Chinese cute culture: mascots and marketing to millennials
By Gianluca Fracasso and Knox Balbastro
During the ’80s and ’90s, when China began to open up to the world, a floodgate of inspiration flowed into the country. Chinese millennials had their first taste of anime. Japanese define anime as any cartoon, whether it’s made in Japan or not. But for non-Japanese, the term means any animated show or films that use signature aspects of Japanese-style animation, characterized by colorful graphics, fantastical themes, and vibrant characters.
This peculiar visual design considerably impacted the way digital brands are designed and consumed today. One telltale sign of its enduring influence on modern Chinese brands and their visual identities is the undeniable popularity of mascots and cartoons. Colorful, cute, and childlike, mascots are employed almost ubiquitously: from official government campaigns down to e-commerce sales. Alibaba alone has 28 mascots and counting.
This mascot trend in Alibaba first originated from the Taobao Doll, first created as a souvenir for an event in 2009 for the Taobao platform. Unbeknownst to the casual viewer, the Taobao Doll is not an animal or person, it’s a chat bubble come to life. It celebrates the app’s unique ability to directly connect buyer and seller — customers can’t chat directly with sellers on Amazon, but they can do that on Taobao.
“At that time, the Taobao Doll was designed as a support tool to make the UX easier and more friendly to local PC users. Having a fun character was very helpful in creating a connection with users — to guide and instruct them on new features in a light and casual way.”
Quite instantaneously, the Taobao Doll’s popularity grew and has now become a symbol of company culture. It has a giant doll welcoming visitors to the 41-acre Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou and it’s not surprising to see official merchandise sold to Taobao fans and given as gifts to VIP Alibaba guests.
Below, we’re exploring three cases of brand design specifically developed for young millennials in industries such as food, media, and travel where mascots have infiltrated and made their home.
Three Squirrels: using cuteness to sell snacks online
Nuts and seeds have traditionally been a snack for the older generations of Chinese consumers. In 2012 however, the CEO of a new brand called “Three Squirrels”, Zhang Liaoyuan set on a design journey to make snacking young and fashionable, by crafting a new challenger brand for millennials.
In stark contrast with older brands in the snack & nuts category that sell mostly in stores, Three Squirrels was first launched solely as an e-commerce brand, with products only available for purchase on an official flagship store on Tmall. It had to have a strong design identity to quickly capture the attention of the market.
That’s why they used their e-commerce platforms not only as simple distribution channels but as a brand-building space, where the brand design was amplified to create an entertaining experience on banners, special promotions, and even on the product packaging, which made the product easily recognizable.
This amusing brand experience influenced their customer service and the tone & voice of the brand. The store operators adopted a “squirrel jargon” where the customers are playfully referred to as “Dear Masters”, projecting the image of a scurry of squirrels preparing, packing, and shipping the nuts all over the country.
This distinctive approach to design has helped the brand to gain popularity among the younger segment, topping the nuts & snack category 7 times in a row during Tmall Single’s Day. In 2018 the brand registered 14.4 million USD GMV achieved in the space of only 9 minutes.
Three Squirrels has built such a loyal following that it now has plans to scale up with the creation of offline branded stores, an animated squirrel series, and even an amusement park.
Bilibili: creating a video platform specifically for the youth
Bilibili, a video sharing platform entirely designed for anime fans and gamers, is another clear example of how cute design and mascots are used to build a connection with young people. Imagine a YouTube where viewers can fully immerse themselves in a world of cartoons, emojis, and memes derived from Chinese & Japanese culture.
Awen Wen, an AliExpress content strategist in her mid-20s said that for her, Bilibili is “the best hub for Anime and Manga in China. You can find high-quality and original content, way better than TikTok videos. It’s also fun to see danmu (live bullet comments) while watching the video, which is a unique feature on Bilibili.
