Anime Vice News

Manga Sales in the Gutter? It's the Branding, Dummy!

Should Japanese publishers engage fans more instead of keeping them at arms-length?

 First rule of branding: find a lovable mascot.
 First rule of branding: find a lovable mascot.
There's no doubt about it, the evidence isn't so much buried in the numbers as it's jumping out like fish in a dynamite pond: the anime and manga market is in decline here and abroad. Enough to necessitate massive layoffs in the past couple of years at VIZ and Tokyopop, not to mention the companies that have just plain evaporated or been bought up at fire sale prices. Much of the blame goes to the bad economy, sure, but in a recent essay for The Comics Journal professional Japanologist, lecturer and author Roland Kelts proposes that perhaps the industry itself is at least partially to blame by not engaging fans enough. 
The essay came to my attention thanks to coverage on sci-fi blog io9, which distilled the problem as one of a lack of ability by Japanese publishers to properly brand themselves to international audiences. Branding is an unbelievably important part of selling one's product to a mass audience. You and I may read manga and watch anime for reasons relating to quality or uniqueness, and we may proudly display our fandom with a t-shirt, but we almost certainly don't do so because we think it's fashionable or necessarily cool. Proper branding could turn this hobby from fringe to front-and-center plus put fans more in touch with the studios, possibly putting a bit of creative control into our hands. 
Here's a key passage from Kelts' essay:

While cool Japan has amassed a vast audience overseas in the past decade, very few of its fans know anything about the brands behind it. Industry stalwarts such as Studio Pierrot, Madhouse, Production IG, Shogakukan and Shueisha barely register at U.S. anime conventions, where fans passionately recite and reenact their creations. You might hear the words Ghibli (usually mispronounced), Toei and Bandai batted about in conversation among older generations of American fans, but with scant enthusiasm.

So, I'm tossing around this word "branding" a bunch and you may be wondering what it means. Briefly, it's the practice of building a product or business identity for presentation to the public. Branding is the reason you drink Coca-Cola instead of generic cola, wear Nike shoes instead of Champion, lust after a BMW rather than settle for a domestic econo-box. But building a brand anymore isn't just a one-way street of companies manipulating people into buying stuff, savvy businesses are looking for fan interaction. Think of the recent Ford Fiesta promotions where that company doled out cars to fans with good ideas on how to utilize the car in a video. Marketing strategies like this bring company and consumer closer together, letting us see a bit behind the mask of the former to the face that's not so unlike yours and mine. 
Now comes my own editorial rant: the concept of branding is not one Japan seems to easily wrap their heads around, particularly when it comes to the international market. When I worked at VIZ I saw firsthand how the parent companies, Shogakukan and Shueisha, dictated from across the Pacific to their American subordinates and expected them to handle the situation in full, never letting it trace back to their offices in Tokyo. 

For their part, VIZ and Tokyopop have tried their best to create brands with their various title lines (VIZ, for example, has Shojo Beat, Editor's Choice, VIZ Kids, etc.) and the former has opened a theater in San Francisco to promote Japanese pop culture. But, like Kelts says, the parent companies have no appreciable presence here and I for one would really like to see them stop reaching out to us with a ten-foot pole and just outright offer up a hand of partnership. We (as a fan base) can't exist without them and they sure as hell can't exist without our dollars. 
What do you think: are you happy with the scant levels of interaction between international manga and anime consumers (that's us) and the Japanese parent companies, or do you think they're not doing enough to reach out?
Brenderouson July 7, 2010 at 3:13 p.m.
Is this article title a steve brule reference?
Boddingtonon July 7, 2010 at 3:26 p.m.
@Brenderous: No, it's a reference to the phrase "It's the economy, stupid!" that was a phrase commonly used by Bill Clinton in his '92 campaign against Bush. And that's me showing my age...
JDon July 7, 2010 at 3:32 p.m.
I'm skeptical that this can be done, even that it would work if they tried.  How those high profile brands get there is a lot of advertising, I don't know if they can get a return on that investment.  There have been a small number of trials by Disney to really promote Studio Ghibli, and the test markets just didn't respond.  If they were to try something, I'd suggest someone that knows the US culture and market well, because most attempts to break into the US market the way they wanted to do it were dismal failures and either they did a very bad job with the product itself (Toei), were good but badly priced (Honneamise / Bandai Visual) or were very badly managed, Broccoli kept taking their only anime division staffer away from their anime division.  STA was another botch job too.
FoxxFireArt moderator on July 7, 2010 at 3:46 p.m.
Until VIZ Media stop altering content or offering an alternative to their edits. They will still be on my boycott list and I'll just go to scanlations for their products. What they produce is as far as authentic as possible.
VIZ makes some of the most idiotic alterations that are ever made. I will never forgive VIZ for butchering my favorite manga Detective Conan by altering every character's name. They are a half ass company. They don't strive for excellence.
In One Piece, they removed any use of the word "God" from the entire Skypiea arc and replaced it with "Kami". In Detective Conan they renamed "Gin" and "Vodka" to "Melkior" and "Kaspar".

