How To Successfully Brand  Your Tech Startup Using A Mascot  [Interview With ReadMe]

When the tech startup ReadMe introduced their mascot, their website jumped from 1000 visits to over 77 650 in just 48 hours!

So there’s a chance your company is just 48 hours away from fame!

With the help of ReadMe, we’ve created a 6-step strategy to successfully promote your tech startup using a mascot.

Mascots are quite good at promoting abstract services and products. That’s why they are so popular in the tech world.

ReadMe is a great example of how to implement a mascot in your service and branding. 

They provide tools that help teams create and manage documentation. So, for software as a service (SaaS) companies, like ReadMe, mascots can be quite useful for making the service and the user experience more interesting and playful. 

I contacted the founder and CEO of ReadMe Gregory Koberger and he was very kind to give me insights about their branding strategy and help me create this 6-step strategy for you.

Tell me a bit more about you. How and why did you start ReadMe?

While my background is as a developer, I always was really excited about design and usability. Developer tools always excited me, and APIs felt like the place where a bit of UX love could go the farthest.

Gregory Koberger Profile Pic
Gregory Koberger, Founder & CEO of ReadMe

Let’s start with the story of how exactly ReadMe made their brand famous with the help of their mascot Owlbert.

How ReadMe and Owlbert Got Famous

As Greg tells the story of their mascot Owlbert, they knew that their niche (code documentation) is not one of the sexiest in the industry, that’s why they’ve decided to create a brand character to make the company look more attractive and personal.

In the beginning, they put their mascot only on the login page and when you hovered on the password field, the owl hid his eyes.

Readme Login Owlbert
ReadMe Login Page

They were amazed at what happened next. Before launching the new login page, the website had around 1000 visits daily. 48 hours after launching the new login page, they hit 77 652 visits!

I created Owlbert on a whim and all of a sudden, people were talking about our company.

Gregory Koberger Profile Pic

Let’s see what they did after that and how they’ve built a brand strategy around their mascot.

But first, we should answer one crucial question.

Does Your Company Really Need A Mascot?

For startups, especially for small ones, every expense should be justified. 

So here’s what Greg thinks about the value of mascots and whether you really need one.

Do you think that the investment in a mascot is worth it even for small startups?

I do believe that for the right kind of company, it’s worth it. The investment that matters isn’t the price (that’s relatively cheap!), but rather where you want to invest your energies. It only works if it feels natural to your brand; otherwise, it comes off as childish or like you’re trying too hard. Ultimately, you need to decide if that’s the vibe you want for your company!

In the business world, the Return of Investment (ROI) is a major factor. Do you think Owlbert was a successful investment?

ReadMe is two parts – a company, and a product. For the product, a lot of customers love Owlbert! But it’s dangerous territory… you don’t want to create the next Clippy! It can get grating if used too much or incorrectly. As for the company, it’s definitely been worth it. It helps personify us a bit, and internally give us something friendly to plaster the office with. Trust me, if you visited our office, you’d know within 10 seconds you’re at ReadMe!

Not every brand needs a mascot, but if you decide that a brand character would benefit your business, that’s great!

Here are the 6 steps you should do to make it successful.

6 Steps To Make Your Tech Mascot Famous

Step 1. Choose the right character

It all starts with choosing the right mascot for your brand. 

For some companies the choice of a character can be a straightforward process. Let’s say your company sells dog food. It would be odd to use a cat as a mascot. 

However, for tech companies, the relationship between the character and the company isn’t self-evident. 

So how do tech companies choose their mascots?

Here are the three approaches you can use to choose your tech mascot.

1. Using animal archetypes and associations

Some companies use the archetype of an animal to promote the values of the company or the features of their product. A great example is the software company Snyk that helps businesses enhance developer security. Their mascot is a Dobermann, which are known for being fearless, and willing to defend its owner from attackers, they are often used as personal defense and police dogs. So it’s a great choice for a software security company.

Snyk logo & mascot
Snyk logo

Another example is the URL management company Bitly. At first sight it looks like there’s no relation between a pufferfish and a URL shortening service.

Chauncey Bitly Mascot
Chauncey McPufferson

But in fact, there is an interesting story behind Chauncey McPufferson, Bitly’s mascot. 

Since their service is shrinking URLs, they came up with an idea of finding an animal that can shrink and expand. That’s how the pufferfish came to their mind. Then they developed the mascot’s backstory: The shrunk pufferfish is the smart one because it’s like a shortened link and there’s a lot of data and valuable attributes that are useful to people, whereas the expanded one is like the big, dumb long link that breaks in emails when you send it to people.

3. Use Company’s Milestones

For other companies, the mascot represents a part of their story, a milestone they achieved.

