MILWAUKEE – Among the unchanging business advantages on which Milwaukee's Olympus Group can count are these:
Our collective inclination to invest animals and inanimate objects with human characteristics runs deep, and so does the capacity of people to do stupid things.
So marketers will always have incentive to at least consider forgoing a real-life celebrity spokesman, such as Subway's now-disgraced Jared Fogle, in favor of deploying a mascot — a lizard with a Cockney accent; a cane-toting, top-hat-wearing peanut; an energetic pink rabbit — to carry the flag for their brand.
Which is good for small-but-growing Olympus, which happens to be one of the country's largest makers of mascot costumes.
Tony the Tiger, cookie-baking elf Ernie Keebler, Ronald McDonald and Scoopie, the smiling, gender-neutral, frozen-custard-cone being at the Midwestern fast casual chain Culver's — all have been outfitted by the costume-makers at Olympus.
Ditto for the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Bucky Badger (whose 21-pound head is among the heaviest in the mascot world), the University of Louisville cardinal and a host of other sports mascots across the country.
"We design and build everything right here in Milwaukee," said Tracy Jones, sales team manager for Olympus' mascot division. "We have a talented team of artists, technicians, sewers who pattern from scratch and put it all together."
Since the 1970s, they've made well over 15,000 costumes. They've done humanized bottles of Absolut vodka and Leinenkugel beer, Oreo cookies, jars of Skippy peanut butter and cans of Hatch diced green chiles.
The Yogi Bear outfits required for operators of Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts all come from Olympus. And they return annually, for cleaning and repairs. It's hard work swiping pic-a-nic baskets.
This isn't Olympus' only business — the company also does large-format printing and makes flags — but it's the most fun.
In one spot in the firm's 130-employee headquarters plant are stacks of oversized foam cowboy hats for new clones of Andy, a 7-foot-tall, bandana-wearing armadillo who represents Texas Roadhouse restaurants.
In the sculpting room, artist Craig Bueschel works on the head of a hawk for Monmouth University. Not far away, a colleague is vacuum-forming plastic pieces of Big Al, the elephant mascot of the University of Alabama.
And in the middle of the sewing room sits designer Mary Ribecky, who created the costumed racing sausages, loves to hear fans cheer when they emerge at Miller Park and keeps a vigilant eye on their state of repair.
"I see every speck of dirt on them — everything," she said.
Regular cleaning and maintenance helps, but no sausage lasts forever. Lying on shelves at Olympus are a worn-out brat, hot dog, chorizo, Polish and two Italians — all, sadly, destined for destruction.
"They're old, and over time the foam breaks down," Jones said. "It just can't be saved."
An original mascot costume typically costs $3,500 to $5,500, with multiples selling for a couple thousand less, Jones said. She said the division represents 15 percent to 20 percent of Olympus' annual revenue of about $30 million, and that mascot sales have been growing.
"I've been here 15 years, and we're easily doing triple what we did 15 years ago," Jones said.