How to create a mascot to build trust in your tech startup

Increasing insurance adoption in Africa is critical to building climate resilience, but is also difficult to achieve given low awareness and trust, and high distribution and operating costs. 

In this blog series, we share the Catalyst Fund’s experience testing strategies to drive insurance penetration with our portfolio company Assuraf. We explore offline and online channels, B2C and B2B2C approaches, short-term tactics, and long-term educational engagements in an effort to learn from a variety of approaches. In the first blog, we described a set of experiments to drive awareness and acquisition, testing both messaging and channels. In this second blog, we describe how we developed a mascot to build brand trust for Assuraf.

It’s no secret that increasing insurance adoption in Africa is difficult, due to low understanding of the product, low trust in providers, high prices, and the complexities associated with language, tradition, and use of financial services. While some of these challenges can be addressed by embedding and bundling, digital outreach, and more, the lack of trust in insurance providers is a critical constraint. That low trust, fueled by stories of fraudulent activities and denied payouts, continues to stymie the growth of ambitious insurtech startups on the continent.

When Assuraf launched in Senegal, founder Souleymane Gning knew that appealing to users would make or break his company. He started with a fundamental principle:  keep insurance simple and transparent to improve the resilience of underserved and vulnerable people.

“In our mission to remove barriers to coverage, and bridge the protection gap, we rapidly realized that trust is indeed one of the biggest challenges we had to tackle. We therefore had to work on initiatives to communicate simply, easily and consistently on all customer touchpoints while remaining relatable at all times. With the Catalyst Fund team, we developed the idea of using a mascot as a voice and a way to form a genuine connection with our audience and build that trust.” - Souleymane Gning, Founder of Assuraf

In our quest to help Assuraf build trust with users, Catalyst Fund venture-builders set out to create a mascot for the insurtech. Our team realized that a mascot could address low awareness by educating users about insurance in an approachable, friendly fashion, breaking down the formality and jargon that turns off new users. 

Mascots are not a new strategy for trust building especially for business models that are complicated and require explaining. In those instances, brand mascots can play the role of a communicator, as well as serving as an advertising tool. Several global insurance companies have used mascots to represent their brands over the years. Some notable ones include GEICO’s The Gecko (first featured in 1999 - see their origination story) which is perhaps among the most iconic mascots of all time. With an awareness rating of 98% and favorability rating of 75%, the lizard mascot has appeared in GEICO’s commercials over the years. Another great example is from BLG, a financial services company that ran the famous ‘compare the Meerkat’ campaign featuring a Russian meerkat comparing different premium prices in frustration. Following the campaign, ranked it as the fourth most visited insurance page in the UK

In crafting a mascot for Assuraf, we needed to pick something:

  • Relatable to users: We needed to make sure a mascot would be relatable to Assuraf’s customers in the local context and would fit well within the nuances of their culture. We also made a decision that the mascot should have ‘human-like attributes’ to make it as relatable and educative as possible.
  • Reflective of brand values: Animals, characters, and objects have inherent values and connotations. Understanding and articulating your brand’s values well before you embark on the mascot creation journey is crucial. Assuraf’s founder was obsessed with being transparent and simple, so those values went a long way in guiding mascot selection and design. We needed to pick something that would embody the values of frankness, honesty, and trustworthiness.
  • Durable and adaptable: A mascot becomes a living, breathing personality of a brand, so it was important to create a character that would not only stay in the memories of customers but also be adaptable over time. Like GEICO’s gecko described above, which continues to be the face of the brand after over two decades, we wanted Assuraf’s mascot to stand the test of time.

The question we asked ourselves and the startup team was: “If Assuraf could be a walking figure today, then what would be its personality and archetype?” We facilitated a brand personality exercise and what emerged was a primary archetype of a caregiver and a secondary archetype of a sage. We needed a mascot with a caregiving and trustworthy persona, who could also teach customers about insurance while keeping it honest and simple. With that guidance in mind, we explored: 

  • An African lioness, which is symbolically significant on the continent, and is known to be a ferocious caregiver. The downside we considered was that she could be perceived as intimidating or unapproachable. 
  • A sheep, which represents simplicity and trust, but doesn’t evoke a sense of agility and responsiveness that we wanted to embody for Assuraf as a tech company.
  • Madd, a local favorite fruit, came as a strong contender because it’s so familiar to people in Senegal, affordable, and commonly available. However, its appeal across different countries would be lower and it would have been harder to animate a fruit mascot for educational purposes. 

