Corporate character goods harness power of 'cute'

A traditional seasoning flies off store shelves after the bottles begin sporting a cartoon panda. A droplet-shaped character turns a little-known manufacturer into a household name.

These are just two examples of the magic worked by the corporate character boom that has gripped the nation as a growing number of businesses are reminded of the power of “cute” as a marketing tool, attracting consumers, both young and old.

Daikin Industries Ltd.’s Pichon-kun — the name mimics, to Japanese ears, the sound of a droplet falling — is one of the best-known characters in the latest boom. But the birth of the character — basically a water droplet with a face and body — came about by chance.

Originally, the character was meant to be a visual aid in TV commercials to highlight the humidity-control features of a home air-conditioner released in 1999 and didn’t even have a name.

But kids loved it.

After the commercials started airing, the firm got calls from mothers demanding to know what the droplet’s name was and asking where they could buy products with the character’s likeness.

Surprised, the company put on offer a limited number of Pichon-kun cell-phone straps, which eventually were traded at between 7,000 yen to 8,000 yen apiece on Internet auction sites.

Daikin so far has offered about 80 Pichon-kun items, including ball-point pens and handkerchiefs, for product promotion. It has also licensed the right to use the cartoon to some 20 other businesses, including makers of the fuzzy toys used as prizes at game arcades. Pichon-kun even has its own picture books and CDs.

The unexpected boom has raised the profile of the hitherto little-known manufacturer of mainly industrial air-conditioners based in Osaka.

“People had just never heard of Daikin,” said Ko Nagata, a Daikin marketing official. “We had low recognition, especially among housewives and the younger generation.”

No longer. In fiscal 2004, the firm grabbed the top share in the domestic household air-conditioner market, where it had long been overshadowed by major consumer electronics makers.

Daikin officials stressed that the feat was not achieved on the strength of Pichon-kun alone, pointing to the quality of the company’s products and service.

Still, they do not deny the character has done its bit.

“People do not buy air conditioners made by an obscure manufacturer,” Nagata said. “With Pichon-kun, we became able to compete on the same footing as major consumer electronics makers.”

Coming up with a popular new character is a hit-and-miss proposition and using an existing character or TV celebrity is a safer marketing tactic, given their proven popularity. But Atsushi Mishuku, an official at flavorings maker Ajinomoto Co., said using original characters provides more marketing freedom.

To attract the younger generation to its mainstay Ajinomoto brand seasoning, the firm conducted a study to determine the ideal promotional character from among 30 to 40 existing characters and TV celebs.

“The important thing is to connect the TV commercials to the products on store shelves,” Mishuku said. “But it is difficult (to get permission) to put photos of celebrities on products. And existing characters are already used by other makers.”

Ajinomoto’s solution: Aji Panda, an original creation that now appears on all of the seasoning’s 75-gram bottles, as well as TV commercials and other promotional campaigns.

The panda was a hit far beyond the expectations of its creators. Last May, sales of the seasoning rose 2.7 times compared with the same month a year earlier. Bloggers even swapped “sighting information” on hard-to-get bottles, according to Ajinomoto officials.

The characters’ universal appeal to Japanese consumers has not escaped the attention of foreign companies operating here either.

U.S. household products giant Procter & Gamble Co.’s diaper character, Pampa the baby elephant, was created especially for the Japanese market. The pachyderm had a makeover in 2004, courtesy of Sony Creative Products Inc., to boost its cuteness quotient.

On the other hand, insurer Aflac’s Aflac Duck was born in the U.S. in 2000, but underwent an interesting metamorphosis here.

The Japanese unit of the American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus came out with Chibi-Duck stuffed animals for customers in May 2003, and has since distributed more than 8.5 million of them.

“Chibi-Duck has been very effective in dispelling the rather dry, standoffish image often attached to foreign firms,” an Aflac official said.

As for why the Japanese are so taken with cartoon characters, Hiroyuki Aihara, head of toy maker Bandai Co.’s Character Research Institute, said experts still hotly debate the issue.

One theory, he said, is that Japanese society draws a less distinct line between adults and children compared with Western societies and therefore is more tolerant toward adults enjoying comics and cartoons.

Many experts say even more corporate cartoons are waiting around the corner.

Aihara said the marketing appeal of cartoon characters has become more common as people who grew up watching cartoons and reading comics make up a larger share of the adult population.

“Corporate characters have been around for ages, but there is a renewed interest (in them) today,” he said.

But Satoshi Akutsu, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University and an expert on branding, warned that characters are no magic bullet for companies looking to tout their products to consumers.

“What if everyone starts using characters? That would dilute their appeal,” he said.

Both Aihara and Akutsu were among speakers at a recent seminar on corporate characters sponsored by the Japan Marketing Association.

For the companies, meanwhile, sustaining the popularity of their cartoon’s creations becomes an additional challenge.

NTT DoCoMo Inc. is taking extra care not to give too much exposure to its DoCoMo-dake mushroom characters created to pitch the mobile carrier’s discount family billing program.

“We want to keep their popularity as long as possible,” said Shintaro Oka, an employee involved in DoCoMo’s advertising strategy. “We are trying to avert the risk of hurting their brand value.

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