If you grew up in Cleveland in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, you saw the WMMS Buzzard mascot cartoon character everywhere. Or maybe just if you were just a young art geek like myself…
The WMMS buzzard mascot and all the related artwork was a huge influence on me as a young artist. I loved the style, the line work, the attitude of the character. I found myself drawing it over and over to unlock the secrets of it’s design.
David Helton is the illustrator/artist who created that iconic image. I was thinking about this recently and found an article by the Cleveland Plain Dealer regarding the origins of the creation of the WMMS Buzzard, an excerpt from the book The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio.
Regarding the actual drawing and concept for the logo, Helton recalls:
Helton brought up Looney Tunes, with Porky Pig saying, “Thatha- tha-that’s all, folks” at the end of a cartoon, and sketched the Buzzard in a Looney Tunes-style target. But it resembled a dartboard- ammunition for our rivals. He drafted more conceptions, first drawing the Buzzard’s head, then sketching a backdrop. He tried circles, triangles, and finally the “Star Buzzard” logo, the most familiar of all Buzzard designs. We never used consultants, outside agencies, staff meetings, focus groups, or test marketing for it or any Buzzard campaign.
It’s interesting to note that the character was developed solely by the illustrator. A great mascot character can have immense marketing potential for the right type of client.The WMMS Buzzard was a mascot character that Helton executed masterfully. Helton goes on to explain how the resulting marketing and branding campaign was developed around the artist’s creation:
With the Buzzard our official logo, we coveted the idea of going where no station had gone before. How we could exploit the identity, how could we make WMMS greater than the combined respective peaks of WIXY, KYW, and WHK? How could we build the Buzzard into the most recognized logo in Cleveland since Chief Wahoo? Going beyond the obvious T-shirts and sweatshirts, I felt we could market key chains, belt buckles, roach clips, even Buzzard comic books, and we did. Air talent Denny Sanders warned against letting the logo become too corporate, and he had a point. One of the most difficult things was knowing where to stop. Even though the Buzzard was created for promotional, commercial purposes, I wanted to keep it as a sort of icon and avoid crossing a vague line into exploitation.
Again I find it interesting that not only was Helton looking to utilize the marketing and licensing potential of this iconic mascot artwork, but also had the foresight to pull in the reigns where that commercialization might go beyond a great brand and into the venue of cliché.
It’s worth noting again that the entire WMMS Buzzard marketing campaign—which was hugely successful—was developed not with a character as part of the campaign, but rather around the mascot character. The impact a great mascot can have—for the right type of client and the right demographic—is something that should never be overlooked when considering a marketing or branding campaign. And as Helton has shown, it can even be the center of the campaign.
I was surprised to find, on visiting Helton’s illustration portfolio site, that most of his work actually was nothing like the character he developed for the WMMS Buzzard, which I found extremely odd. The Buzzard mascot has such a signature feel to it, I just assumed I would find more work in the same vein, but instead I found a much more whimsical, children’s book style to Helton’s work.
Until Helton’s Buzzard mascot art resurfaced in my consciousness, I hadn’t realized how much that Buzzard cartoon character had influenced the style of artwork I produce today as a professional illustrator. The bold, expressive, minimalist, thick line art, the flat color, the method of tapering his lines. Looking back at Helton’s work I can see all of this influencing my work now—with of course a heavy dash of my favorite MAD Magazine artists such as Don Martin, Mort Drucker and Jack Davis.
**UPDATE**: I changed up the buzzard image on this post after being contacted by David Helton, who informed me that I had included a newer updated Buzzard that he did not work on. Sorry about that David!