It seems humans are genetically set up to respond to specific images. People from all cultures tend to respond to visual characteristics usually associated with babies, which include disproportionately large heads and big eyes and marketers haven’t neglected these facts. It’s common to use sexy or cute images to sell products simply because people tend to be drawn to them in one way or another.
Sometimes the combination is hugely successful – Andrex toilet tissue enjoys strong market domination partly thanks to its long-running and inseparable association with a cute Labrador Retriever puppy.
Some cultures are more tolerant of this approach than others. Consumers in some Asian countries seem to have a much higher tolerance of cuteness, and in a wider range of areas of life, compared to more cynical Westerners.
Research has attempted to show how rewarding it is to view cute images. Researchers into the phenomenon found that people who viewed human and animal babies experienced a natural high as viewing stimulated their dopamine levels. Perhaps that’s why brands such as Hello Kitty, the huge-eyed cartoon cat, have enjoyed such global success; we crave cuteness for the natural high it gives us.
But Westerners are mere novices when it comes to the cultural phenomenon of cuteness. Our conception of the meaning of cute pales in comparison to the complexity and depth that accompanies this characteristic in Japan, and it’s a rather insignificant and uncontroversial concept in comparison to its cultural significance in this market.
Different cultures certainly value aesthetics in varied ways but the way we respond to cuteness is more complex than a mere aesthetic preference.
Asian concepts of cuteness
Visitors to Japan are often surprised by the high level of cuteness that’s present in society. It’s really common to see cute mascots representing everything from religions to farming prefectures. Perhaps the weirdest is Gosshi, the mascot of an urban park, depicted as a carp possessed by the soul of a dead soldier and wearing stockings and high heels.
Although this may sound bizarre, mascots like this are often based on a hard-to-translate pun which is why non-Japanese speakers tend to find them baffling.
It’s also common for cuteness to be highly valued in female looks and behaviour in Japan. This includes being dependent, non-assertive and submissive. You’ll hear female adult announcers and presenters using artificially high-pitched voices, as this is considered cute.
Japanese society tends to value willingness to cooperate with others and be collectivist rather than asserting one’s own wants and needs. In terms of gender roles, it’s also true that women are expected to be submissive in the family and there’s still a culture of women become housewives after marriage; trying to be cute is perhaps women’s way of trying to get their needs taken care of within their limited sphere of options.
South Korea also has a high tolerance for cuteness, or 애교 (‘aegyo’). You’ll see this particularly in South Korean concepts of beauty – the K-pop industry pushes a cute aesthetic in its performers, both male and female. South Korean performers will be trained to develop cute hand gestures and facial expressions and really push the cute concept in all photocalls.
Aegyo behaviours such as high-pitched vocalisation, child-like expressions and exaggerated gestures are culturally acceptable tools for women to use either to charm or persuade people. For non-Koreans, it can sometimes come across as overly saccharine and weird.
If you’re entering a market which has a high tolerance for cuteness, it’s certainly something you need to consider as you take your product to market. Although you may not need to create your own dancing animal mascot for your brand, cuteness has a deeper message in these markets.
It’s about not aggressively asserting your brand and product (Japanese people abhor pushy marketing tactics) and instead, trying to charm people as you fit your brand into society.
You’ll see this approach expressed through brands such as Honda. Admittedly, Honda does have its own eccentric mascots in its Japanese home market.
One example is Riefel the dancing leaf fairy, who teaches children about the importance of nature as part of the brand’s environmental responsibilities. The mascot also offers advice on growing vegetables which would seem an eccentric venture for a motorsports brand in a Western market.
What’s significant is the approach Honda is taking to show it is serving society and contributing to the community and Riefel is just one part of this charm offensive.
In many Asian markets, cuteness is more about social values rather than a preference for funny mascots. If you’re trying to engage in these markets it’s important to really understand what’s behind this phenomenon and how it should inform the approach your brand takes in these markets.