When most people think of mascots, they think sports—a costume-clad representative of the team’s logo or ethos who entertains and engages the crowd from the sidelines. But mascots exist in realms beyond the field, and indeed, even in the learning sphere. Though corporate mascots are nothing new, bringing these mascots into learning is a trend that’s continuing to grow as companies give more focus to professional development. 

Though learning mascots may not be as ubiquitous as those of the sports world, their objectives are similar: to represent the brand, entertain, and engage with the learner. You may be thinking, “These all sound like great reasons to use a mascot!” And they are! But is it right for your audience, the learning experience you’re creating, and your brand? Before you decide whether or not a learning mascot is right for you, let’s dive in and discover more about learning mascots, how they can enhance the learning experience, how they can contribute to your brand and course development processes, and also when you shouldn’t use one.

What is a learning mascot?

All learning mascots are characters, but not all characters are mascots. But what’s the difference? Let’s find out. 

With the number of eLearning courses we’ve all taken—or designed—we’ve certainly run into many characters, including the archetype of the stock business person in standard business attire telling you that you’ve done well or that you need to try again. Characters don’t have to be animated—they could be stock photos of real people or images of actual employees—but they have one thing in common regardless of whether they’re animated or not: they’re interchangeable. Don’t misunderstand, characters are very useful in eLearning and have their time and place. They can put a face to scripted content, they can help your audience relate to information they’re learning, and they can show learners how to apply skills. But ultimately, you can substitute one character for another in an eLearning environment, and your audience would be no better or worse off for it.

Mascots, on the other hand, are not interchangeable. Mascots become an integral part of the design and learning experience, and exist outside the learning experience, as well. They represent your brand, your organization’s culture, and are valuable both in terms of intellectual property and as learning tools. “The difference between characters and mascots is that mascots become loved and cherished by brands, teams, and clients,” says Thomas Wrench, who runs our media team. “Mascots personify the team or brand they’re representing, and people connect with them. They’re not just a user avatar, they’re a personality.” 

As you can see, mascots are more than just characters, they’re a conduit between you, your brand, and your audience. If you’ve researched tools to aid with language learning, Duo, the Duolingo owl should be no stranger to you. Duo has been an incredibly successful learning mascot and is loved both internally and by users. Duo is representative of DuoLingo’s brand and mission—owls have long been associated with wisdom and knowledge—and its emotional responses to learning achievements (or lack thereof) connect with users, driving them to continue.

But if you hearken back to dot-com era software, there’s a learning mascot that, though well-known, was almost universally loathed—Microsoft’s Office Assistant, Clippy. While well-intentioned, Clippy failed in almost every respect of being an appropriate mascot. Clippy, other than being a paperclip commonly found in an office, didn’t reflect Microsoft’s brand, culture, or personality in any way. But more than that, Clippy was an intolerable annoyance. It would appear for mundane tasks, keep appearing after you declined assistance, and was even found to have what was described as a “leering” gaze by many female users. In short, the demise of Clippy was no major loss to the Microsoft brand or the world at large.

Though DuoLingo’s Duo and Microsoft’s Clippy are both examples of learning mascots, Duo stands atop the podium of memorable and effective learning mascots, and Clippy—well, Clippy is more of an example of what not to do, despite its legacy for being one of the first. 

How can learning mascots enhance the learning experience?

Improving your audience’s experience and the amount of knowledge they retain should be the principal reasons you do—or don’t do—anything when designing and developing learning content. So now that we know the difference between characters and mascots, and some of the hallmarks of great and not so great mascots, let’s get into how using a mascot can improve the learning experience for your audience.

Mascots can connect with learners

Connecting with your learners should always be your main goal when creating eLearning courses or other professional development content, and mascots can help you do just that. Mascots can be useful when providing learners with feedback and to help them connect with the information in the course. “Learning mascots can make content more accessible and relatable to people, more human,” notes our resident wordsmith, Sebastian Fryer. “Some of the best feedback [people] can get is often from reading other peoples’ expressions or body language. Mascots are emotive, and the learner can read the character’s expression better than just text on screen.”

Mascots can act as guides

Even if you’ve designed a well-thought out user interface (UI), navigating content can sometimes be a challenge due to the subject matter or length of the learning process. This is where you might decide to have a mascot come in and support your content and UI. You can utilize a mascot to walk your audience through the steps of a process, act out procedures, remind learners of earlier-discussed topics, or reinforce the relationship of one topic to another. 

When taking an eLearning course, there’s often so much information—especially text—that it may become overwhelming for learners, causing cognitive overload. To address this, mascots can highlight your important points, bring up these points later, and do so in fun and memorable ways. A mascot, especially their personality and how they deliver content, will stick in learners’ minds much more than a text-based reminder or just being told to remember an important point.

Mascots can reinforce learning concepts

As we’ve just mentioned, one of the main reasons we use mascots is because they’re memorable—not just in character alone, but in the personalities you create for them, and the actions they take. When creating a mascot, one of your focus areas should be making the mascot relatable with easy to interpret personification. When well-executed, learners should be able to determine if something—such as a procedure or the answer to a question—is right or wrong based on the expression and perceived emotion of the mascot. But keep in mind that, because people are all somewhat different, the more specific you make a mascot or character, the less relatable it might be to some members of your audience.

