Nikita Mishra
Nov 23, 2022

Why marketers should care about anime

The soaring popularity of the multi-billion-dollar Japanese anime industry has not gone unnoticed by Netflix, Prime, Disney, or Sony Pictures—and it's about time that brands take similar notice.

Why marketers should care about anime

The popular anime TV series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba opens with the shot of the child hero slogging home from a day selling charcoal only to find his family slaughtered by an oni, or demon, in the ghastliest way imaginable. Minutes later, he is attacked by his family's sole survivor—his sister—who transformed into a homicidal demon and eventually becomes protective of her brother.

Business has never been better for Japan’s brightly coloured demon slayers, bewildering monsters and outrageous robots that are leaping into the global market. When Demon Slayer jumped from TV to the big screen in 2020, it quickly became the highest-grossing anime and eventually the highest-grossing film in Japanese box office history with sales grossing over US$365 million in the home market and US$504 million worldwide.

A scene from ‘Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba’

To provide a comparison of the success and scale of anime: in 2020, the US box office sales dipped 80% due to Covid lockdowns and shutdowns; the same year saw Japan’s entire theatrical market suffer a decline by 45%, but the country’s anime industry shrank only 3.5%, standing at a market value of about US$21.3 billion.

Safe to say, the pandemic stoked a new appetite for escapist video content and fans of Demon Slayer not only single-handedly saved the Japanese box office in the thick of the pandemic but also helped a 100-year-old domestic industry transcend from niche to normal.

Anime exports: Harnessing the power of anime

Yusuke Nii, head of anime operations, Content Business Design Center, Dentsu, said: “Not only has [anime] become a staple of advertising but has also seen accelerated demand, an an increasing number of brands are showing interest in working with popular anime titles. Anime characters become just as popular, if not more, than influencers, celebrities and athletes." 

From Pokémon to Power Rangers, the widening demographic embrace of the multibillion-dollar pop-culture frenzy, both within Japan and among global consumers, is a force that brands want to reckon with. Nii says that for younger audiences, anime has already made a transition from subculture to mainstream, and the stage is now set for Japanese animation to truly go global.

In a crowded, competitive digital market, anime offers limitless possibilities in ways live-action cannot. The newest brand to dip into the US$24-billion-a-year anime goldmine is Coca-Cola. Blending a visually engaging collaboration with 2022’s most-awaited finale of the manga franchise Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War arc, the brand launched the limited-edition Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Soul Blast.  

“The world is fast catching up what Japan has been mastering for a very long time,"  says Tokyo-based Chris Gurney, group creative director of Virtue APAC. "Anime and manga are beginning to break out of their subculture status; there’s so much more to Japanese anime than cultures outside realise."

Bleach follows Ichigo Kurosaki, a teen with the ability to see spirits who uses his powers as a Soul Reaper, to assist the flow of spirits from Earth to the afterlife. Fandom for this series has persisted for decades. And in order to honour that, Virtue went with a fan-first approach for this campaign. Loyal admirers of Tite Kubo’s shonen classic who waited more than a decade for the final arc of the Japanese franchise can draw inspiration from the cultural relevance of the self-actualisation journey of the characters which forms the foundation of the campaign.  

“The idea was to create the hype and desirability around Soul Blast to match the monumental launch of this mega anime franchise," says Huiwen Tow, head of strategy for Virtue APAC. "The campaign is multi-phased, it taps into the passion points of Gen Zs while borrowing from their fashion and street culture to leverage the energy blast symbolic of this series."

Because anime is almost entirely drawn by hand by very specifically skilled animators, the campaign took two to three months of labour. It also includes an AR experience that can be unlocked by scanning the Soul Blast can.

Charlotte Sng, Coca-Cola’s creative director for Greater China and Mongolia, tells Campaign that “the idea was to put the Real Magic into everyone’s hands, allowing them to show their truest, authentic, best self.”

Gurney insists the brand is not "jumping on the anime bandwagon", but this is instead an ode to the Japanese roots, the characters’ personalities, and backstories which were fleshed out over a series of videos across social media and manga-style OOH. “The idea is to amplify the product and the brand elements while weaving a compelling story and an experience,” he adds.

Anime vs. animation

In January this year, fashion house Loewe launched a collaboration with Studio Ghibli for its latest apparel and accessories collection inspired by Spirited Away. The collection turned out to be a runaway success with resale websites selling the items at outrageous prices. Such is the popularity of anime, it wasn’t just the clothes and bags making big bucks on sites such as Grailed; even special Spirited Away Loewe shopping bags appeared on eBay for hundreds of dollars.

