Campaign watch: The unlikely heroes marketing Japan’s small towns

by Ewan Miller

In the struggle against rural depopulation marketers of Japan’s small towns have found some unlikely heroes…

Small towns across the developed world are facing demographic depopulation but nowhere is the problem quite as pronounced as Japan, where the country’s total population is on track to shrink from 120 million to just 100 million over the next few decades.

In 2003 the Japanese government appointed a Minister of State for Regional Revitalization to counter the trend. But local towns are taking their fates into their own hands.

In an attempt to raise their profile to attract new residents, many of Japan’s small towns are designing mascots known as gotochi-kyara (local characters) to focus their marketing efforts towards younger potential residents.

Today there are more than 3,000 of these local mascots, which drive more than $16 billion US dollars in the Japanese economy every year.

Standing out in such a crowd is pretty difficult, forcing marketers to get a bit more creative with their designs. Let’s check a few out.

Yukimaru

Like much of Japan, more than a quarter of Ōji’s 23,000 residents are over 65 years old, a proportion which continues to grow each year.

In early 2017 the council launched a new mascot, Yukimaru, to revitalise the town’s image by tying its history (Yukimaru was the name of the dog of Prince Shōtoku, a local noble who’s credited as Japan’s first author) to a drone shaped like a puppy.

The campaign has received several thousand likes on Facebook and more than 30,000 views on Youtube.

Aside from the innovative use of a drone, Ōji’s campaign has been praised for its local storytelling, with moments from Prince Shōtoku’s life being reenacted against the town’s modern backdrop as Yukimaru flies around, remembering his owner.

Yubari Fusai

The former coal mining town of Yūbari was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2007 after running up a debt of US $353 million. Seeking to counteract its population decline from almost 120,000 in the 60s to less than 10,000 today, the town contracted Beacon Communications, who stumbled on the curious statistic – by ratio Yūbari had the fewest divorces in all of Japan.

With more than a little irony, Beacon created the Yūbari Fusai (Fusai meaning both ‘debt’ and ‘married couple’), a pair of melon head mascots who manage to stick together through the hard times.

Supported by merchandise, including CDs and certificates for ‘happily married couples’, the campaign generated over $1.5 million in advertising value, achieving more than 30 TV appearances and 100 newspaper clippings.

Since the project, Yūbari has seen a 10% increase in annual tourism.

Tama

Perhaps one of Japan’s cutest advertising campaigns, the promotion of an cat named Tama to station master of the Kishi train station in Wakayama not only revitalised the railway line but also contributed more than US $10 million to the local economy.

Initially it was just the cat of the actual station master who hung around but Tama’s appointment increased the station’s traffic by more than 10% in the year following the stunt.

After her death, she was enshrined as a goddess, and succeeded by two new feline deputies.

Over 3,000 people attended her funeral.

The Alien of Ariake

Inspired by Wakaya’s successful attempt to turn a cat into a superstar, Saga City created several campaigns promoting the obscure species of the portside town.

The Alien of Ariake was the first campaign, transforming a local variant of goby fish into a terrifying alien through a mock horror film trailer starring the mayor of Saga.

The video attracted almost 300,000 views on YouTube, spawning an interactive website and a collaboration with video game creators Sega.

The same company produced another pair of videos, styling a mud crab and a goby fish as mortal enemies, utilising Japan’s ‘tokusatu’ style of low-budget, deliberately overacted action shows.

By elevating these ‘less attractive’ species to mythic proportions the spots sought to reignite interest in the city’s shoreline parklands. They each received around 30,000 views on Youtube, and were accompanied by signs in the parkland referencing the spots.

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