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Japanese Ice Cream - Challengers’ Market


July is the ice cream season.  Everyone runs to the freezer to grab a favourite ice cream or ice lollies on a hot day.  Its ready availability is great, but in Japan it was limited only to the summer months. New entrants in the market successfully challenged the status quo in 1980, and ice cream became a winter fixture, through a new product, Yukimi Daifuku.

Wataboushi – Marshmallow Coated Ice Cream

Wataboushi is a headdress worn by a bride.  It is a white, silky veil, and it looks like a giant marshmallow.  Until 1980, 80% of the ice cream sales in Japan was in the summer, and three dairy companies dominated the market.

To break the deadlock and expand the market, the development of a product which appealed to a different market segment and season was essential.  Lotte was the newcomer, and they were looking for their breakthrough with new product development.

Based on a confectionary from Hakata, a marshmallow filled with an egg cream, the researchers at Lotte replaced the filling with ice cream. The new product, Wataboushi, was launched in September 1980, at the end of the ice cream season. The unexpected combination became a surprise hit, especially among teenagers.

The challenger broke the deadlock.

Yukimi Daifuku – Winter Ice Cream with Japanese Taste

The success of Wataboushi made researchers more ambitious, reassured that ice cream products could sell during the winter.

While Wataboshi was selling well, the marshmallow was a novelty food in Japan and considered appealing only to a very young generation. The CEO at the time stepped in with the idea of replacing the marshmallow with Mochi, rice cake.  It is the staple ingredient of traditional confectionery, Daifuku.

Mochi that Does not Harden in Freezer

Mochi, rice cake, is usually eaten in ambient temperature or heated.  It is often associated with New Years Day, comfort food for cold winter weather. To combine it with ice cream which needs to stay in the freezer was a significant technical challenge. The team developed a Mochi recipe which does not harden in low temperatures. The final combination ratio had to be fine-tuned throughout the manufacturing trial, as it needed to endure blast freezing at minus 32 degree Celsius. The completed recipe and process are their top secrets and tightly protected by patent.

The development was pushed through in one season.  “Winter Ice Cream” perfect for the Japanese market, Yukimi Daifuku, was launched in 1981, to challenge perceptions and change consumption habits.

“Yukimi Daifuku”, Snow Viewing Daifuku, directly targeted  low demand winter season, when the main players were not putting much effort into promoting frozen desserts. The concept of this new product was to eat ice cream in the indoor warmth, watching snowfall outside. Red – the warm tone – on the packaging was selected for the maximum impact against the industry’s standard practice of using  blue – a fresh and crisp colour.

Together with TV commercials, showing snowy scenes while young and old enjoyed ice cream together, it was an instant hit in the market.

The initial marketing impact was followed by the launch of seasonal varieties, targeting the broader market, and the addition of a family-size package. The maverick of ice cream quickly became the king of winter desserts. The critical decision to limit availability to winter (September to March) was made then, to be faithful to the product’s identity. After long successful years, Lotte is now the biggest ice cream manufacturer in Japan.

Winter Ice Cream and Seasonal Flavours

According to a research, the Ice cream market in Japan was nearly 4.5 billion dollars in 2016, up 6.3% from the previous year. Winter ice cream, many seasonal flavours and local varieties, are all driving growth.

Thanks to the enormous success of the original Winter Ice Cream, traditional Japanese flavours are favourites among the limited seasonal editions, such as Macha, sweet potatoes, brown tea, cherry blossom, and brown sugar syrups. There are also luxury chocolate flavours, collaboration with characters and other food brands, zero sugar or nutrition- supplemented ice creams on the market.  The unique and beautiful packaging, fit for Instagram, and the marketers’ original, quirky serving suggestions – some with soy sauce –  keep the attention of a young generation through Social Media.

New products inspire further interests, and the more innovative seasonal flavours keep on coming, and they are going strong.

The original Yukimi Daifuku did not have to do much so far for promotion, only minor changes in packaging, and some seasonal and local varieties.  2018 will be a significant turning point for Lotte.  After 35 years of limiting Yukimi Daifuku to winter market, it will now be available throughout the year.  The new challenge has begun, and it is one to watch in the developing market of Japanese ice cream.

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