TOKYO (AFP) - A clumsy bear mascot for a remote Japanese farming region has rocketed to superstar fame and notched up an unlikely marketing triumph in a nation obsessed with all things cute.
The life-sized Kumamon and his now nationally ubiquitous image - red cheeks and doughy physique - are found on everything from pastries and keychains to airplanes and purses.
Most local mascots linger in relative obscurity but Kumamon draws hundreds of camera-toting fans at public events. He makes national television appearances and his wobbly signature dance - once performed for the emperor and empress - has notched up more than two million views on YouTube.
Rivalling the success of Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse in Japan, the black bear has rung up a commercial fortune for his rural birthplace, and become a closely-watched marketing case study.
The phenomenon has tickled officials from his home in Kumamoto, a prefecture in the far south which barely registers with many Japanese, let alone outsiders.
"Definitely Kumamoto's prominence has increased in the eyes of the public," said Masataka Naruo, brand officer for the local government.
The rise of Kumamon - who has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter - is all the more striking given the ferocious competition among mascots, known in Japanese as "yuru-kyara" (laid back characters).
They are pressed into service to represent everything from cities to companies or even prisons, with the licensed character industry worth about US$30 billion (S$38 billion) a year, including copyright and merchandising. That is more than the Japanese, who love to read, spend on books.
In just two years, Kumamon has generated US$1.2 billion in economic benefits for his region, including tourism and product sales, as well as US$90 million worth of publicity, according to a recent Bank of Japan study.
The national craze marks an auspicious combination of charm, calculated planning and good fortune.
TV show writer Kundo Koyama, best known for his work on the Iron Chef cooking series, was charged with promoting the prefecture when a new bullet train service linking Kumamoto with the commercial hub of Osaka was being launched in recent years.
Mr Koyama then asked celebrated art director Manabu Mizuno to create a campaign logo, and threw in the cuddly Kumamon as a bonus.
But his folksy construction won over local officials who were advised to let businesses use his image free of charge as long as it promoted the region, directly or indirectly.
And instead of selling a little-known area of the country and local products such as plums or chestnuts, they marketed the bear.
"In big cities, all of Japan's prefectures are constantly engaged in this fierce competition for publicity to lure tourists, investment and to promote local products," said Naruo, the brand officer.
"But city people get their guard up when they see that kind of thing, so we needed to come up with a new and eye-catching way to promote Kumamoto."
That included a national tour with the once-publicity shy bear now seen bungee-jumping, holding witty press conferences, or taking a dip in Japan's famous hot springs.
The prefecture's governor lectured at his alma mater Harvard University last year with its sales titan by his side.
Free licensing and promoting the character rather than the region was a key reason for Kumamon's success as his image could be used in national campaigns, while the generic design appealed to a wide audience.
That meant Kumanon could appear on bread or T-shirts, as well as BMW's MINI or crystal figurines made by luxury name Baccarat.
But mascot challengers are everywhere, including Funasshii, the unofficial mascot of an area near Tokyo.
The cuddly yellow "pear fairy" rocks out with a vigorous dance that has struck a chord with a population who grew up on cartoons and "manga" comic strips.
And in a place where fame can disappear in a blink of an eye, Kumamon's future rests on staying relevant as a local spokesman, not national fame, said Shogo Toyota from Osaka's Research Institute for Culture, Energy and Life.
"Kumamon's true role is to be a medium for boosting Kumamoto's brand image," he said.
That point is not lost on regional officials who want to bring the bear back to his roots.
"What we're trying to sell is not Kumamon, but Kumamoto prefecture," Naruo said.