* references in bold

Increasingly, ‘cute culture’ as a contemporary aesthetic, continues to increase its spread across the globe.   While its early emergence was country and life-stage related, increasingly new generations have been acculturated to the aesthetics, identity and values of ‘cuteness’.   Cute, today, is either embraced and celebrated or alternatively, feared as a signifier of where culture is going wrong.  So, what is happening?

Cuteness does appear to be culturally contagious; brands like Hello Kitty has continued to thrive since 1974, even with increased competition from new cute brands and imagery from around the globe.   For anyone involved in understanding culture, insights, branding, or design, it’s useful to review current thinking on why ‘cute’ has become culturally dominant today.

What is the definition of cute?

Cuteness has been defined as:

“a characteristic of a product, person, thing, or context that makes it appealing, charming, funny, desirable, often endearing, memorable, and/or (usually) non- threatening”

Examples of culture culture in social media

The cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, identifies the affects that cute stimulates:

“the formal properties associated with cuteness - smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy - call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.”

Things that are cute make us respond in very similar ways, regardless of what culture we are born into.

The evolution of cute

“Cuteness is an evolutionary adaptation, an aesthetic in the service of biology.”

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz first identified and defined the Baby Schema (‘‘Kindchenschema’’) as a set of infantile physical features, usually defined by having characteristics such as large, wide-set eyes; round cheeks; and a small chin.  Specific colours associated with infancy also prime our emotions.

A study using fMRI scans with women that haven’t had children, demonstrated that the baby-schema activates the part of the brain that mediates reward processing and appetitive motivation.   The baby schema promotes human caregiving regardless of kinship.   We are ‘hard wired’ from an evolutionary perspective to alloparent, to care for the young (at least the cute ones) even if we are not related.

cute culture and pets

Cuteness isn’t just a visual phenomenon, it can also be triggered by other senses through infantile sounds and smells.  Although, it has been suggested that the emotions evoked by cuteness have not been deeply studied.  While it is a commonly experienced emotion, there is no emotional word to describe the emotion experienced by something cute, outside of the consistent expression of ‘aww’.

In addition, cuteness has also been shown to have a social dimension in how humans may assess the value of sociability in children.  Cuteness evokes social engagement behaviours that are like caretaking.  Which might also explain why non-parents experience caretaking emotions and behaviour when viewing infants. 

On the other hand, experiencing something cute can also prompt a negative emotional response. Cute aggression is defined ‘as the urge some people get to squeeze, crush, or bite cute things, albeit without any desire to cause harm’.  These intense reactions to cute, create either positive caregiving emotions or emotions that are normally reserved for negative experiences.  These dimorphous reactions are believed to occur when we are overwhelmed with emotion.  This can happen in other cases such as crying at a happy ending of a film or screaming in terror when seeing the Beatles.   It is believed that these responses are a way of regulating extreme emotions for some people.

The Aesthetics of Cute culture

However, recognising the rise of cute within culture is not a new observation.  For example, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, brought attention to the ‘modern enchantment with small things’ in 1958, believing it was symptomatic of the decay of public culture.  Raymond Williams, identified that this feeling of contemporary popular culture was one of consumer capitalism’s dominant ideologies.

In an analysis of the ‘aesthetics of consumption’, Daniel Harris, has been critical of the rise of cuteness as being akin to empty-calories:

He suggests that cuteness evolved from our need to feel superior because of pity for ‘cute things’.  In that ’cute things are ‘exaggerating vast discrepancies of power’. Cute things are non-threatening and easy to embrace.  This urge for anything that resembles a baby originates in our evolution as a social species.

"If such soulless insentience is any indication, cuteness is the most scrutable and externalized of aesthetics in that it creates a world of stationary objects and tempting exteriors that deliver themselves up to us, putting themselves at our disposal and allowing themselves to be apprehended entirely through the senses"

He suggests that cuteness evolved from our need to feel superior because of pity for ‘cute things’.  In that ’cute things are ‘exaggerating vast discrepancies of power’. Cute things are non-threatening and easy to embrace.  This urge for anything that resembles a baby originates in our evolution as a social species.


More recently, the cultural theorist, Sianne Ngai in Our Aesthetic Categories named the “cute”, the “interesting” and the “zany” as dominant aesthetic categories of late capitalism.  These are also manifestations of what is also called postmodern culture, the hypercommodified, de-centred, paradoxical, mass-mediated world we live in.

A more expansive explanation of the two sides of cuteness is provided by Wan-Chuan Kao & Jen Boyl:

Cuteness is neither the sublime nor the well proportioned. It is a bastard child of the dainty and the dumpy; what’s beautiful may not be cute, but what’s ugly and monstrous may be. Cute cues and affects: softness, roundness, infancy, femininity, helplessness, vulnerability, harmlessness, play, enjoyment, awkwardness, neediness, intimacy, homeliness, and simplicity. At the same time, cuteness is cheapness, manipulation, delay, repetition, hierarchy, immaturity, frivolity, refusal, tantrum, and dependence'.

Japan as a net-exporter of cuteness

“Culturally, cuteness has a special place and origin from Japanese culture.  Historically, the Japanese have been fascinated by a size-related “cuteness” in things, and the Japanese word for beautiful, utsukushii, strongly suggests something is pretty because it is small. This “cuteness” syndrome in Japanese culture is still as strong as ever.”

