What Elmo Can Teach Us About Marketing

I never thought I would write a post about everyone’s favorite (okay, my favorite) furry red loveable monster, Elmo. But, I recently watched the documentary, “On Being Elmo.” While the production quality was topnotch, it was the quality of storytelling and the carefully crafted and thorough interviews that truly made the doc something extraordinary. The film documents puppeteer Kevin Clash’s rise to fame, and how he became the “voice and embodiment of Elmo.” From a marketer’s perspective, there’s a lot we can learn about branding from Kevin’s creative genius and puppetry.

Elmo’s humble beginnings
What most people don’t realize is that Elmo started out as a fairly small character on the show Sesame Street with minimal speaking parts. The character was pretty much cast aside and given to Kevin as a last ditch effort in 1984. (Sidenote: Sesame Street was created in 1969.) Kevin took it and ran with it. His puppet portrayal turned Elmo from a minimal character in 1984 to an international icon recognized and loved by children everywhere by the early 90s. How he did this is lesson in storytelling, character development, channeling inspiration, the power of persistence and pure hard work and sweat equity.

Character development is key.
Whether you are creating a print ad, TV commercial or a large scale production like Sesame Street, the importance of character development is key to a high quality engaging story. It’s the single biggest thing that drives the story forward and makes it memorable. With Elmo, Kevin was able to develop and hone him into a complex, almost human-like muppet which little kids could love and relate to. With Elmo, he is known internationally as a furry red loveable monster with a high-pitched voice and a contagious laugh. That contagious laugh and unmistakable voice was the “hook” needed to draw kids in.

Channeling inspiration
Just like the best stories and ad campaigns, Elmo wasn’t created out of thin air. It was inspired from events in Kevin’s own life. Often times, our own experiences and observations can spark the best creatives. One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary was when Kevin revealed where he got his inspiration for Elmo. That inspiration came from his own childhood. Elmo was in large part dedicated and inspired by Kevin’s parents. The spitfire, fireball bubbly personality was his mom and the laughter came from his dad. He channeled these fond memories of his childhood everyday that he was being Elmo.

Persistence pays off
In many ways, the fact that Elmo was a minimal character in the beginning of Sesame Street mimics Kevin’s own background and rise to fame. Kevin had a humble upbringing in Baltimore. He was fascinated by Disney, the muppets and Captain Kangaroo. He watched them, and started mimicing and making his own puppets as a preteen. He went from doing small puppet shows for his mom’s daycare kids to being on a puppet show for the local Baltimore TV station to working as a puppeteer on Captain Kangaroo to years later working with Jim Henson.

On Creating An International Icon And Brand
By the mid 90s, Elmo was a household name. Kids loved Elmo. They loved the relatability of his character and his loveable nature. Elmo’s “brand” skyrocketed. Remember the “Tickle Me Elmo” craze of the early-mid 90s? Parents lined up for hours- sometimes days- to get their hands on a Tickle Me Elmo doll for their little ones. That’s when you know that your brand has hit it big and will forever be cemented in popular culture.




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