Every time I see the Amul girl, she brings a smile to my face. Dressed in her white frock with red polka dots, holding a freshly buttered slice of bread in her chubby little hand, she is lovable, endearing and timeless. I look forward to her take on current affairs which range from Tendulkar’s retirement to an ode to Khushwant Singh. She keeps brand Amul fresh and appealing in my mind, as she has done for millions of Indians, since her birth nearly 50 years ago. No wonder Amul remains one of the strongest Indian brands today, and continues to grow from strength to strength.

While the Amul girl remains one of India’s most beloved brand mascots, here is a list of some other such mascots which many of us may recall, particularly if we grew up more than a couple of decades ago. Air India’s Maharajah, with his royal turban and oversized and regal moustache. Asian Paints’ Gattu, the street boy in his shorts, holding a paintbrush dripping with paint. Onida’s devil, as he tries to whip up neighbour’s envy and owner’s pride. 7-Up’s Fido Dido. The adorable Murphy baby, with his finger in his mouth. And don’t forget Chintamani of ICICI Prudential, who has taught us how best we can invest our money without Chinta (anxiety).

What strikes me, though, is that all these very successful and iconic mascots were created so many years ago. The Air India Maharajah was conceptualised in 1946 by Bobby Kooka, Gattu was created in 1954 by RK Laxman, and the Amul Girl took birth in 1967 at the hands of Eustace Fernandes.

But I feel no mascots of the stature of the Amul Girl or Gattu have been born in the past several years.

Vodafone’s Zoozoos or Sunfeast’s Sunny are already many years old, and have not yet attained a status anywhere close to that of their predecessors.

This is unfortunate, because mascots can add magic to brands. If our current crop of marketers see a mascot as an outdated and childish device, they should pause and think again. Here are some strong reasons why mascots can work brilliantly for brands.

Engage with customers Brands know that, to survive and flourish in today’s fast paced world, they have to constantly engage with their consumers. Mascots make consumer engagement easier, by providing a loveable human (or animal) face to the brand. People take to small children, charming old grandparents or baby elephants much more than they will to inanimate brands. Take, for instance, Gattu, who succeeded in creating fond engagement with an industrial or chemical product such as paints.

Clutter cut-through The struggle for spontaneous awareness is getting much harder, particularly for new or relatively small challenger brands, in an intensely cluttered world. A unique, loveable mascot can lead to instant clutter cut-through, just like Chintamani did for ICICI Prudential. If mascots appear in product categories where they are least expected (such as financial services or fertilisers), they can add cut-through in even greater measure.

Memorability If a brand invests in nurturing a mascot, over the years this can lead to instant recognition and memorability. Whenever we see the Amul girl, we think of Amul. Need we say more? It requires commitment and investment and this is often difficult to achieve, particularly in Indian companies, because every new brand manager tends to have a different vision.

Product Benefits

An excellent mascot enables the brand to communicate product benefits instantaneously, which is a wonderful thing. Air India’s Maharajah immediately conveyed gracious Indian hospitality in the skies, since it immediately cued the luxurious lifestyle associated with Indian royalty. When a single visual image of the mascot can achieve this, and such a visual can also easily appear at multiple consumer touch points including packaging and point of sale material, that is a big advantage which needs to be leveraged.

Timelessness There is a timelessness to mascots. The Amul girl is still as young as she was several decades ago (I often wonder what her exact age is), and she is still as relevant.One cannot say that about brand ambassadors, who are subject to nature’s laws of ageing. Hence brands are compelled to periodically change ambassadors to cement recall, but with mascots, you can use them over and over again. In some cases, there may be a need to add a small contemporary touch to the mascot while retaining its essential character, but with some good strategic and creative strokes, that’s quite easily done.

Cost and Trouble Once mascots are created and established, they are virtually cost- and trouble-free for the brand. Marketers know that this is not the case with brand ambassadors. They can create all kinds of trouble as is the nature of human beings. Very good celebrity ambassadors are also very expensive, and getting their dates for an advertising shoot is a recurring point of intense stress and grey hair.

Entertainment Quotient Mascots make brands interesting and entertaining. They can voice irreverent truths on behalf of the brand, which make people take notice and smile, in a manner that the brand itself cannot. It would perhaps be far more difficult for Amul to make its humorous points about a current event, without the soft and loveable character of its Amul girl being integral part of the story. Mascots can also help provide the brand a “fun image”, even if the product category is in very serious space – and this helps, because no one likes seriousness all the time, and we somehow get to like brands that entertain us in the midst of our relatively drab and routine lives.

Mascots for children The market for kids’ brands is very large in India, though nascent in many categories. This is the natural home for mascots, because kids love animated creatures: warm, cuddly, superhuman, Bhim-like and mouse-like. Even small toddlers can recognise brands of chocolates or toys through their mascots, and can then pester their parents accordingly. No other marketing device may have such telling effect on our young ones.

So, given all these multiple benefits of using brand mascots, here is the million-dollar question I would like to end this column with: Which brand will create the next Amul Girl or Maharajah or Gattu in our country? How long will we have to wait for a contemporary brand mascot which becomes a much loved national icon? Watch this space.

Harish Bhat is the author of the book “Tata Log : Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution”. These are his personal views. He can be reached at bhatharish@hotmail.com