Cute Culture in Japan

The cute aesthetic of Japan is also referred to as ‘Kawaii culture’. Kawaii, is an adjective that means ‘cute’, ‘adorable’ and ‘loveable’ and is perceived as an important part of Japanese material culture and a key affect word in describing things that are small, delicate, and immature.  The ‘Hello Kitty’ brand that was launched in 1974 by Sanrio is a lead driver of this cultural movement; it remains big business; worth more than $8 billion in 2013.   While there is more competition today, Hello Kitty remains a dominant brand in this market.  The longevity and success of the cute objects and art within Japan suggest that this ‘cuteness’ is an established cultural attribute and is not a passing trend.

In discussing why ‘Hello Kitty’ resonates so widely, Brian McVeigh believes that her undeveloped features (no mouth) allows for any individual to project their emotions on to the character.  Which means that to some extent, the success of Hello Kitty is that it reciprocates the emotions of the consumer.  It should be noted that some of McVeigh’s broader context behind the popularity on ‘cuteness’ in Japanese culture have been subsequently challenged.

Alternatively, Simon May, through a geopolitical lens in his book ‘The Power of Cute’, conjects cute was a Japanese anti-nuclear cultural adaptation.

‘It’s a big jump in self-conception from Samurai to Cute, but it perfectly suits Japan’s historical position after the disaster of militarism…Where today Germany does remorse, Japan does Cute, a spirit which can magically make vanish everything about Japan that is aggressive and threatening.’

It might be a bit simplistic to conflate, utsukushii as a cultural aesthetic as a unified cultural response to war.   The evolution of Kawaii is specific to Japan but cute aesthetics are found in many different cultures and before WW2.

Cute Culture in South Korea

One of the dominant cultural exporters today is South Korea’s cultural soft power that spans from Netflix series, movies, art and music.   A lot of this involves aspects of cute-culture.  In a pre-interview before doing the Late/Tonight show tours in America, Jennie Kim of Blackpink responded in an interview of what American’s can expect from their tour, she responded you can ‘enjoy our cuteness’.

Cute Consumer Culture

In an interesting consumer culture study, Granot, et al looked at the emergence of ‘cute’ culture in contrast to ‘cool’ culture.  Cool culture evolved in the early 20th Century and is mostly a male phenomenon.  These narratives and values focused on a worldview where ‘escapism rather than aspiration was celebrated’.   Granot et al, ask in a world where masculine and feminine are defined in opposition, is ‘cute’ the female counterpoint to the masculine ‘cool’?  They go on to make a convincing case for the wide-reaching impact of ‘cute’ on modern consumption, especially focused on female consumers.  This is what Annallee Newitz coined the ‘cuteocracy’ where consumers are trying to out ‘cute’ each other through what they buy.

There are numerous studies of cute being used in fashion, tourism, design, gaming, gambling, films, and food. 

For example, we can also see associations between cute animal characters and how some foods are marketed. The usage of cartoon animal mascots on foods may increase a child’s appetite and preference for food. The same appears to be true for adult tastes, with many wine brands using animals, which are collectively called critter brands.

Cute Aesthetics in Popular Culture

Perhaps the most famous historical example of a corporate mascot is Mickey Mouse, which the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould observed underwent an evolution from the ratty character of Steamboat Willie, to a ‘blander and inoffensive’ Mickey Mouse.  He describes this as a design progression of juvenilsation which reflects biological neoteny. Neoteny are the juvenile features of an adult animal, which trigger ‘affection and nurturing’ in adult humans.  Which is another way of saying they look cute.

Mickey Mouse as cute design

Cute Design and Branding

Cute inspired design and brands are everywhere and in every categories from food aisles, homeware to financial organisations.  There are many ways to evoke cuteness from brand identity, positioning, design, sensory experiences, and cultural associations.   We explored the use of face pareidolia in car design and advertising in an earlier blog post.


Lorenz extended the cuteness response beyond human infants and young animals to inanimate objects such as dolls, toys, and stuffed animals by means of an anthropomorphic analogy, thus widening the scope of attributing human characteristics from living animals to non-living objects.

Cute aesthetics in brand and product design

One such category is that of whimsical cuteness which describes a form of cuteness associated with a sense of whimsy or fun.  Where everyday items are designed to prime mental representations of fun, increasing consumers focus on approaching self-rewards and motivation to choose something indulgent or enjoyable. 


In homeware design, the neotenic design trend (un)consciously uses anatomical associations and soft exaggerated proportions.  These designs are claimed to elicit a positive emotional response when experienced.

Neotenic Design and cute culture

Concluding thoughts

Cute culture appears to be contagious and has infected most cultures However, through evolution, we’ve always been wired to be predisposed to cute things.  Cute features create either feelings of wanting to care for something or alternatively throttle the thing in a fit of ‘cute aggression’. 

While all cultures have a local version of cute, Japanese Kawaii culture has been a leading global driver over the last fifty years.   A role that is now being shared by other cultures, as the marketplace has been acculturated to this type of aesthetic.   While this appears to be skewed to females, there are plenty of cultural and brand touch-points that males are engaging with as well.

From a marketing perspective, there appears to be an upside to using cute aesthetics.  Often wrapped in nostalgia, escapism or just hedonism, there are a lot of brands across many categories, that are engaging the mainstream market of cute aesthetics.   An aesthetic that is driving innovation in everything from fashion to breeding designer dogs.  In conclusion, it might be easier to say that cuteness has been contagious and has now become globally endemic.


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