Bandai and the Marketing Blitz of Kannagi

When the Japanese company Aniplex held an industry panel at Anime Boston last May, their emphasis on the unlicensed series Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens baffled the audience and bloggers.

“Why are they spending so much time talking about Kannagi?”

“The show’s still unlicensed, right? What’s the point?”

“Do they want the fans to pressure American distributors to license it?”

“Do they really expect us to get hyped over this series at this point?”

I was reminded of another industry panel last year held by the Japanese company Kadokawa. That representative was there to introduce the American fans to new Japanese series and get them to demand it to be licensed in America. The problem with this plan is that since broadband internet had become so widely available in recent years, the fans were already well aware of these new titles and had probably already watched them.

So was Aniplex being just as ignorant as Kadokawa was with this Kannagi business?

“Well, we already had the Kannagi license back at Anime Boston,” says Bandai’s Marketing Director Robert Napton in an interview with me two weeks ago at Otakon. “That was the first time we were coordinating with Aniplex in what to say and what not to say. This has been in the planning stages for a few months.”

It wasn’t an act of ignorance on behalf of the Japanese company this time. It was the initial step in one the largest marketing ploys that the US anime industry has seen in years. And from the point of view of this blogger, I thought it was a tremendous success.

Setup and Execution

Looking back, it would seem like the writing was on the wall the whole time. In the weeks that followed Anime Boston, an English language website sprung up that paid tribute to Nagi, the lead female protagonist in Kannagi. When Otakon announced that anime director Yutaka Yamamoto would be a guest at the convention this year, they put a huge emphasis on his work on Kannagi and encouraged the press to post up a picture of this anime series in particular. This seemed very odd considering that Yamamoto’s other credits, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Lucky Star, were far more popular among American otaku than the unlicensed Kannagi was.

OMG It’s Coming!

Then a mysterious ad appeared on the Anime News Network linking to a countdown under the title “OMG, It’s Coming!” The countdown was set to go off the day before Otakon, so we figured it was related to that event. The connection became apparent when the English Kannagi website announced a major announcement to come at the same time the OMG countdown was set to go down. The ASOS Brigade website, a marketing campaign that Bandai had executed years ago with the license announcement of Haruhi, updated with messages mocking the OMG countdown for being an unoriginal idea.

So we could put the pieces together to figure out that Bandai would be announcing the Kannagi license the day before Otakon, but no one ever saw the massive scope of this announcement coming. When the countdown reached zero, the Anime News Network began streaming the first two episodes of the series for free on their website. And on top of that, Bandai had an exclusive partnership with online retailer Right Stuf International to take orders for the Kannagi DVD and have it shipped out the next day.

Although online streaming has become normal thanks to Crunchyroll and FUNimation, this next day DVD release was completely unprecedented in the American anime industry. As a result, it created quite a stir among anime fans and anime shop owners. With in just one day, Bandai had successfully brought the months-old series back into the fandom’s consciousness and it became the talk of the internet community.

But Bandai continued with this marketing blitz through out the Otakon weekend with special Kannagi panels involving the series’ director Yamamoto. In the dealers room, they shared a booth with Aniplex and invited fans to “share their confessions” online with a team of Kannagi cosplayers. And they even had that same team of cosplayers perform a Kannagi meets Haruhi skit at the convention’s masquerade:

It was an amazing display of brand marketing that weekend, so why did Bandai choose to do it with Kannagi of all series?

“Yamamoto-san has an amazing track record with Haruhi and Lucky Star,” Napton explains. “So we wanted to license Kannagi because we love his work. And at the same time, we’ve been contemplating doing this strategy for a while, so we just felt that it was the right time to do it.”

The Change in Retail

The most striking component to this Kannagi release is the fact that the DVD was released so quickly, and it was only available through one online retailer. Napton explains the reasoning for not going through a more traditional retail channel:

“Obviously the retail market in the US has been struggling. Anime does well, but it’s still a niche market compared to the mass retail situation. So we felt that based on what was going on in the market, it was time to do something a little more focused towards the core anime consumer. Rather then sending it out en-mass to retailers and getting the product returned a few months later, we’d sell a more modest amount to that core consumer.”

The plan is to strike now while the buzz and hype is big for the anime series and fans are more inclined to buy on impulse. Bandai is even sweetening the deal by offering a free t-shirt to fans who buy the first DVD and pre-order the second DVD at the same time. Once the hype is gone and Bandai has squeezed all they can from that core audience, then they’ll start reaching out to a more mainstream market.

