Billion Dollar Mascots: Japan’s Cute & Unlikely Business Accelerators

The plush Japanese business partners worth in excess of $16B

by Melissa Francis

Cultural insight agency Tokyoesque provide localisation services for both Japanese and European corporates. Here, they outline how life-size mascots (yuru-chara) are used in Japan as a key promotional tool for regions and businesses.

What are yuru-chara and what do they represent in the Japanese market?

Yuru-chara, or to use the full terminology, yurui kyarakutaa, are mascots employed to represent a locality, sports team, or business. The term literally translates into English as ‘loose characters’, which emphasises their approachable, politically neutral and laid-back nature. Japan already has a long history of crafting endearing characters that appeal to residents and people all over the world on an emotional level. In order to be truly inspirational and to gain a significant following, yuru-chara need to have a strong and believable background story as well as being visually related to the place or organisation they represent. As a result, many characters have their own social media profiles through which fans can follow their attendance at events. According to CNN, the yuru-chara business was worth approximately $16 billion USD in 2012. This figure will be significantly higher today, as demand for mascots is constantly on the rise. Local company KIGURUMI.BIZ is one of the leading names in mascot costume design and production.

Free marketing opportunities for regional producers

Since appearing as part of a 2010 tourism campaign for Kumamoto Prefecture and winning the Yuru-chara Grand Prix in 2011, Kumamon, a black bear with trademark rosy red cheeks, has become one of the most recognisable mascots in Japan and internationally. Even regional producers of certain types of agricultural goods can feature illustrations of Kumamon without having to pay a fee, and a license can be purchased for any other types of goods. Following the strong earthquake that occurred in Kumamoto in 2016, many people living in other regions of Japan demonstrated their support for those impacted by choosing to purchase items that featured Kumamon on the packaging. This is one example of how simple identification with a character can have far-reaching implications whilst also working to connect communities through a common cause.

Watch the official Kumamon song ‘Kumamonmon’ here.

Creating the recipe for viral success online

Chiitan is an example of a yuru-chara that experienced a significant bout of popularity last year via social media. Based on a river otter, Chiitan originally debuted in December 2017. This character is especially well-liked for its overtly cute physical appearance and the pink and white frilly hat it wears. Chiitan has made a self-declaration that its popularity is on par with one of the most popular YouTubers ‘HIKAKIN’ as well as ‘Funassyi’, the rock music-loving pear-shaped mascot used to promote Funabashi City. After having started out posting regular videos via YouTube involving acrobatic-style movements, Chiitan experienced a surge in popularity due to an appearance on a TV variety show called ‘getsuyou kara yofukashi’. Chiitan’s over-exaggerated movements represent a solid cultural fit with the content shown in many other Japanese comedy shows.

This brand of gentle self-mockery for the purpose of entertainment is common among Japanese tarento (celebrities). When a deliberately clumsy personality is combined with Chiitan’s cute appearance, this all helps to create a recipe for viral success. In August 2018, Chiitan’s YouTube videos had been viewed more than a million times, with an average retweet count of 100,000 per video. Twitter follower figures from the same period suggest that although the majority are based in Japan, there is also a significant interest from those living internationally. So it’s clear that in many ways Chiitan has a universal appeal. This is reflected by the fact that, unlike some other yuru-chara, it does not have a voice and relies on subtitles and cultural references to convey a story through the videos.

Watch one of Chiitan’s videos here.

The yuru-chara Grand Prix

The yuru-chara Grand Prix is the epitome of mascot-focused events in Japan. It is an annual festivity that sees hundreds of mascots gathered together in a different city each time, and is popular among fans and promoters alike. The primary objective is to celebrate the positive work that yuru-chara have done throughout the year, as well as providing an outlet to rank them in terms of their popularity among the public.

The Grand Prix also presents a solid opportunity to promote the various regions of Japan and to draw attention to the range of initiatives that are being carried out in those areas. Representatives from each locality or company set up individual stalls which offer tourist information as well as related character merchandise. Common activities include a sumo wrestling match which is made even more entertaining by the characters’ inflexible, stilted movements.

In 2010, the number of yuru-chara being entered into the Grand Prix was just 169 and by 2017, there were as many as 1,157. This pays testament to the traction that the event has gained over the years. 618 of the mascots were promoting local regions, whilst the remaining 476 were representing national corporations.

How can the use of characters enable businesses to deepen their connection with Japanese consumers?

The popularity of yuru-chara in Japan is all part of the appeal of kawaii (cute) characters in a wider context. They can have a significant impact across all generations since they possess the kind of soft power that creates and sustains universal appeal. The number of corporate entities choosing to adopt so-called ‘character marketing’ has been on the rise over the past few years. This method provides an alternative way to differentiate their offering from that of the competition. Promotional characters can either be newly devised as part of an overall brand strategy, or the use of pre-existing famous characters such as Doraemon or Crayon Shinchan can be licensed depending on the objective.

Shinchan (left) and Doraemon (right)

A company that chooses a memorable mascot to personify the essence of their offering may also be allowing customers feel more connected with the products and services being provided. Cute, friendly-looking characters can be seen everywhere in Japan, from food packaging to public safety announcements. The very fact that they’re a core part of everyday life also immediately makes them more acceptable within business contexts. It’s simply a question of discovering what type of character best fits the brand image and which ones potentially have the ability to resonate with consumers.

Ultimately, research around incorporating characters into any brand localisation strategy should be conducted prior to the design stage. It is important to test concepts in the Japanese market so they can be as effective as possible in light of local cultural cues. This applies not only to the implementation of characters as a promotional tool, but also to other forms of localised branding that a company may put in place, including logos, slogans and the overall brand philosophy. The way all of these work in conjunction is important when fostering a sense of ‘brand stickiness’, especially for foreign brands as they look to make a splash in the local market. Tokyoesque can work with you to test these ideas in the Japanese market.

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