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The Kakao Friends are a wildly popular group of cartoon creatures from Korea, each with their own name and unique personality. In Korea, you can see their faces on everything from yoghurt drinks to credit cards. There are even Kakao Friend-branded stores and theme cafés. But who are they and why are they so popular?
The Kakao Friends were originally created as emoticons for KakaoTalk, the most popular messaging app in Korea. The quirky characters were designed to make it easier for people to communicate. In a 2016 interview, creator Kwon Soon-ho shared his personal motivation for emoticon design. “My girlfriend used to get upset by short answers I sent her on a mobile messenger”, he said. “There was so much unnecessary tension and stress building between us just because we couldn’t hear voices and see each other’s face”.
As well as giving people an easy way to instantly express emotions, the Friends all have their own unique characteristics and backstory. The Kakao Friends’ stories are deliberately kept sparse so that the characters are more universally relatable, but a common theme is that they’re all insecure about some aspect of their looks or their background. Their relatability is one of the reasons that they’ve resonated so strongly with users and been adopted by so many products and marketing campaigns. Here’s your cheat sheet to each character’s surprising backstory.
Ryan might look like a teddy bear, but he’s actually a lion without a mane or even a tail; both are sources of great insecurity. He was born to be king of a faraway island but ran away in search of more freedom. While he was running, his tail got shorter so he would be harder to catch. He was created to lead the other characters in 2016 and he’s now the most popular Kakao Friend by a wide margin. When Kakao Bank launched character debit cards in 2017, 53.4% of users chose Ryan’s card. Because he’s so popular, he’s nicknamed Ryan Jeon-mu (or managing director).
Muzi was created to be Kakao’s mascot, so his design is based on the company colours of yellow and brown. Muzi looks like a rabbit, as he’s never seen without his bunny suit – however, he’s actually a pickled radish, brought to life by the mysterious Con. Muzi and Con are inseparable and have many adventures together.
Con is a tiny crocodile with a lot of secrets. He brought Muzi to life from a radish he grew himself and now has his eye on Apeach, the peach emoticon – he wants to plant her and grow a tree full of giant peaches.
Apeach is the most risqué of the Kakao Friends characters. She is a pink peach with a playful, rather flirty personality. Apeach achieved sentience through a genetic mutation; after discovering this, she escaped from her peach tree to seek her fortune elsewhere. There’s an Apeach-themed café in Busan where you can try a range of peachy goodies.
Frodo is a big-city dog with a mixed-breed heritage, which he tries to hide. He likes living the high life and can be a little bossy, but his less-than-glitzy roots keep him from being too spoiled. He’s in a relationship with fashionista cat Neo.
Neo is all about looks and style, as her perfectly-coiffured hair demonstrates. While she can be a little snooty around other people, she’s fiercely loyal to her boyfriend Frodo.
Jay-G is self-named; he’s a big fan of rap artist Jay-Z. A mole in disguise, he’s a secret agent from an unnamed foreign country tasked with bringing a rabbit’s liver back with him. To this end, he chases after Muzi, unaware that Muzi isn’t actually a rabbit.
Tube is the most straightforward character of the Kakao Friends; he’s a duck who transforms into a sharp-toothed, green monster when he’s angry. Tube is rather cowardly and wears flippers to hide his small feet.