A good example is Luxo Jr., the lamp playing with a ball at the beginning of every Pixar movie. The lamp is clearly not an object we associate with filmmaking. 

So why did they choose Luxo Jr.?The lamp was the star in one of their very first projects – the short movie Luxo Jr. It was nominated for the Academy Award in 1987 and it’s one of the first triumphs of Pixar. So their first milestone became their mascot.

“Luxo Jr.” short film
“Luxo Jr.” short film

4. No specific reason

Sometimes there’s no need to have a specific reason to choose a character. You might just like it. 

For example, GitHub found an image of a cat with tentacles on a stock images website, contacted the designer of the image, and bought it. That’s the short story of how Octocat was born.

Octocat
Octocat

Let’s see how ReadMe chose their mascot.

You have created Owlbert while your product was still in beta. Why did you choose an owl?

I wish I had a better story, but it was a coincidence! I was working on a tool for teachers, and it ended up not going anywhere. But I had a cute owl from it, and I didn’t want it to go to waste! But it ended up working… We do documentation, and owls are a symbol of wisdom!

Gregory Koberger Profile Pic

Note: Learn more about the different types of mascots – choose the right mascot character for your brand.

Step 2. Use It As Part Of Your Service/Product

Here comes the tricky part. 

As Greg says, you should be careful when using the mascot for the product/service itself because you don’t want to end up like Clippy.

Users can get easily irritated by the mascot if they see it too often, let alone the mascot interrupting the workflow in some way.

Note: Want to learn more about the tragic story of Clippy? Check out our post – How to Use a Mascot to Make Your Brand Go Viral.

So how do ReadMe use Owlbert in their tools?

The answer is – sparingly. And that’s how it should be.

At best, your mascot should be used in situations when the user is happy or achieved something. 

For instance, Owlbert greets you when you’re ready to publish your project and show the world your beautiful new documentation.

ReadMe Launch Message

Error messages are another popular way to use your mascot. A cute image with the mascot, like the one of Owlbert who has just dropped his ice cream, can help reduce the user’s frustration.

ReadMe Error Message

Another cool way to promote your mascot is to make people interact with it in some way. 

Here is an example. 

Recently ReadMe launched Hoot, a social app they created for Glitch. What does this have to do with their mascot?

Well, when you use Hoot you can create your own personalized owl avatar. Isn’t that cool?

ReadMe Hoot Avatars

How do you think ReadMe would have looked like now if Owlbert hadn’t existed?

We try to find a nice balance between whimsical and serious, so Owlbert keeps to himself most of the time. I think the bigger issue wouldn’t be the product, but rather our swag! I love our logo, but swag with Owlbert on it is 1000% cuter. He showed up in places where he’s needed most – swag, error messages, blog posts, etc.

Gregory Koberger Profile Pic

Step 3. Place The Character On Your Website

A while ago, Owlbert could be seen on almost every page on ReadMe’s website. Here is an example that I really liked.

Call to action

ReadMe used an animated call to action on their website. When you scroll down the owl’s head is moving. Human eyes automatically detect movement, so it’s a great way to attract attention to your call to action message. However, you should use motion frugally and wisely, just like ReadMe has done it – just minimal movement and exactly where it should be.

ReadMe Mascot Call-to-Action
ReadMe call to action

Another thing that they nailed down in this call to action is the eyes of Owlbert. The eyes of the mascot are directed towards the text and the sign-up button. Why is this important? It’s related to another interesting feature of the visual attention – the brain detects faces and where the eyes are directed to. This phenomenon is called Social Attention and it’s immensely powerful.

Note:  Want to learn more tricks about human visual attention? See our post on how to use the science of attention to boost your images.

Currently, ReadMe aim for a more minimalistic style of their website, but Owlbert can still be seen on their about page, the blog, and their famous login page.

About Page

ReadMe About page

Presenting the mascot as part of the team

Many companies treat their mascot as a member of the team.

You can see an illustration of the ReadMe Team along with Owlbert on their About page.

ReadMe Team & Mascot

Scrolling down you can see info about the whole team including Owlbert.

owlbert about info

Blog

Your blog is the perfect place to unleash the power of your mascot!

As part of the new minimalistic design of ReadMe’s website, the blog posts are featured with plain colored thumbnails and simple icons.

ReadMe blog

However, when you open a blog post the simple thumbnail is replaced with an illustration of Owlbert.

ReadMe blog post1
Readme blog post2

Step 4. Introduce Your Mascot Properly

As we discussed in the beginning, Owlbert’s introduction was quite successful. They placed the mascot on the login page and when you hovered on the password field, the owl hid his eyes. The page provoked a lot of buzz and skyrocketed their page views. 

