I’ve just come back from my second trip to the wonderful country that is Japan. I knew before I went how much the Japanese are into cartoons, characters, manga and anime, but was blown away by how many organisations and companies are now using mascots as representations of their brand.
Mascots are everywhere, helping to promote brands as diverse as bus providers to the local aquarium. Expect to see Hello Kitty promoting curry, a helmet-wearing diminutive figure spreading positive vibes about the Tokyo emergency services, Pokémon (still very much alive over there) working with the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, and Papa Beard who entices millions to buy his cream puffs all across the country.
The most popular of all is Kumamon. He is a genuine household name in a country where celebrities are ten a penny. His rosy cheeks and unreadable expression appear on hundreds of products, from sweets and snacks to bags of rice, stationery and toys – part of a commercial portfolio worth almost 30bn yen last year (apparently). That’s not bad for a cuddly black bear with a mischievous streak, who has risen from humble beginnings promoting a new bullet train station in southern Japan to become the country’s pre-eminent mascot.
And nothing gets the locals more excited than someone dressed up as their favourite mascot. Whether you at an event or wandering in the local mall, a dressed-up mascot is always in demand for snap happy, camera phone toting local.
Even Japan’s holiest mountain, Koyasan, has a mascot. This cheeky little fella crops up in amongst some of the most significant Buddhist temples in Japan, helping to endure thousands of pilgrims to this wonderful place up in the hills outside Osaka.
And Nara, the former capital city, with its free roaming wild deer and laidback vibe, has this guy with antlers as their mascot.
I’m not just looking for an excuse to just show some more of my holiday snaps, here are a few more of my personal favourites from the trip. I’m not sure what they are ‘selling’, but they all look great!
But where does this obsession stem from?
Although these cute little characters are great fun, at the heart Japan’s love affair with mascots is brands attempting to gain a commercial advantage. If a brand can market their product with a likeable figure, it creates a positive relationship between consumer, mascot and themselves.
Of course, this is logical, but in Japan, some believe it goes a much deeper to show why the natives react in such a way to these creative creatures.
One theory suggests that the characters allow the Japanese to create personal relationships with non-living objects, for example a car, a soft drink or a publicly-funded service. This stems from the concept of animism, an idea that all things in nature possess a soul and have significance within society. It’s about playing on a belief around a natural phenomenon and bringing it to a commercial environment.
Other commenters believe that the cartoons and characters are a tool of escapism for those working in Japan – the majority of whom are subject too high stress levels, copious amounts of overtime and a low job security rating. The use of the mascots is said to allow people to forget the tribulations of the daily grind and allows them to have some fun over the weekend – be it shopping for their favourite character’s merchandise or getting a quick photo with them in the street.
It all got me thinking about whether this approach would work for brands in this country. It would certainly help people to trust a brand more, because everyone would believe a mascot over an evil human being!