Cutesy mascots lead charge to woo customers away from electricity giants

by Emi Urabe and Stephen Stapczynski


In the battle for a slice of the ¥8.1 trillion ($72 billion) retail electricity market, Japan’s biggest power companies are lining up against a cuddly bear, a fluffy white dog and a gorilla in business attire.

As the government starts fully liberalizing the power market in April, new entrants are jumping on the yuru-kyara (mascots) bandwagon to lure new customers away from its 10 regional monopolies. Tokyo Gas Co. has introduced a new yellow and white bear character called Denpa-cho, while wireless mobile carrier SoftBank Group Corp. has deployed Oto-san, the white dog named “father.””In the West, adults tend to avoid cute characters that seem childish, but in Japan these characters are thriving,” said Tatsuya Yamamoto, a Tokyo-based character consultant with the advertising and public relations juggernaut Dentsu Inc. “Businesses use them because children, as well as adults, recognize them.”

In the land of Hello Kitty and Super Mario, mascots promote everything from motor fuel to the military. Now they’ve been enlisted in the fight for a piece of Japan’s shrinking electricity market amid Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to boost corporate competitiveness. Power usage last year fell to a 17-year low as households and businesses conserved electricity amid stagnant growth and a falling population.

JX Holdings Inc. is represented by Enegori, a gorilla wearing a suit and tie. The company, which is also Japan’s largest oil refiner, has more than 1,500 megawatts of power generating capacity from thermal, solar and wind sources and its considering adding more.

Jupiter Telecommunications Co., which has a stake in Japan’s largest home shopping network, has rolled out advertisements featuring its marshmallow-like Zaq character holding a light bulb. While the company doesn’t have any electricity generation of its own, it can take power supplied by a subsidiary of its parent, Sumitomo Corp., that operates wind farms and coal plants.

About 3 percent of households are likely to change suppliers if they’re offered rates that are 5 percent cheaper, according to a survey from Nomura Research Institute Ltd. As many as 16 percent may switch if rates fall by 10 percent, according the report.

While just a fraction of its 29 million customers, the amount of power customers who have signed up to switch from Tokyo Electric Power Co. to rival suppliers has nearly tripled in the past two weeks to 90,000, according to Organization for Cross-regional Coordination of Transmission Operators.

“The increase in choices is ultimately good for the consumer,” Syusaku Nishikawa, a Tokyo-based analyst at Daiwa Securities Co., said by email. “They’ll be able to purchase electricity not only from Tokyo Electric, but from Tokyo Gas, telecom companies and various others.”

Tokyo Electric has announced plans of its own to offer discounts and service bundles. But he utility better known as Tepco is still deciding whether it will enlist the help of its mascot, Denko-chan, according to corporate officer Rieko Sato.

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