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Kakao MadnessExploring the kidult trend through character marketing in South Korea
Kim Min-seo  |
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승인 2017.03.08  23:35:23
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WALKING DOWN the streets in South Korea, one can come across a variety of animated characters displayed on many kinds of products. Not only do these characters catch people’s attention, they also add entertainment value to the products.  The so-called “character marketing” has become an economic trend in South Korea, and creating the most eye-catching animated character opens the pathway towards the brand’s success in nowadays society.

Character marketing trend in South Korea

   With increased competition among companies, the structure of the economy changed from producer-centered to  consumer-centered. Many products now get removed from the market if they fail to suit the interest of the consumers. Consumer preference has become more diverse and specific over time and consumers’ level of satisfaction towards the product has become the standard of production.

   Rather than competing in developing high-tech products, companies now compete through emotional marketing by adding stories and episodes to their products in order to approach the consumers emotionally. One of the most typical and successful examples is the usage of animated characters. Characters not only solidify the image of a product or a brand but also allow consumers to familiarize themselves with the products. Consumers are able to develop an emotional connection or bond with the character and establish sympathetic feelings towards the product. Therefore, character marketing seems to have direct influence on consumption.

   The character-driven marketing strategies have become increasingly popular in the past recent years. For instance, S-Oil, a petroleum and refinery company, designed a character called “Goo Do-il” derived from the pronunciation of “good oil.” This character made its first appearance through advertisements in 2012. When the use of character model led to an increase in consumption and reduction in advertising costs, S-oil continued to create more brand characters, adding eight more family members to “Goo Do-il”. Another famous example is the Pororo yogurt. Pororo the Little Penguin is a Korean animated TV series that began in 2003 but went viral   in 2010 amongst children in Korea. To successfully attract young consumers, Binggrae, a specialized manufacturer of dairy products, collaborated with Pororo by inserting the Pororo character on the yogurt package. Through such collaborations, Iconix, Production Company of Pororo, achieved a 27.5% increase in profit from 2010 to 2011.


Kakao Friends and their successful story

Most prevalent and successful story of character marketing would most probably be Kakao Friends. Kakao Friends are featured characters that represent the Kakao Corporation, a South Korean Internet company established in 2014. They consist of eight distinct characters including the recently added lion character, Ryan. These characters made their first appearance as emoticons in Kakao Talk, the most famous messenger app in South Korea. They served as a means to express the users’ emotions, and they also added entertainment value to the application. As the online marketing through emoticons turned out be successful, Kakao Corporation dived into offline marketing strategies using the characters that were previously only seen as emoticons. The company started selling character-related goods such as cushions, toys, stationaries, toothbrush, laptop case, and water bottles in offline pop-up stores. Consequently, in May 2016, Kakao Friends that managed the character business sector of Kakao Corporation emerged as an independent corporation.

   Kakao Friends further expanded their influence by making 15 different collaborations with other industrial brands over the past three years. One of the most popular and successful collaborations was with the Samlip General Foods, a South Korean food corporation. Both companies collaborated to produce the Kakao bread that came with Kakao stickers inside the package. Through the collaboration with Kakao Friends, Sam lip General Food was able to sell over 37.6 million packs in a year from July 2015 to June 2016. Kakao Friends also collaborated with other brands including a cosmetic brand, a toothpaste brand, and an outerwear brand. According to Jung Soo-yung (Soph., UIC, Dept. of International Studies), Kakao Friends is one of the most commonly seen characters while walking down the street these days. She said, “I am currently using a Kakao towel and wearing Kakao slippers at home. I also have over eight different emoticon packs from Kakao Friends on my messenger, but I am pretty sure there are other people who have more.”


Reasons for their success

   In the 21st century, people communicate more through Social Network Services (SNS) than they do face-to-face. Messenger apps serve as their primary means to converse with distant people. Hence, Kakao’s emotional approach towards the consumers using SNS emoticons as a means to communicate proved to be effective. The emoticons are icons that reflect different types of emotions commonly felt by people. These frank yet humorous emoticons greatly appeals to the consumers. Moreover, the Kakao Corporation marketed these characters by giving each character its own backstory about its weakness. The stories bring empathy from people who also share similar weaknesses. For instance, a Kakao Friends character named Neo appears to be a “true fashionista” who seems so impeccable in appearance. However, Neo’s story reveals that she wears a wig to boost her confidence without anyone knowing. Other characters similarly portray genuine characteristics through such personal histories that reflect peoples’ attitudes of hiding weaknesses in society.

   These characters are not only famous among young consumers, but also among consumers of all ages, which is why character marketing turned out to be a great success. At first, critics were concerned that using characters as marketing strategies would fail to succeed and would only target young consumers. Surprisingly, however, character marketing has evoked sympathy from consumers of all ages. The kidult trend is now emerging as a popular marketing strategy in South Korea as it effectively grabs the attention of the consumers and triggers their inner child.


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   Through SNS, consumers constantly see and use diverse character emoticons to express themselves as these emoticons reveal consumers’ emotions in greater depth than previous analogue emoticons. People can no doubt see themselves interacting through these characters in their everyday lives and it is now fair assume that these characters play a significant role in their lives.

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