David Blecken
Dec 18, 2015

Appeal beyond mascots: A Tokyo creative’s perspective on marketing Japan's rural destinations

One of the most original campaigns of the year, as far as we were concerned, was not for a product, but for a place: Saga City in Japan. Featuring an ‘alien fish’ as its star, it was far from your typical tourist promotion. We asked the man behind this and other destination branding initiatives, Masato Mitsudera, for his views on how to re-energise a sector that often fails to fulfill its creative potential.

Masato Mitsudera: Destination campaigns should encourage relocation, not just visits
Masato Mitsudera: Destination campaigns should encourage relocation, not just visits

Now head of creative for Geometry Global in Japan, Mitsudera was responsible for a celebrated campaign in 2009 designed to breathe new life into the town of Yubari while at Beacon Communications. ‘No money but love’ repositioned the city in Hokkaido, which had a debt of more than $350 million and was falling into economic ruin, as a destination for happy couples. This was based on the insight that Yubari had the lowest divorce rate in the country.

The initiative reportedly raised the annual number of visitors by 10 per cent, and while only a small step to tackling a sizeable problem, the project sparked in Mitsudera an ongoing interest in helping revitalise Japan’s forgotten places.

The desire to do good has not always been appreciated. Mitsudera recalled a time when, working on the Yubari project, the owner of a local sushi restaurant became angry. “It’s pointless just to get people to visit,” the man had said, explaining that far from benefiting from tourist dollars, all they were left with after a celebrity tour was a pile of litter.

“Since then, I’ve always kept in mind that I have to think about getting people to visit and also want to live in these places,” Mitsudera said.

The motivation therefore runs deeper than for the average tourist campaign. That does not mean Mitsudera is a bleeding heart, nor of course that his work is entirely altruistic: the budgets from local authorities may be low, but destination branding is a prime opportunity for someone with original ideas to stand out and build their own name as well as that of the place they are working to promote.

Despite some initial misgivings, the Saga City authorities bought into the idea of creating a semi sci-fi horror around the place. An online video told the story of the warasubo, a bizarre-looking sea creature native to the area, which is cast as an alien life form.

“The fact was that Saga hadn’t been able to create any news for the past 10 years,” Mitsudera said. “So I did my best to convince them to believe in me and the campaign.” The bravery of the authorities was justified in as much as the work did raise Saga’s profile, even inspiring Sega, the game developer, to initiate a spin-off game in collaboration with the city under the banner ‘Sega x Saga’.

The work led to a follow-up later in the year: a film focusing on different creatures native to Saga, the gobi and fiddler crab. The two were turned into combatants based on ‘likes’ (‘yokane’ in the local dialect), with people encouraged to predict which would win. Mitsudera said this bit of apparent silliness led people to take an interest in something they would usually overlook entirely.


“Creating a story around battles may be the trigger to get people to want to go to these places,” he said.

His most recent piece of work for Saga moves away from the theme of strange aquatic creatures to put the location in a historical context. Work launched in September celebrated its registration as a UNESCO World Heritage site for having housed Japan’s oldest dry dock for shipbuilding. The dock itself is no longer standing, but Mitsudera sought to generate interest and feeling around it with a film series, ‘Invisible World Heritage: Mietsu’.

Presenting rural areas in a new light for young people is highly important as the exodus to the countries major cities continues. “Rather than just getting older people to visit, we need to get younger people to actually go and live there, otherwise nothing gets solved. I want these places to be considered as second home towns and for people to think, ‘I would like to make this my home town’”.

Geometry was not able to provide figures showing any increase in visitor numbers or decisions to relocate. “It’s very difficult for us creative people to be responsible for the results of a campaign,” Mitsudera admitted. But he said it’s important for any creative working on such projects to remain committed to the place they are trying to promote, and not just see their campaigns as one-off endeavours.

Securing buy-in

Executing a promotion in a radically different way remains challenging, especially because the various bodies involved in approving marketing initiatives are often disjointed.

“All regions have municipal offices with lots of divisions—different people doing their own thing with no birds-eye view looking at all activities,” he said. An easy, persistent route is to create a mascot, usually with very little in terms of story around it. The town of Narita, for example, is represented by ‘Unari-kun’—a cross between a plane and an eel.

“There are so many mascots out there that it’s hard to say which belongs to which place,” Mitsudera said, noting the market is getting “very saturated”.

As an outsider, someone like Mitsudera is able to find interest in areas local people are unlikely to, which is after all the perspective a place needs if it is to become a destination.

“What’s most important is all the facts these local areas have about them. I would recommend that these local areas look at themselves from a third-party viewpoint. Municipal offices, when planning an activity, think about it themselves and when unsure they might ask local people; but I think they require a viewpoint from the rest of Japan, or even the world.” 

Mitsudera is optimistic that the approach will improve. “Creative people in advertising are starting to become interested in regional activation,” he said. “I think Japan is moving up in terms of the quality of work coming from these people. I think city promotions will continue to evolve and going towards the Olympics Japan should pay attention as to how to be unique in these promotions.”

The important thing is that an imaginative video is not the end of it. Rather, it should be the beginning, a spark to do something more worthwhile and sustainable, even if on a small scale. “It’s not just about showing a video but getting people in local areas to utilise it,” he said. “[In Saga], they’re thinking of creating a café near the mudflats where the gobi and crab appear…I think sustaining these things is very important because we need to create the infrastructure to do all sorts of new activities.”

A new phase of the campaign for Saga is set to launch in early 2016.

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