Using Storytelling to Revitalize the Local Economy: Japan’s Kumamon Craze

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By Satoko Tanaka

The Hoffman Agency, Japan

In Japan, you can easily find Yuruchara – roughly translated as “loose characters” – at most tourism sites. These are cartoon mascots that represent specific prefectures (regions) in Japan and were created to promote area tourism, delicacies and events. Now TV shows, commercials and social media play up Yuruchara as miniature celebrities.

It is said that there are more than 2,000 Yuruchara, but the number of popular and widely known characters is in actuality very small. Among them, the most strikingly famous and popular would have to be Kumamon, the black bear mascot designating the Kumamoto prefecture.

Kumamon merchandise sales reached 29.3 billion yen (USD $293 million) in 2012, making for a cumulative total of 100 billion yen (USD $1 billion) since his “birth” in 2010. But Kumamon is not particularly cute – in fact his appearance is very simple. So how did he bring such great economic success to Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture?

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The secret to Kumamon’s success involves an elaborate media strategy and great storytelling. Here’s a breakdown of Kumamon’s PR activity and the storytelling tactics used to promote him:

Phase 1: Building the hype

Kumamon’s story starts in Osaka City (in the Kansai region), where he is sent on a “business trip” as a temporary worker from Kumamoto. In order to build hype, Kumamon appeared in various places around Osaka, like a shopping area, a park, a tower, etc. People who saw a mysterious black bear would tweet about it and, as a result, Kumamon began trending online.

Phase 2: Establishing the character

Kumamon unveiled his identity gradually by use of quirky media advertisements with 50 different catch phrases. At the same time, Kumamon was appointed to be an extraordinary ambassador and was ordered to hand out 10,000 (!) business cards.

Phase 3: Creating conflict

Kumamon, sick of distributing business cards, decides to run away. The governor of the Kumamoto prefecture held an emergency press briefing asking Kansai’s citizens to provide information that might lead to Kumamon’s whereabouts. Witnesses were encouraged to share photos of Kumamon-sightings via SMS, and “Missing Persons” posters were placed all over the region.

In the end, Kumamon was found by help of the Kansai people. You can catch a video (in Japanese) of the event here:


As a result of this campaign, the number of overnight visitors from Kansai to Kumamoto increased by 60 per cent. Following Kansai, PR blitzes were enacted in Tokyo, and Kumamon became a winner of the “Yurchara Grand Prix 2011” – gaining the position as favorite character in Japan.

The use of continuous storytelling helped establish Kumamon’s character, and PR activities utilizing SMS are still going on with successful response. Now Kumamon has been making overseas trips to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris and London! 

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