Mumbai: Mobile handset maker Nokia India Pvt. Ltd has hired a nerd to endorse its E-series office handsets, online.

He may not score in the dating department, but Dilbert—the main character from the eponymous comic strip syndicated to hundreds of newspapers around the world—can tell you a thing or two about the workspace.

The use of comic-strip characters to plug products and services is a growing trend among advertisers looking to grab consumer attention and enhance brand recall. Using such characters as ad faces or endorsers is infinitely cheaper than using real-life celebrities, experts say, and also helps connect with consumers on a note of humour in an increasingly grim economic milieu.

Reaching niche audience: Nokia India is piquing consumer interest by backing its online campaign for E-series with a website that has a funny Dilbert questionnaire about the way one works.

Brands such as Arms—a consumer loan resolution initiative from Asset Reconstruction Co. (India) Ltd—and the erstwhile low-cost carrier Air Deccan have used cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s character, the Common Man, to promote themselves.

Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltdrecently launched an ad for the festive season featuring a character inspired by The Jungle Book’s Mowgli. MetLife India Insurance Co. Ltdhas used Snoopy, the pet beagle from Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts, to communicate that insurance is not as complicated as it may be thought.

The premise for using popular comic-strip characters, experts say, is essentially the same as that for a brand picking a celebrity endorser. There is an instant recognition, a familiar character connects better with consumers, and the values of that celebrity could have a positive rub-off on the brand.

“Most comic-strip characters or cartoon characters are very well established," says K.V. Sridhar, national creative director of Leo Burnett India Pvt. Ltd, citing the example of Tom and Jerry. “When you see them on screen, you know what’s going to happen. So in that sense, they telegraphically communicate what they are and what they stand for."

Using a comic-strip character could also help make a brand distinct. Not only is the visual a familiar and reassuring part of daily life, as most people tend to read comic strips in their daily newspaper, but the illustration, more often than not, is simplified and tends to stand out in the clutter of fanciful ads, says Samir Patil, chief executive and founder of Amar Chitra Katha Pvt. Ltd, which publishes popular Indian comic books such as Tinkle and stories from Indian epics and mythology in the comic-book format.

Garfield and Peanuts

Internationally, the use of comic-strip characters to plug products is fairly common. Back in 1998, the wise-cracking feline star of the Garfield comic strip was one of the first famous faces to sport a milk moustache for the famous “Got Milk" campaign. The tag line said, “9 Lives. 9 Nutrients. See a pattern?".

Charlie Brown and his friends, including Snoopy, from Peanuts have appeared in ads for MetLife, the American Heart Institute, the American Lung Institute and the 1961 Ford Falcon.

In India, comic-strip characters are considered a better bet than comic-book counterparts, unlike in markets such as the UK and Japan, where comic books and their superheroes enjoy a cult-like status among adults. Comic strips tend to have a higher readership in India as they appear in newspapers and are followed largely by adults. The other upside is that unlike ads that use celebrities such as Bollywood stars and cricketers, who endorse a multitude of products, there is little scope for confusion in the consumer’s mind about what is being plugged by a comic-strip character.

Often, the popularity of the character also helps brands connect with consumers.

Silent observer

“The Common Man is a popular character...he stands for the common people and their needs: an all pervading silent observer," says Laxman, the creator of the one-panel cartoon “You Said It" that has appeared on the front page of The Times of India since 1951. “Probably why a number of advertisers have approached us."

No surprise, then, that a number of brands will consider comic-strip characters as a cost-effective means of reaching their target audiences in these tough times. In some cases, they cost a fraction of the price of hiring a celebrity.

“In some cases, the amount could be a hundredth of what it costs to hire a C-grade celebrity," says Leo Burnett India’s Sridhar. Depending on the size and detailing of the image, brands could pay as little as Rs1,000 for each illustration they use of the “Common Man".

But there is also a risk that a comic-strip character may not be able to deliver the desired impact, however iconic the character is.

“When you use a comic-strip character, you can change the text in the bubble. But an illustrator (at the ad agency) will find it difficult to replicate the spark and charm of the original creator," says Sridhar. “You may get the illustration cheap, but what you are really paying for is the wit of the creator. In the case of the Common Man, he reflects R.K. Laxman’s observation of life…it may not always be possible to convince the creator to toe the ad line."

Cool quotient

This kind of strategy may work better for advertisers looking to reach a niche audience. “India is a very fragmented media market," says Patil of Amar Chitra Katha. He explains that few comic strips reach a mass audience, making their characters better suited to endorse brands that are trying to reach a niche segment.

As in the case of Nokia. Its target audience is typically a 30-something business professional the company hopes will be drawn to the playfulness of a comic strip that parodies real concerns at the workplace.

Typically, people who are likely to be interested in its high-end organizer, E-Series phones.

The brand is piquing consumer interest by backing its online campaign with a website that has a funny Dilbert questionnaire about the way you work, results of which can be compared with those from other regions in the world.

“The creative objective was to visually depict people’s working environments and unique habits to show that Nokia works in the same way as they do," says Devinder Kishore, director (marketing) for Nokia India. “Dilbert’s character has helped consumers connect with the devices in an engaging and ‘fun’ is unique and cool, and also a great clutter-breaking tool."