Mascots can make content more interesting

Learning can be an exciting process filled with discovery and growth. However, regardless of how a topic is approached, some subjects are just not the most interesting. If you’re dealing with subject matter that’s known for being dry, such as compliance or technical training, designers must consciously find ways to make the content relevant and interesting. This is where a mascot might come into play, taking this technical and dry content and making it fun, humorous, and entertaining—breaking up the monotony a bit. 

Mascots can also be used to show the dangers of what happens if you do something incorrectly. For example, if you’re teaching your audience how to wire a high voltage electrical line, a mascot can give you an idea of what might happen if you fail to follow the proper procedures—zap! Animators can have mascots do things in ways that real people can’t—or shouldn’t—due to the potential or definite dangers of an action or situation. Not only can this be beneficial for learners, it can also be quite amusing.

What else can learning mascots do?

In addition to directly contributing to a better learning experience, mascots can do a lot to further your brand’s internal recognition and buy in, and can even streamline course development processes in many instances.

Mascots can (and should) support your brand

Just as team mascots support sports teams, learning mascots support your brand. “If you can make a mascot relate to the brand experience, learners are going to enjoy the course more, open up to it, and be more receptive to the content,” says Thomas.

Part of making a mascot relatable means making sure that they’re recognizable within the industry. DuoLingo did just that with their owl with respect to knowledge and wisdom. Similarly, Southwest airlines have The Marshalls, a pair of mascots taking the form of the illuminated beacons commonly held by aircraft marshalls—the people who guide your aircraft to and from the gate. Beyond the recognizable marshalling tools, The Marshalls also evoke the team dynamics and distinct personalities common to Southwest’s marshalling crew—one appearing older and more experienced, who’s wise with perhaps a bit of a gruff exterior, and one appearing younger and less experienced, who’s excited to be on the job and learning new things.

Mascots can improve course development processes

Capturing photos to use within an eLearning course can often be an exhausting process. It may involve multiple takes of the same actor—who are often employees of the organization, rather than professional actors—showing different emotions, making different gestures, or interacting with various environments. This can not only take a lot of time and resources, but may be challenging or even impossible depending on the circumstances surrounding the availability of actors/employees, or the work environment if it’s restricted or hazardous. According to our designer, Amy O’Donnell, this is where “it may make sense to illustrate mascots throughout the course rather than shooting photos of people with various expressions.”

When shouldn’t you use a Learning Mascot?

Even though creating a mascot to support your learning and development needs may seem like a universally great idea, this may not be the case. In practice, you should only use a learning mascot if it’s necessary and you have a solid rationale for doing so. Incorporating a mascot into the learning experience is a commitment—they should be used to carry a message over a long period of time and applied throughout the learning experience. If you don’t plan to use the mascot regularly throughout the courses you develop, then you shouldn’t use a mascot at all.

Likewise, learning mascots should always help the learner better engage with and understand the content. If the content allows you to make it more interactive and fun by using animated characters, then you should consider using a mascot. But if you’re considering using a mascot because your competitors are, or because it’s the new on-trend thing to do, then you should first evaluate why your content needs a mascot, and how a mascot will actually improve your audience’s learning experience. If you’re lacking in justifiable reasons to use a mascot while maintaining a learner-centric approach, then the learner doesn’t need a mascot, and neither do you.

Finally, we come to a mascot’s place within your brand. Though many companies have mascots and have leveraged them to become directly associated with a brand in the consumer’s mind, not every brand is meant to have a mascot. Mascots may not work well with your company’s image or the perception you want your employees or consumers to have of you, or a mascot may bring up negative connotations related to the subject matter. If a mascot isn’t a good fit with your overall brand image and feel, or your business area, then you shouldn’t use one, plain and simple. 

Similarly, if your audience won’t respect the mascot, or it won’t represent your workplace’s culture, you shouldn’t use a learning mascot. Mascots like The Marshalls succeeded because Southwest “has a quirky, fun company culture, and you can see that personality in those characters,” says Thomas. “The Marshalls match the brand.” If a mascot isn’t a good representation of your company’s culture, or won’t be appreciated by your staff, then there’s no sense in creating a mascot just for the sake of doing so. Focus your energies elsewhere, and find other ways to engage learners and improve the learning experience.

So… should you use a learning mascot or not?

Creating a mascot to use within your organization’s learning and development materials is a personal choice, and there’s no clear answer whether you definitely should, or definitely shouldn’t. As you evaluate whether a learning mascot is right for you, your learners, and your brand, consider:

  1. Will using a mascot improve the learning experience? Or is there a better—or different—way to improve how learners interact with content and retain information?
  2. Is a mascot necessary to demonstrate certain concepts or situations that would be difficult or impossible to show otherwise?
  3. Will not using a mascot detract from the learning experience?
  4. Will learners appreciate the mascot and grow to love it? Or will they see it as juvenile and patronizing?
  5. Will a mascot fit with your brand and the image you want others to have of your company and culture?
  6. Will you use this mascot for years to come throughout multiple courses and learning environments?

While this is far from a complete list of the things you should ask yourself or consider when evaluating whether or not a learning mascot is right for you, this should give you a good place to start. Remember, mascots become part of your team and, created thoughtfully, can even become loved by your employees. Make sure the mascot you create—if you do so—is one that your learners will identify with, look forward to seeing regularly, embrace as part of the company culture, and eventually grow to love as a contributor to their personal and professional growth.

We've created learning mascots.

We partnered with Southwest Airlines to make The Marshalls to be a part of the learning experience for new hires.

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