It may be hard to believe, but in China, there is a black-and-white line drawing that has 30 million fans. Meet WHIKO, a hairless cartoon creature that loosely resembles a cat with a round body and a penchant for wigs. With the slogan “Happiness is being confidently weird,” WHIKO has amassed over 30 million followers on various social media platforms since its debut in 2015. And while the cartoon may look simple, its fame is anything but. In fact, its success came from a comprehensive and well-planned business strategy by its operator.
A Mysterious Cartoon in China Is a Unique Lesson in Creating IP Value
WHIKO is operated by Zomake, Kumamon’s agency in China, and also one of Headline Asia’s portfolio companies. In case you’re not sure who Kumamon is, a quick background. Kumamon is the red-cheeked black bear mascot of the Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan, which was originally created for tourist upon the opening of the high speed rail in the area, but blew up in popularity. In the world of mascots, Kumamon has achieved global rockstar status and netting USD $8.1 billion in sales from 2011 to 2019. Safe to say, WHIKO is certainly in the right hands.
Like with Kumamon, the company primarily provides branding and product development services for popular characters and influencers in China. It’s hard to count the numbers of characters whose popularity in such a market has been a short-lived flash in the pan. When it came to WHIKO, however, Zomake knew that there was a different strategy needed in order to create IP value that would truly stick.
Instead of the character, make the product the star.
Character-centric merchandise is usually targeting the fans of the character. The practicality of the product is usually secondary in nature. In such cases, the consumers are limited to just collectors and enthusiasts. In order to maintain the consumers’ enthusiasm, new products need to constantly be created, which in turn, incurs considerable cost. Zomake was acutely aware of this hurdle and, from the beginning of product development, they focused instead on creating the kinds of products that people other than just fans would actually buy.
One genre of products Zomake chose to focus on was snacks, specifically flavored cashews, which are priced between RMB ¥9.9 and RMB ¥19.9 (about USD $1.53 to USD $3.07). After all, who doesn’t love a good snack? Plus, delicious cashews with cute packaging and a low entry-point caters well to a the younger, more cash-strapped generation between the ages of 18 and 35.
Also, the snacking business is certainly lucrative and China’s confectionery market is massive. According to a report published by LeadLeo in June 2020, China’s total retail confectionery consumption in 2019 was RMB ¥841.34 billion (about USD $130 billion), with an annual growth rate of 8.8%. Competition in the large confectionery market is fierce, but WHIKO has managed to gain recognition with its character.
With the success of its snacks, WHIKO has focused more on further developing its lineup. The “mysterious” convenience stores, focusing on groceries featuring the WHIKO character, have an average of more than 300 SKUs on their shelves. On top of that, they are constantly rotating their inventory, replacing old products with eight to 10 new products every month.
As a way to raise awareness among younger generations, WHIKO is also actively working on joint branding and has created popular collaborations with Nayuki’s Tea, Saturnbird, and Yongpu Coffee.
Active exhibitions to raise brand awareness
If you look back through the history of WHIKO, you will find that the company has held more than 30 exhibitions since its debut in 2015. About 20 of these exhibitions were held in crowded shopping malls. It’s brilliant social media strategy, as every great marketer knows, there’s no publicity quite-like an Instagram-worthy photo opp. In fact, the number of Instagram posts in the exhibitions has been so great that it’s allowed WHIKO to expand brand awareness from one region to another.
Create character-centric retail experiences
As the first step from a character to a brand, Zomake decided to open a physical retail store. In July 2020, the first WHIKO Mystery Convenience Store opened in Shenzhen Raffles. The company accelerated the expansion of stores and opened six stores across China by May 2021. The stores are fun to look at and be in. Its design is also consistent with WHIKO’s black, white, and playful branding.
The lineup of the first Mystery Convenience Store is made up mainly of snacks. The Mystery Convenience Store, inspired by a typical convenience store, offers a multitude of delicious goods, from drinks to nuts, that shoppers are able to consume on a daily basis. They also sell a “blind box” that has 10 mystery flavors within, and is a particular bestseller with the younger generation.
In addition to the WHIKO Mystery Convenience Stores, the brand also has chain stores, franchise stores, and frequent pop-ups. With the addition of franchise stores, rather than sticking to direct operation, we can expect the number of stores to grow in the future.