While the US struggles with multiple cartoon mascot controversies, Japan's Kumamon is taking the rest of the world by storm.
The mascot of the high speed train of Kumamoto City ("kumamon" means "bear thing" in Japanese) was launched in 2010 and is now a fixture of Japanese culture as well as an increasing number of branding and marketing campaigns. It's only the most popular anthropomorphized mascot in Japan's robust history of anthropomorphized mascots. But don't confuse Kumamon for Pedobear, another of Japan's popular kuma exports.
Above, Kumamon appears at a July 1 store opening for retailer Yata. In May, JAL began offering "Air Kumamon" service on some flights, an "innovative line-up of in-flight meals" (at top). The bear has also appeared on the livery of carrier Sotaseed Air. In June, it served as the ambassador to the Japan Expo in Paris. There are Kumamon plums, Kumamon toilet paper and Kumamon-branded gravestones. Of course there is Kumamon Pocky. And obviously, he still serves duties as the mascot of the train of Kumamoto Prefecture.
Kumamon has an official website, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube feed, among other channels.
Japan has a rich history of cartoon mascots that seems partial to bears (Sanfrecce Hiroshima's soccer team has Sancce and Frecce, "Asiatic black bears, which live in the mountainous regions in Chugoku,") but the nation is especially partial to anthropomorphized animals in general.
In the west, Kumamon is less well known than one of Japan's other famous bears, Pedobear. Originally ASCII art from a message board, Pedobear has been used in pop culture as a mascot to warn of pedophiles.
When it comes to marketing, it's no surprise Kumamon has been so successful since it follows in the well tread footsteps of another cartoon character, Hello Kitty. Singapore is currently in the grip of a crisis over a shortage of McDonald's Happy Meal Hello Kitty plush toys. McDonald's has been forced to make per-customer limits and make a public plea to consumers to stop selling them on eBay for high markups.
But the Kitty is not just for kids. Like Kumamon, Hello Kitty has appeared as an airline livery (Taiwan's Eva Air). A surprising breadth of brands have also leveraged Hello Kitty. Swarovski has an entire Hello Kitty line as does high-end cosmetics maker MAC.
And who can forget Pokemon?
The popularity of Kumamon and pals in Japan owes much to "kawaii culture" ("kawaii" means "cute" or "adorable") but also to the role cartoons—or animation—plays in Japan. Notably, the overall comic book industry in the US was worth about $700 million last year. At the same time, the value of Japan's "manga" or graphic novel market was closer to $5 billion.
For marketers in Japan, Kumamon's popularity should be edifying. While a cartoon mascot may not be part of a brand's messaging mix in Europe or the US, it might be appropriate in Japan. For example, thanks to his famous "Julius" money cartoon mascot, designer Paul Frank found itself partnering with McDonald's last year for special branded gifts.
Meanwhile, Kumamon's potential in the United States remains untapped. In fact, The United States Patent and Trademark Office contains, as of yet, no record of any application for "Kumamon."