Ghibli inspired piece from Loewe's 2022 capsule collection

Much like video games, anime is no longer a nerdy pursuit, and the industry consists of more than 430 production studios, according to data from Parrot Analytics. Over the past two years, demand for anime has increased by 118%.

“Millennials like myself in Asia grew up on a heavy dose of anime shows; Naruto and Bleach had a strong influence [one me] growing up. But bringing anime to the world is not easy. Compared to Western animation, anime has a lot more texture, complexities, and nuances to it. If done properly, every frame is visually enchanting and feels like a work of art,” says Virtue APAC’s Tow.

But the appeal is not the art alone. It’s equal parts the ability to create engaging characters and a compelling storyline from almost anything which has fuelled the rise of Hello Kitty, Mario, Pokémon and Dragonball.

Gurney also refers to shokunin, or artisan spirit, which inspires commitment to craft, arguably making Japanese creators more likely to bestow extra attention on the finer details that lift work from good to great.

Tow of Virtue APAC says the cultural phenomenon of anime spreads beyond the urge to indulge in a slice of escapism; having grown up on a healthy dose of Naruto, she finds the timelines and dimensions of anime almost therapeutic. "Not necessarily to escape from this world, but the exaggerated emotions in anime provide a release of repressed or accumulated emotions, and the hero's journey in the stories gives them hope and helps them cope with the real world," she quips.

Takashi Murakami

Artist Takashi Murakami tackles a different description of anime. He sees Japan as the world’s first post-apocalyptic society—one which suffered deeply after the twin atomic explosions that inflicted generational trauma in the national psyche. And creators, he believed, turned to manga, anime, and other forms of pop culture to lend their voice, expression and soothe their anxiety.


Why brands love anime

Gurney tells Campaign that the technical aspect of the craft—colouring, cleaning up the work, and production—is far more controlled because you can do more with less people, but it’s a myth that it cuts budget, time or complexity.

“If a brand is just going to slap anime characters and toy swords on their product, it’s of course simpler than the traditional ways of creating campaigns with talent. But executed wholly and with a passion for the content itself, anime involves months of collaboration with local artistry and sophisticated IP arms," he says.

“Observe an anime character and you can see the emotions, the movement, the joy, the anger, the tears… that’s the beauty and the charm of anime."

The hand-drawn artistry has found a winning business model for marketing success. Dentsu’s Nii has no doubt on the power and scale which Japanese anime is yet to receive.

“Gaining attention is always a big hurdle from a marketing perspective, but anime enables brands to easily bite into the share of the already-established community for each title. If deployed correctly and authentically, characters foster to deliver the brand message effectively to a wider audience,” he adds.

With merchandising, games and other revenue streams secure, the business ecosystem pioneered by titles like Demon Slayer are now influencing the way Disney, Netflix, Prime and other streaming giants view their own models.

Netflix revealed in 2021 that over half of all its subscribers worldwide watched at least some anime content on its platform. Stung by slowing subscriber growth and turning to Asia for growth, it has even hired a creative team dedicated to anime production in Tokyo and 40 new anime titles in the making including Godzilla and Transformers series’, a multi-film deal with Japan's Studio Colorido, and plans for global distribution. 

Proving to be a draw in both Japan and globally, anime titles have appeared in Netflix's top-ten lists in nearly 100 countries this year, says Kaata Sakamoto, vice president of content for Japan. “Almost 90% of Netflix users in Japan watch anime, and globally over half of all Netflix subscribers worldwide watched at least some anime content on the platform,” he adds.

Rival platforms such as Amazon and Disney also offer a wealth of anime titles and report similar findings.

In August 2021, Sony Pictures completed the US$1.18 billion purchase of anime streaming company Crunchyroll from AT&T. With every major studio scouring for an obscene amount of cultural content, is the industry heading toward a saturation?

The ground reality, according to Dentsu, is that consumers remain hungry for more and the expansion opportunities for brands is continual.

“Well, the popularity wave is unparalleled, the volume of supply in Japan is unwavering, not just in manga and games but also in anime title distribution across countries in songs, in cosplay fashion, in action figures. The best thing is that there is anime for everyone–for children, for teens, for adults," says Nii.

Perhaps, this unwavering supply of manga content will keep Japan’s supremacy in the check even as vendors from China, South Korea, and America are rising to meet consumer demand.

Data from the NPD Group reveals that within the US market, manga titles hold a bigger market share than superhero comics and graphic novels. Given the notable parallel between comics and anime both trading on ideas from the past, and the growing involvement of every major studio cranking out new hits, the big question then: can this be the beginning of a new era? 

Campaign Asia

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