You could pay Gwyneth Paltrow or Angelina Jolie millions of dollars to represent your company. But if you don't have the budget of Estee Lauder or St. John, some creativity and a four-legged friend could take your business far. After all, who doesn't immediately recognize Tony the Tiger, the Geico gecko or the Serta sheep?

Whether furry, scaly or feathered, animals can be particularly effective company icons. "It's easier to involve yourself in the ads because most of us like animals," says Stan Richards, founder of Dallas-based The Richards Group, the agency that came up with the Chick-fil-A cows campaign. Just think of the number of Super Bowl ads every year featuring animals, all seeking to catch the attention of ad-weary viewers.

Even for companies that don't advertise on TV, animals still hold plenty of marketing power. When New York-based NexCen Brands bought MaggieMoo's Ice Cream and Treatery last year, the company recognized Miss Maggie's potential and ramped up her visibility. When a new store opens, the "ice cream celebutante," who thinks she's human, will pick up coffee at a nearby Starbucks, get her driver's license at a DMV or stop at a grocery store.

She also is getting media attention from magazines such as US Weekly and In Touch by teaming up with celebrities for charity events. Handing out treats to children at the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital with Mario Lopez on Valentine's Day resulted in 230 million media hits with an estimated $3 million ad value, says Jennifer Johnston, senior vice president of brand marketing for NexCen.

Potential for Grrreat-ness
When selecting an animal to represent your company, look for one that conveys your brand's benefits, says Daniel Howard, a professor and chairman of the marketing department at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business. He explains how research has found that showing a picture of a person without animals next to him and then one of that same person with animals can make viewers perceive him as wealthier, happier and friendlier. And the same is true of brands, ranging from kid cereals to financial companies.

The key is to take advantage of people's preconceived notions about particular animals.

With Merrill Lynch's bull, "Everyone understands what the bull represents, and when they think about the company, it lends positive associations," Howard says.

He also praises the ads from Prada and other handbag manufacturers featuring cuddly dogs in the handbags and Banana Republic's use of a St. Bernard with a scarf around its neck.

Johnston, meanwhile, recommends developing a personality and backstory associated with the character.

"It should be an extension of the brand and live up to your core value and characteristics," she says.

When The Richards Group tried to come up with a way for Chick-fil-A to steal market share from fast-food burger chains, it developed the story of renegade cows who try to convince hungry customers to "Eat mor chikin" instead of beef--and who can't spell.

The campaign, like the company's culture, is intended to be "great fun," Richards says. "We never take ourselves too seriously."

So when one franchise operator received a letter from an elementary schoolteacher concerned that the poorly educated cows were teaching her students bad spelling habits, he didn't get angry or scoff and throw the letter away. Instead, he visited the school, taking Chick-fil-A bags with misspelled words for the children to correct, giving them coupons upon completion.

Another option is to choose a critter that will help customers remember your company name. In the conservative insurance industry, both Aflac, an acronym for the potentially forgettable American Family Life Insurance Company, and Geico, which stands for Government Employees Insurance Company, have managed to make their companies household names.

"There's so much churn in that industry, and Geico has been able to keep the company top of mind," says Jan Talamo, co-owner of Philadelphia-based The Star Group, which is using a parrot as an icon for the Isle of Capri Casinos campaign. "They're basically giving you entertainment value and telling you it only takes 15 minutes to get a quote."

One element to both the Aflac duck's and the Geico gecko's visibility has been featuring them in as many places as possible. The Aflac duck not only appears in commercials, but also flies across the company's website and has its own downloadable ringtones. People also can buy merchandise such as duck head golf club covers on the website, with proceeds going to charity. Because of a limited budget, the Chick-fil-A cows at first only appeared on outdoor billboards, an atypical strategy in the advertising industry. But now they're in TV spots, at the Atlanta Braves stadium doing "the chop" and in calendars. And since the cows debuted, Chick-fil-A's sales have increased 600 percent.

While the goal is to grab potential customers' attention, animals in your ads should convey the right message. For instance, the singing hamster-like creatures dressed as pirates, known as "spongemonkeys," garnered a lot of attention for Quizno's. While some critics praised the ads for being creative and edgy, others panned them for using animals that could pass as vermin to sell sandwiches.

Cancel the call to Will Smith. "You can create your own superstar," Talamo says. "Create a character and personify it. There's huge upside."