On Bilibili, video streaming is not just a passive experience, but an ongoing conversation among fans through the publishing of an irreverent stream of comments also known as bullet commenting. The bullets appear layered on top of the video so users can build on each other’s humorous comments while watching cartoons and TV series, creating a torrent of jokes and gossip that make video consumption a truly social experience.
This unique way of commenting has spawned the “Biu-Biu” meme. Biu-Biu is the cute sound of love bullets being sent your way. It’s one of the most-used memes on the platform and popular between young users as it signifies love and affection. Aside from being a veritable meme hub, the brand also employs mascots who were named by their loyal fanbase. 22 and 33 are two female siblings who aptly have a TV for a pet. Small TV, is the cartoon you see on Bilibili before any video is played while its face is used to convey many of the brands’ quick-fire messages.
Over just a decade, Bilibili has expanded into a lot of new categories including advertising, mobile gaming, and e-commerce. The online entertainment portal has reached more than 172 million average monthly users and reached RMB 2,315.5 million (US $327 million) total net revenues by the first quarter of 2020. The platform has championed a new design language as well as a unique tone of voice. It created a new internet language that has permeated popular culture even beyond the confines of Bilibili.
Fliggy: creating a new personality for independent travelers
In the year (x), Alibaba Group faced a big challenge with their own travel service platform, previously known as AliTrip. They needed to restyle the brand to appeal to a new generation of mobile consumers: savvy and independent travelers who want niche destinations and plan and book their trip in total flexibility.
AliTrip was seen as too traditional. It did not stand out as a booking platform so they overhauled the app to allow users to independently book flights, trains, hotels, according to their travel plans. And with these new features came a new brand story developed around a brand mascot, Feizhu. Translated literally, it means flying pig. Named “Fliggy” in English, the flying pig is an imaginary ambassador for AliTrip’s new suite of services.
According to Xiao Lian, Senior Designer of Alibaba Group, “Whereas the traditional pig is associated with passive holidays where you eat, sleep and have fun — Fliggy is a fresh and more daring representation. We put wings and energized the lazy holiday goer!”
The new naming and the overall concept was followed by a complete redesign of visual identity and mobile UX. Yellow was adopted as the dominant color palette, signifying warmness and sunshine, but also a traveling service that is “fast as lightning”. Today, Fliggy is one of the most recognizable mascots around and the travel platform has over 200 million users. It’s been fueling the travel and hospitality industries, especially now that a lot of businesses have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are using platforms like live streaming to bring popular attractions to tourists who are not yet able to travel.
Future trends: cuteness and cartoons is a trend that is here to stay
The pig takeover does not end with Fliggy because it definitely ruled in 2019. The year’s zodiac animal is given an almost celebratory status in China — — adorning banners, greeting cards, emojis, stickers, red packets, and more. So it is no surprise that the pig was adopted in the aesthetics of cosmetics and fashion brands like Benefit Cosmetics and Louis Vuitton.
Even sophisticated luxury brands like Gucci got into the game with an ultra-limited edition “Year of the Pig” design featuring Disney’s Three Little Pigs. It was exclusively available on their Chinese e-commerce website and sold out immediately.
Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, cartoon always has a special place in our hearts. It never gets old. That’s why to capture the hearts of the consumers, more and more brands are collaborating with iconic cartoon franchises to create unique limited-edition products.
Gucci and SK II both released special offerings this 2020 featuring the Disney classic character Mickey Mouse. Onitsuka Tiger also offers an anime-inspired item for their Spring/Summer 2020 collection. The Japanese shoe brand launched the new Mexico 66 SD sneaker in partnership with the famous fighting game Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition.
As Chinese millennials continue to mature and take the lead position in the consumer landscape, international brands will also need to transform and adapt their design solutions to appeal to this cartoon obsessed demographic. Brands should consider how they can tap into their inner-cuteness or at the very least collaborating with other brands to add some fun to their look. We predict this trend is here to stay for the long-term and can’t wait to see how brands get influenced by this design in the coming decade.