With these pros and cons, we embarked on a few rounds of feedback. We started by holding a vote with the internal team, paying special attention to input from the agents and customer support team members who are in the field and closest to customers as part of their daily work. With that input, we shortlisted the lioness and madd as our top two choices and continued to discuss why each could work or not. 

This initial brainstorming took us nearly two weeks, after which we conducted one week of phone surveys with Assuraf’s most loyal customers to get their feedback on the mascots and how the idea resonated. We considered going into the field to actually show these mascots to customers, but we wanted to keep the process agile and quick, with  low-to-medium investment of resources, so we used telephonic research. Any startup going through brand iterations needs to strike a fine balance between time, resource allocation, and hypothesis testing. In this case, Catalyst Fund’s marketing lead and venture-building lead jumped in to assist Assuraf’s founder and push this process forward. 

The three-week-long branding process resulted in Assuraf choosing an African lioness as the face of the brand. 

With this, the critical next step was to start the design work and bring the mascot to life. Our brief was straightforward and rooted in our brand values of care and honesty. While we had a vision of the mascot's traits, we also had a lot of creative flexibility and room to humanize the lioness. We sourced four different designers from across Africa to create initial low-fi mockups of the mascot to find a visual design that resonated with the team. With those mockups, we conducted another week-long feedback loop with the internal team to select an illustrator. 

With the illustrator, we worked to reflect the brand’s values in the mascot design – her facial expressions, complexity of features, style, etc. – everything needed to feel simple and honest. We went through about five iterations (see the evolution below from iteration) to add and remove features from the lionness’ body and face. We settled on a design with clean curves and straight lines instead of a customized, hand-drawn feel to make the lioness appear friendly, approachable, and fit within the African context.

(L-R) Design iterations of Kiraay with designer Kayee Au, commissioned by the Catalyst Fund for this project

"Collaborating with the Catalyst Fund and Assuraf team to define Kiraay's visual identity and narrative was a fantastic journey. Since the team already had a shared vision of her personality: simple, authentic, and approachable - we had a lot of fun imagining what she would look like. Would Kiraay wear a headscarf? Does she have paws or hands? What would she look like with glasses? Square or round frames? And what would all of these design decisions say about who she is?", says Kayee. 

This part of the design process took about a month as once we finalized our main mascot design, we started discussing how to deploy her with the customer support team. Based on their input, we drafted a list of six different situations for the mascot to appear, along with nine moods for her to portray. We knew a single design wouldn’t serve the team very well, so we needed to create a few use cases the team could deploy for several months and assess for efficacy. Each avatar comes with cost implications, so we made a decision to employ the mascot for Assuraf’s most important products. Going forward, the team will need to expand her use, evolving over the years to come. 

Today, the lioness, named Kiraay (which means “protection” or “cover” in Wolof) is being used by the Assuraf team in different formats. She addresses myths and misconceptions about insurance and demonstrates use cases by finding herself in moments when insurance coverage comes to the rescue. She is being embedded in the company’s website banners, sales collaterals, app screens, information buttons, and more to build trust in Assuraf.

CEO Souleyment Gning says, “Little did I know it is quite a goldsmith's work to create a well-crafted mascot persona, and the result is just brilliant." 

When done right, brand mascots can be a powerful way to amp up your marketing, particularly for certain product categories. For founders thinking about developing a mascot: 

  • Have a vision: Start with a clear articulation of your brand values, as this will be the starting point for any mascot work. It’s easy to lose sight of your vision if you skip this step. 
  • Spend, not splurge: Treat brand work like any internal project and clarify the resources, budget, and time you’re willing to spend on this. On average, for mascot work such as this, plan to spend approximately two months and at least USD 600-800 as allocated budget.
  • Take a long-term view: Think through a full roll-out strategy of how the mascot will start taking center stage in your marcomms and how you’ll introduce it to your investors.  It’s important to be mindful to not put a dollar value on brand work – a good brand will always complement your marketing, but it’s almost impossible to establish direct correlation between your brand equity and sales.
  • Don’t forget the user: As with any good product design, it’s critical to include your users in brand design, especially when that involves major brand overhauls. 
  • Keep evolving: as your product evolves, so will your brand. It’s critical you continue to iterate your mascot to keep it relevant and durable over time. Check out how GEICO introduced a second character as a “frenemy” to their original mascot.

Learn more about our team and portfolio companies. And you can follow Akansha and Gabriel on LinkedIn to stay updated on the latest strategic marketing insights from the Catalyst Fund!

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