborough, the canine mascots of the Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough’s campaign to overturn a ban on unleashed dogs on public property. The ban will go before voters in a special election Tuesday.
Sharon and Sayno have been seen around Scarborough lately, standing at busy intersections, imploring voters to “share” Scarborough among all residents, including dogs, and to “say no” to the ban.
The dog group is using mascots in its campaign for many of the reasons that businesses do: to draw attention at events and to get their message in front of people in a fun, non-threatening way.
So if you think about it, mascots are well suited for local political campaigns and might help make them more civil.
“It’s been great for us, because I’ve found it’s really hard for people to be rude to a mascot,” said Katy Foley of Scarborough, a dog owner who has campaigned in one of the costumes. “And I think it relays to people just how dedicated and passionate about the issue you are, if you’re willing to stand out there for hours in a silly dog suit.”
Besides the median strips of Scarborough, some places where you might see mascots this month are holiday parades, tree lightings and open houses. Groups and businesses that want to appeal to kids and families often send their mascots to such family-friendly events. For instance, Nickles, the Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution’s St. Bernard, will march in Saco’s holiday Parade of Lights on Saturday. Baxter, the Maine coon cat mascot of the Maine State Library since 2006, was scheduled to appear at the New Gloucester Public Library’s holiday open house and tree lighting Sunday.
FUNNY CHARACTERS, SERIOUS COMMITMENT
Burgess, who has run her advertising firm for 26 years, is a big advocate of mascots. She said she has pitched the idea of mascots to five or six businesses in the past year or so, but finds it’s often a hard sell because of the commitment of time and money a small business must make.
Most of the mascot costumes in this area are designed and made by a mother-daughter business in North Yarmouth, called Commercial Costumes. They sell for about $3,600 to $4,000, and most come with fans in the head and cooling icepack vests.
Then you have to find people to wear the suit, who are willing to swelter in summer, and who have the patience to walk around for hours at a time with limited vision and mobility.
“The vision is not that great, and the head is quite heavy, so you have to get used to balancing with it on,” said Horner, who also works as a bartender at Sea Dog Brewing, and as a hairstylist during the day. “But it’s a lot of fun. You can be a goofball without anyone knowing who you are.”
Teaching people how to behave, and how to be safe, in mascot suits is one purpose of the National Mascot Association, which Jennifer Smith of Avant Garb costume makers in Indianapolis started earlier this year.
She said she saw a “huge” growth in non-sports mascots over the last few years and thought there should be an association in which people could share information and standards. Smith, who makes costumes for mascots all over the country, says she has gotten requests for mascot designs recently from banks, dental supply companies, tech businesses and candy makers.
“There just seems to be so many more events now, trade shows, festivals. If you send a mascot to these events, you get a lot more media attention than if you just send a spokesman,” Smith said.
A MASCOT NEAR YOU
Yarmouth’s recycling committee has an evergreen tree named Will B. Green – Wilby for short – to promote recycling and being green, at parades, the Yarmouth Clam Festival and in schools. The idea was sort of organic, the product of a school contest that asked students to come up with ideas for environmental slogans and emblems.
An elementary school student came up with the idea for Wilby around 2005, and the recycling committee spent years trying to raise the $3,600 needed to buy a professional-grade costume. It succeeded in 2011.
For creating Wilby and using him to promote recycling, Yarmouth won an “eco-Excellence” award in 2012 from ecomaine, the nonprofit, municipally owned waste management company that serves much of southern Maine.
Poland Spring decided to have Eco, its water bottle mascot, created in 2011 specifically for events and for “educational outreach,” said Heather McBean, community relations manager for Poland Spring.
Eco appears at events all over the country, promoting the company’s products and general messages of recycling and environmental awareness. Over Thanksgiving, he was shipped out for a parade in Connecticut.
Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution began using Nickles in 2010 partly to differentiate itself from competitors – not many banks have furry mascots – and partly to reach out to potential customers. After all, every child will probably have a bank account some day.
In October, the bank had Nickles greeting kids at the Maine Mall in South Portland, while the bank sponsored free carousel rides.
“It’s an easily recognizable, interactive connection with potential customers,” said Heather Clark, assistant vice president and marketing officer for the bank and a wearer of the mascot suit. “And people just like mascots.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:
Colleen Writt works at a family business called Commercial Costumes in North Yarmouth making mascot costumes for a variety of Maine groups.
Colleen Writt replaces the eyebrows on a mascot costume undergoing a few repairs at her shop.