So the proper introduction of your mascot is very important. There are many things to consider when planning the introduction. For instance, should you keep the mascot in secret until the launch day or not, what to do after the introduction, etc. In fact, we have a whole article dedicated to mascot introduction. So don’t miss it!

Step 5. Use The Character On Social Media

Social media is another place where you can bring your mascot to life and it’s the perfect place to let your mascot communicate with your audience. 

You can use the character as part of the branding – profile and cover images, as ReadMe do.

Twitter

ReadMe Twitter

Facebook

ReadMe Facebook

Linkedin

ReadMe Linkedin

Have you noticed that they use different images for the different social media channels? For instance, for Linkedin they use their logo as a profile image, since it is a professional social media. While for Facebook and Twitter they use a profile image of Owlbert. 

There are infinite ways to use your mascot as part of your regular posts on social media. You can use the character for announcements, holiday greetings, or any kind of entertaining content like comics, memes, etc.

ReadMe social posts

Step 6. Make the mascot part of the company’s culture

Mascots are more than tools for promoting your business. Your mascot can help you build your company’s culture and elevate the team spirit. Brand characters also lighten up the atmosphere at the office so don’t miss the opportunity to use it there as well.

The Office

ReadMe office

Here’s a video tour around the ReadMe’s office.

The hiring process

Owlbert is an important part of the hiring process too.

ReadMe hire page

ReadMe send their candidates a personalized website with all the information they need for the interview, as well as greetings from Owlbert.

ReadMe welcome candidates

In the end, the successful candidates receive an Employee Handbook including information about the company’s culture and values.

ReadMe book
Employee Handbook

Company swag and gifts for customers

Stickers, t-shirts, backpacks, beer and whatever else comes to your mind looks way more fun and interesting with a mascot on it than just a logo. 

It’s a great surprise both for your team and your clients!

ReadMe Fridge Swag

Owlbert is now 6 years old. Have you found, during this period, any hidden benefits or downsides of using a brand mascot that you have not expected in the beginning?

I think the biggest thing is now everyone I know gives me owl-related presents for my birthday or Christmas. My apartment is covered in owls! People, both internally and externally, really seem to like Owlbert, though – and that’s been awesome. It’s a lot easier to connect with a brand if it’s cute and personified, and it’s made it so that people feel more comfortable reaching out to us (the humans behind the brand)!

Gregory Koberger Profile Pic

Conclusion

Your brand is a true inspiration of how a brand should use a mascot. I like the word you used in your post whimsy (meaning playful and odd), I think it perfectly describes the appearances of Owlbert on your website. What are your future plans for Owlbert? Are there any other whimsy things we can expect to see from ReadMe?

I’ve recently found an animator, and that’s been exciting! I want to make sure Owlbert pops up in ways that make people feel more comfortable with ReadMe. For example, he’s the first thing to greet any guest to the office.

Gregory Koberger Profile Pic

Let’s go through the 6 steps again:

6-Step Strategy To Brand Your Tech Startup With Mascot

  1. Choose the right character

    The character could be a human, an animal, or an object. For tech companies, the relationship between the mascot and the company is not self-evident. You can choose a character that the service/product can be associated with. Another approach is to choose a mascot that represents an important milestone for the company.

  2. Use the mascot as part of your service/product

    Mascots are quite good at promoting abstract services and products. However, you should be very careful because people can get easily irritated.

  3. Place the character on your website

    There are many ways to use the character on your website: present it as part of the team, use it on your blog, call to action messages, etc.

  4. Introduce the mascot properly

    Plan the mascot’s introduction carefully and create a strategy for your mascot before launching it.

  5. Use it on social media

    Social media is another place where you can bring your mascot to life. It’s a great place to let your mascot directly communicate with your audience.

  6. Make it part of the company’s culture

    Mascots are more than tools for promoting your business. Your mascot can help you build your company’s culture and elevate the team spirit.

Here are some additional important takeaways:

  1. The mascot must feel natural to the brand: As Greg says, a mascot only works if it feels natural to your brand; otherwise, it comes off as childish or like you’re trying too hard. Ultimately, you need to decide if that’s the vibe you want for your company!
  2. It’s a lot easier to connect with a brand if it’s personified: This is the mascots’ superpower. So let your mascot communicate with your audience. 
  3. Get whimsy!: Mascots are the most amusing part of branding! Everything is permissible! The only thing that matters is whether your audience likes it or not. 

via GIPHY

Get whimsy!

🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉

Need help with your mascot?

Check out our Mascot Design and Mascot Strategy services!

Victoria Atanasova

Victoria is a mascot designer, a brand strategist, and a cognitive scientist. She helps brands stand out online by creating a distinctive and memorable visual identity.

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