“There’s going to be a more mainstream release sometime in 2010, but people should be aware that it’s going to be the exact same DVD we’re selling now at Right Stuf. It still will not include a dub track and will actually have a more expensive retail price. So if you want Kannagi, you should get it now while the price is still low.”

The sub-only release has been a point of confusion from the fans because of how Bandai released Gurren Lagann last year. They had initially release a sub-only version of the show and then later re-released it in a package that included an English dub. Many fans, including myself, were expecting this to be a new marketing strategy that we’d see again with the release of Kannagi.

“That was a very unique case. Initially, we were not planning to dub Gurren Lagann. We acquired the title late from ADV and the fans were already becoming impatient with waiting for the release, so we just got it out there as quickly as possible. The dub only came about later because the Sci-Fi network wanted to broadcast the show on US television, and they require a dub for broadcast. So that was just a unique situation that we really were not planning to do. That wasn’t our strategy.”

The Speed of the Internet

Without the pressure of a traditional TV broadcast, Bandai is completely free to handle the release of Kannagi using nontraditional methods. But this comes as quite of a shock as the company has long since shared the Japanese belief in being very conservative and weary about breaking from tradition and embracing technology. In fact, less then two years ago I was harshly criticizing Bandai’s CEO Ken Iyadomi for his comments denouncing the internet and global distribution.

But this year, Bandai and their Japanese partners have been singing a different tune. “Aniplex was fully supportive of this. We’re all ready to answer the change to the retail market and try out something different with digital distribution.”

ANN Featuring Kannagi Stream

Streaming the series on the Anime News Network “satisfies the other end on our plan. The modern anime fan wants their product quickly because of the internet. So to answer that challenge, not only do we provide a legal video stream of the series the day we announce it, but we make the DVD available the same day as well. We love working with ANN and we believe that they have a great reach towards that audience. So it just made sense to put Kannagi on that site over YouTube or Crunchyrolll.”

This is the second unique license and release from Bandai this year as they started off 2009 with a simulcast of the anime series Kurokami. In another unprecedented move, that series was dubbed into English during the show’s development, and each episode debuted the same day in Japan, Korea, and America in those country’s native language. The problem, however, was that the series was only broadcast on a small cable network in America that was not widely available. Therefore, despite the rush Bandai made to dub the series in sync with Japan, most of the English speaking audience still couldn’t see it.

“There was always going to be a digital component to the Kurokami simulcast, we just couldn’t get the online deal in time for the show’s premier. They were really set for a simultaneous release in Japan, Korea, and the US all at the same time, so we had to settle with a TV-only broadcast when we first launched the show.” About 20 weeks into the series, Bandai finalized the online deal and began streaming the simulcast on YouTube and Crunchyroll alongside the TV broadcast.

Simulcasting has been the buzzword in the industry with in the past few months as FUNimation and many Japanese companies have seriously started to embrace it. But when I asked Napton if they’d pursue another simulcast following Kurokami, I got the impression that this was not the direction Bandai would be going for. “We understand that anime fans demand quickness and immediacy, but we would like to pursue other ways to satisfy this demand. And sure, Kannagi came out in Japan a while ago, but we believe that this new release model will tackle that exact issue.”

The Results?

Napton Filming a Fan for an Online Video

So while the rest of the industry turns towards simulcasts to fix the current changes in the anime market, Bandai is now focusing on this new hype-then-blitz strategy for new releases. Did it work out for them?

Well, I don’t have any figures or statistics to go by, but the response I witnessed with in the internet community was absolutely phenomenal. I saw dozens of the people I follow on Twitter order their copy of Kannagi from Right Stuf with in days of the announcement. I witnessed many fans with me at Otakon buy a copy of the DVD that weekend and get it autographed by Yamamoto himself. And the amazing thing is that many of the fans who were buying this DVD were the fans I rarely see buy DVDs.

In my years of fandom, I have never seen so many people buy the same DVD at the same time like this. And sure enough, Kannagi reached the top of the Right Stuf’s sales chart during the week of this marketing blitz and the pre-sales for the second DVD are still going strong.  And sure, these people are with in just a tiny niche of anime fans, but this is exactly the niche that Bandai was aiming for with this marketing strategy. Whatever Bandai did, it worked, and I believe they successfully reached out to the core audience using as little overhead as possible.

Can Bandai do this again with another series? Well, we’ll just have to wait to find out. But either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for Bandai and their crazy marketing schemes.

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