The increasing popularity of cute products promotes the development of related business

By Lu Yan
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, March 1, 2021
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A young woman wearing a cute headband takes a picture of herself with a camel at an animal farm in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province in east China, on December 17, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

In addition to her full-time job, Zhao Qi, 28, is a graphic designer in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province in south China who gets an added sense of satisfaction from her sideline activity—sketching illustrations and posting them on Xiaohongshu, a popular Instagram-like Chinese fashion and lifestyle-sharing platform.

Chubby faces, black-pea-styled eyes and sausage-like lips are heavily featured across her depictions of both human and animal characters, pumped up by a rich variety of colors and high color saturation.

"Aww!", "cutie!", "superb!" and "funny!" are the most frequently featured words in Zhao's Xiaohongshu comment section. "I guess there is a child inside everyone, whatever the age," Zhao explained. The human eye is drawn to beautiful and interesting-looking things, which is one of the key reasons she chose this particular style of painting, she said.

First putting her work on a social media platform in October 2020, Zhao now has over 2,500 fans on Xiaohongshu. She has also received plenty of requests to launch lines of creative cultural products such as laptop stickers and scrapbook adornments.

A cuddly company 

With its origins in Japan, "cute culture" has become a pop culture phenomenon that sees people, especially the younger generations, completely infatuated with cute characters, toys, foods, games, houseware and fashions. And the movement has been steadily gaining popularity in China in recent years as well.

On social media platforms like Xiaohongshu, China's Twitter-like Weibo and short video platform Douyin, countless pictures and videos of furry pets often receive thousands of "likes" within the first hour of posting.

"When I get home from work, I usually spend more than half an hour scrolling through such videos. It has the same effect on me as taking a refreshing shower, washing away the wear and tear of the day," Liu Tianbei, a 33-year-old saleswoman and dog lover, said.

Liu Yang, a professor at the Peking University HSBC Business School, said that China's modern-day urbanization often leads to a deeply ingrained sense of loneliness in many, increasing people's need for social company. Watching cutesy videos or buying cute products are a convenient way of creating "company." 

The rapid rise of "cute culture" and its affiliated commercial activities, arguably comes from the notion that it satisfies the psychological and emotional demands of people, especially younger people, according to Zhang Zengyi, a professor with the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. "The rapid development of the Internet, together with new media, promotes the swift and wide distribution of new marketing models," he said.

Although cute animal videos and photos, or even cartoon characters can help people temporarily forget their woes, they might lure them to waste too much time on them, rather than going about more important things in their lives, Hu Yiqing, a researcher with the Center for Studies of Media Development at Wuhan University and professor at the School of Journalism and Communication of Nanjing University, told Beijing Review. 

For some animal lovers, just watching these cute videos and photos does not cut the mustard. They keep pets. The number of pets in China is on steep rise. According to a white paper on China's pet industry in 2020, released by, a big data platform featuring China's pet business, the number of pet dogs and cats in Chinese cities surpassed 100 million for the first time in history, up by 1.7 percent from 2019 to 2020. Around 75 percent of pet owners were born in the 1980s and 1990s.

Booming business 

Thus far, Zhao has received invitations from companies selling food and children's clothes, as well as from painting studios, to design wrapping papers or posters for their products. She's also considering launching her own products, like her followers have suggested.

"This could become my part-time job as well as another source of income," Zhao added.

Cute virtual products like Zhao's illustrations, or meme packages for social messaging apps, are a way to attract fans and potential clients. These offerings cultivate customer loyalty so that they will buy various creative cultural products later developed by the creator, according to Hu.

Moreover, content creators can embed advertising into their works to earn revenue. "To some extent, the love for cute stuff is capitalized on by businesses to make a profit. This is an emotional type of economy that has grown swiftly since the spread of television and movies. A range of human emotions, from pain to affection, are included in this business spectrum," Hu said.

One typical example is that of Little Monk Yichan, a 3D character launched by Suzhou Dayu Network Technology in 2016. The 6-year-old round-faced boy lives with his master in a temple high up in the mountains. With huge eyes brimming with curiosity, further enhanced by long eyelashes, Yichan always asks his master various questions to get answers to life's questions. Short animation videos of their conversations, usually running under one minute, have gone viral. The related Douyin account has amassed over 45 million followers. One of its videos on how to maintain relationships received over 300 million hits.

With the Yichan sensation, the company started to offer peripheral products like canvas bags, ornaments and cellphone accessories. Last year, it teamed with a famous beverage brand and opened hundreds of Yichan-themed tea-based beverage stores nationwide. Yichan's image and his quotes are starred on the bottles, walls, and even the seat pillows. The color of several brews is designed to match the color of the star's clothing. And a large Yichan statue stands proudly, waiting for customers to have their pictures taken with it.

Zhang said both merchants and enterprises can combine selling cute products with on-the-spot experiential consumption that focuses on communication and interaction to engage clients.

When consumers forge an emotional bond with a product, not only will they not be repelled by marketing activities, but will share enthusiasm for participation and willingness to help promote the product. "They will become a part of the brand community and voluntarily participate in product communication and consumption," he said.

"This creates a business model combining online and offline interactions. This style of cute economy will continue to thrive within the cultural industry as well as the real-time economy in the future," Hu said.

Nevertheless, just "playing cute" is far from enough as product quality is, in fact, the foundation for any brand. "Only by doing a good job on the actual product can the popularity be sustained. If you don't pour all your efforts into the quality, you are putting the cart before the horse," Zhang concluded. 

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