Wander around a supermarket and you’ll bump into all sorts of characters: Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Cap’n Crunch and Buzz Bee in the cereal section. Mr. Clean, Brawny Man and the Charmin Bear among the household items.

A few aisles later, chances are you’ll spot Betty Crocker, Kool-Aid Man, Elmer the Bull, Pillsbury Doughboy, Energizer Bunny and more. And, of course, the characters aren’t just in stores. Colonel Sanders, Ronald McDonald and the Burger King are synonymous with fast-food chains. The Michelin Man sells tires. Geico Gecko, Aflac Duck and Flo from Progressive offer insurance.

Why have brands flooded us with cheesy, or sometimes racially-stereotyped, spokespeople and mascots for so long? What’s their purpose? Distinctive characters are tools brands use to create emotional connections with consumers and signal their personalities and key attributes — reliability, purity or humor, for example. A recognizable character at the store can also be a visual shortcut for consumers who have endless choices, marketing experts say. In the complex insurance industry, for example, likeable and familiar characters can be used to convey information in a simple way.

Characters and mascots “are valuable as a memory prompt. They’re easy to process. You don’t have to commit any cognitive resources to reading product information, brand names or prices,” said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota. “You don’t have to give it a first thought, let alone a second thought.” Plus, polling shows that consumers like advertising mascots. In a joint Harris Poll- Ad Age online survey of 1,000 US adults last year, 79% said they enjoy seeing mascots, such as Tony the Tiger, Ronald McDonald or Mr. Clean.