Korea is home to Pororo, an animated penguin whose only dream is to be able to fly. In 2004, when the cartoon "Pororo the Little Penguin" hit television screens in France through TF1, the country's most popular network, the aspiring penguin was welcomed with a record-high 47 percent viewing rate. The cartoon then successfully made its way to the U.K., Italy, South America, China and finally Japan last year. In that time the little penguin has pulled in some W80 billion (US$1=W942) in revenue. Now other companies have begun commercializing on the character, such as Club Med which has organized Pororo children's camps in holiday destinations like Bali, Phuket and Bintan.
Pucca, another Korean-born character, is loved by fans in 130 countries. She appears on around 2,500 different types of merchandise including the cell phone accessories that first made her famous in 2001. Total sales of Pucca products last year came to well over W300 billion, matching those of any mid-sized company. Pucca is now preparing to make her grand entrance in the U.S. and Japanese markets, the homes of the character industry.
As the success of Pororo and Pucca illustrates, Korea has become a rising star in the global character business, the very core of the cultural content industry. More and more Koreans are turning their eyes to this promising and growing business as it marches towards success not only in Asia but also in Europe, the U.S. and Japan.
◆ Success through global strategy and IT
The sales volume of the character industry in Korea totaled W4.288 trillion in 2005, with Korean characters claiming a 41 percent share of the market, up 6 percentage points from three years before. Korean characters have been faring much better overseas -- according to data on character-related products, the export volume of W163.6 billion surpassed the import volume of W123.4 billion in 2005, whereas in 2004 exports were W134.2 billion and imports W148 billion. That means Korea is now in the black in the industry.
Experts say the overseas success can be attributed to a combination of global strategy and Korean IT. Chicaloca, a fashion character created in 2005 by Project 109, a character-specialist firm, will meet Japanese consumers in the apparel market following her success in Greece, Russia, Australia and New Zealand through licensing deals for stationery and bags. The firm plans to take Chicaloca to the U.S. next year.
Chicaloca's success after less than three years is unprecedented, industry figures say. The key is Project 109's thorough global strategy. When Chicaloca wears her hair black and dons a blouse, she becomes an Asian character. When she pulls on a pair of jeans and flips back blonde locks, she looks Western. No one can tell she was born in Korea.
When Chicaloca first appeared in a European magazine, her creators were inundated with calls from people wanting to know where she was from. "We targeted the global market right from the planning stage", said Kim Do-hee, the director of Project 109. Conscious of the worldwide trend for things Latin, the firm named the character by combining the Spanish words "chica" for girl and "loca" for passion.
The successful overseas debut of Pucca was the fruit of a multinational collaboration. Korea's Vooz Character Systems developed and marketed Pucca, the U.K'.s Jetix put up the funds, Canada's Studio B produced the animation, and an American writer took care of the story.
Korea's advanced information technology did its part in the development of the character. Korean characters are mostly created with 3D computer software. Characters used to be created through a laborious system of drawing on paper, but IT advancements enable much easier creation of elaborate images.
Jung Mi-kyeong, executive director of Iconix Entertainment, the creator of Pororo said, "Right now 3D is 'it' in the business. 3D characters are much more versatile than the 2D characters popular in Japan".
◆ Little room for offshoot industries
Mashimaro, an unpredictable bunny, received much fanfare in Japan, Hong Kong, China, the U.S and Europe at the beginning of this century. However, some unscrupulous Chinese producers preyed on its popularity by rolling out counterfeit products. When the original producer applied for a trademark registration somewhat belatedly, it was rejected. Surprised by its early success, mashimaro's producers failed to properly manage their character from the beginning.
There are other pitfalls in the business, such as the limits for offshoot industries for already-established characters. The Korean character business still relies heavily on selling character-related products and cartoons.
Bae Young-chul, the animation character team manager from Korea Culture & Content Agency said, "Korean character firms are still not strong enough to make hefty investments such as building theme parks. We need to develop an industry structure where companies can earn more royalties through more diverse content including publishing, fashion and games".