I buy from good publishers like Del Rey and Yen Press. Companies that are dedicated to making authentic translations.VIZ is not a publisher worth supporting. People should support publishers that provide authentic products.
I would really like to see VIZ losing licenses of certain series and letting other publishers do them right. The way 4Kids lost the license to One Piece so FUNimation could pick up the anime and start doing it right. Though, I know that seems highly unlikely. 
It funny, but every time I start to feel like lightening up on VIZ with some titles. Someone writes an article on Anime Vice that reminds me why I'm so utterly pissed at them.
Toei is currently providing anime series such as One Piece to FUNimation for airing the latest episodes right out of Japan with subtitles about an hour after the episode airs in Japan.
Gozertcon July 7, 2010 at 6:39 p.m.
@Boddington said:
" @Brenderous: No, it's a reference to the phrase "It's the economy, stupid!" that was a phrase commonly used by Bill Clinton in his '92 campaign against Bush. And that's me showing my age... "

*Chuckles*  Well that line is coming back for the 2010 and 2012 elections so what is old is new again. :)  
But I'm with ya on the age thing and remembering that line.  
I point to Apple as another great branding sucess story.  How many of you remember the old Apple COMPUTERS logos?  With the Rainbow Apple Logo?  Apple isn't Apple Computers anymore and with that simple change in name and logo they launched a whole new wave of products and marketing that I would be surprised isn't used as examples of good marketing in business schools nationwide.   
Could this work for Anime studios?  Maybe.  Do they want to?  Not sure.   
To me I don't think it's so much a branding problem as a product and saturation problem.  I'm probably not the only one who remembers the "Lean" times when it was all fringe stuff to get Anime and Manga.  Now so many people have been putting things out for so long here Stateside that we're getting a bit saturated.  This reduction in sales is probably as much the economy as it is a natural pullback of the market for the products.  For a while there every piece of junk from Japan was selling here simply because it was from Japan.  Now that the market has started seeing the differences we're seeing a refinement in demand.   
That's what I think anyway. :)  
Dream moderator on July 7, 2010 at 6:46 p.m.
@FoxxFireArt:  Not to mention Viz has been a bit notorious for either taking their sweet time releasing anime titles or they don't re-release any of their older titles allowing them to run out of print. It's been nearly a year since Monster's first box set was released yet there are no new announcements on whether or not there will be future video releases. And while Viz still owns the rights to older titles and are in business, stuff like Maison Ikkoku, Video Girl Ai and Key the Metal Idol have been long out-of-print and those who would be interested in wanting to legally purchase the series on video would have to often spend an arm and a leg just to buy them.
Boddingtonon July 8, 2010 at 1:24 p.m.
@Dream: As a former employee of theirs, I assure you that all decisions on whether or not to reprint older material, release new videos or, well, just all decisions on anything must be approved by the Japanese parent companies. As I've said in the past, they own the licenses, they are the gatekeepers.
Dream moderator on July 8, 2010 at 2:24 p.m.
@Boddington: Here's the thing though: Bandai and Funimation (the two other major American anime distributors) either have re-released (Viridian Collection for Funi, Anime Legends for Bandai) or have made cheaper alternatives (Funi's SAVE chain) for fans to get older titles they weren't able to get their hands on during the title's original release. Fans buy said older title, distributor profits. Both ends are happy. If Viz isn't following suit with this and keeping up a consistent release schedule with some of their titles, then one has to wonder what they and/or the Japanese parent companies are thinking, especially in Monster's case as nearly all the episodes to the series have been dubbed and televised.
reinon July 8, 2010 at 2:26 p.m.
@FoxxFireArt: I thought they replaced the word God With King During the Skypiea arc.
FoxxFireArt moderator on July 8, 2010 at 2:31 p.m.
That was in the FUNimation dubs that aired on Cartoon Network. It's not known yet if that change remains on the FUNimation dubs that they will be showing on their website. It seems unlikely that they will make that change in the subtitles. The subtitled versions hardly have any edits whatsoever. They even keep Zoro's name to the proper spelling.
Which is why I cut FUNimation a break. They offer alternatives to their alterations.

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