Aleksandra Szczerba
Festival of Licensing 2020 Week 2: Asia
insight, audience
5 mins

A weekly review of some of our favourite sessions and insights

Small Gift, Big Smile: celebrating 60 years of the world’s biggest kawaii brand

The Japanese company Sanrio turns 60 this year, and in celebration of this milestone anniversary Linh Forse, the brand’s Senior Director of Licensing, took us on a deep-dive into the brand’s history and how it has evolved over time in a special live keynote.

For the past six decades Sanrio has been a purveyor of kawaii (cuteness) culture across the globe and one of the biggest movers and shakers when it comes to Japanese trends on the international stage. The brand’s most iconic character is of course Hello Kitty. Created in 1974, she is the purrfect embodiment of kawaii and a lasting element of global pop culture. A character that can take on and reflect the culture and trends of any time and place, she has entertained multiple generations and boasts an 86% brand recognition in core demos today.

The brand’s “Small Gift , Big Smile” philosophy stems from its origins: it was built on the Japanese tradition of exchanging small gifts. The founder, Shintaro Tsuji, recognised that the practise helped foster friendships and crossed cultural and generational boundaries; it had the power to bring people together. To this day the brand nurtures and preserves the same principles it was built upon, and its core values are friendship, kindness, and inclusivity. These are woven into the brand’s DNA just as much as the kawaii aesthetic.

As the brand’s values have remained stable, the brand has evolved to adapt to the changing media landscape with great ease. Today the numerous touchpoints span consumer products, varied content formats, retail activations, location-based entertainment, influencers...even faux-travel activations. And the brand will only continue to change and grow, with its 2021 and onward strategy tapping more heavily into the digital space, namely content, gaming, social media, and, the ultimate hub of all things Sanrio.

Digital is perfect for a company like Sanrio and its star Hello Kitty; the core demos of the brand are girls aged 6-11 and millennial women. For children 6-12 YouTube is the #1 entertainment brand, whereas 84% of girls play video games, and a third of their screen time is spent gaming. Millennial women, on the other hand, are highly social and keep up with brands and influencers online - and introduce their children to the brands they love. The strategy for the coming years is therefore a multifaceted plan comprising specially tailored content aimed at both groups, including animation, live action, virtual events, streaming platform partnerships, a complex social media approach, and more.

The world of Sanrio isn’t just for girls however. 2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, and through it all we have sought comfort and warmth, also through nostalgia and evergreen IPs. Sanrio’s catalogue of characters, with Hello Kitty at the helm, is a hugely nostalgic brand for many people - on top of also being a brand built on positive values and warm fuzzy feelings. A perfect brand for turbulent times.

Going into 2021, Sanrio is likely to remain a brand that people look to for comfort, and they are prepared to take the lead. Their message for next year is “connecting with friends around the world”, and the brand will aim to help us all connect digitally, at a time when personal connection and friendship have been scarce.

Marketing, mascots, museums: ecommerce in China

The biggest topic at Asia week was ecommerce. For the “Understanding eCommerce in China” panel, experts came together to discuss what licensors need to know about the ecommerce landscape in China.

The global leader when it comes to ecommerce, online retail sales reached 1.5 trillion USD in China in 2019. In comparison, the worth of online sales in the US in the same year was 566 billion. Online retail has only grown in 2020, especially in the post-coronavirus period, with 19% YOY growth in June and July. All this growth isn’t just due to the size of the Chinese market, but the way it works.

China’s ecommerce ecosystem is incredibly advanced. With a great deal of platform convergence, platforms serve multiple functions and offer new features to increase engagement. The three main ecommerce players are Alibaba (720M+ MAU), Pinduoduo (700M+ MAU) and (400M+ MAU), but that’s not all. Ecommerce is now part of content platforms like Douyin or Kuaishou, social platforms like WeChat and Weibo, and even streaming platforms equivalent to Netflix or Youtube. These platforms make the online retail experience increasingly exciting. “See now, buy now” mechanics and new interactive “shoppertainment” formats are integrating retail seamlessly into the platforms’ usual functions.

What advice do experts have for those seeking to break into the Chinese market? First of all, the far East has a very strong culture of brand mascots, not just China, but also Japan and South Korea. Mascots become the face of the brands they represent and they embody brand values that consumers identify with. Even the ecommerce platforms themselves have mascots, such as TMall’s black cat or’s Joy the dog. These mascots become a marketing opportunity in and of themselves - the platforms employ them in their own marketing and consumer products, and IP owners “connect” their mascots with the platforms’ during launches and campaigns.

Secondly, unique, creative cross-collaborations are central to online marketing strategies in China. The more innovative the idea, the better. Whilst Facebook, the leading social network in the majority of the world, offers countless ways to target consumers, Chinese platforms do not have this function. Instead of investing in large-scale advertising campaigns many brands take a creative, hype-based and user-driven route, creating headline-generating collabs and social-friendly shareable content, which underpin their UGC campaigns.

Examples given in the session showed just what level of creativity is being exhibited. This summer KFC partnered with Liushen, a herbal medicine used as insect repellent, to create a flavoured coffee. Liushen has been used by generations of Chinese people, and the coffee campaign was a success. The makeup brand Perfect Day is another example, thanks to their partnerships with the Discovery Channel, the British Museum and the MoMa. Museum licensing is actually such a huge deal in China (unlike anywhere else) that the government has had to create guidelines for museum licensing specifically.

We can learn a lot from the Chinese market. With Instagram and TikTok now foraying into online retail, it will be interesting to see if they can match the success of the Chinese model; mascots and interesting collaborations have the power to succeed outside of Asia too. However, it is innovation that is the biggest lesson for us all, as it is the key to successful, engaging products and strategies.

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