In the coming years, brands that appeal to otaku will have a significant advantage over ones that don’t. This will not be limited to Japan. It will be worldwide, but especially in the United States.
We’ve already seen this happen.
Miku Hatsune is not Vocaloid. She is not the mascot character for Vocaloid, wasn’t part of the first version of the software, and technically isn’t even a Vocaloid anymore. Miku is part of a series of characters created by Crypton Future Media for Yamaha’s Vocaloid software. While the first version initially struggled in sales, Vocaloid 2, which introduced Miku, exploded in popularity.
It was a better product to be sure, but the introduction of a character that fans fell in love with created an explosion in amateur musicians buying, using, and promoting the software.
In turn, Yamaha, Crypton, and the Vocaloid brand supported the fanbase that had grown around their products. And as Crypton took their characters from the Vocaloid software into their own Piapro Studio software, Miku’s fanbase followed.
What brought Yamaha and Crypton success and catapulted Miku and other characters to stratospheric heights was otaku appeal. That is to say, they tailored their product and their marketing to appeal to superfans.
People became obsessed with Miku, to various levels. Miku sold software for Yamaha and Crypton, but Crypton also licensed her out for products like figures and other merchandise. Sega even purchased her videogame rights to produce a series of rhythm games using music made by fans and professionals using Vocaloid.
What happened was that Crypton created characters with otaku appeal. They supported the fans who supported their products and characters. Their fans, in turn, promoted their brand for them, raising its popularity. Eventually, Crypton could license their character designs out for other companies to pay for the privilege of selling merchandise of Miku and their other characters.
This is what otaku appeal is capable of: It takes branding and marketing to a level where the marketing itself becomes a product that can be sold.
This is exactly how anime works in Japan. Companies will make an anime based on a novel as marketing for the novel, but also as a product and a springboard for more merchandise. The novel’s publisher sells extra books as a result. In addition, however, they and the other companies invested in the anime make money from the anime as a product, the merchandise, the soundtrack, and whatever else they can come up with.
This isn’t without its difficulties, however. Otaku are not fair weather fans and they don’t like fair weather brands. They appreciate authenticity and loyalty. They’re abundantly willing to show love for the properties they latch onto, but only if those properties treat them with respect in turn.
It’s about understanding the culture and catering to it in a genuine way. Otaku appeal is not achieved without commitment. Nor can you just label something “anime” and hope to capture the same audience. Otaku appeal is something that’s felt by the audience. More than just creating a cute anime girl character for marketing, it has to have life, feeling, and purpose.
When done right, however, brands with otaku appeal enjoy two rare advantages.
First, their customers become devoted fans. When Crypton moved their characters to Piapro Studio, Miku’s fans followed. They weren’t attached to the Vocaloid software. They were attached to Miku and would go wherever she went.
Second, they’re able to sell their own marketing. What is, for other businesses, nothing more than an expense with the promise of increased revenue, becomes a revenue stream in and of itself.
A combination of hardcore fans and a body of material for those fans to indulge in is the reward for brands who successfully achieve otaku appeal.
It’s somewhat of a leap of faith, but the reward can elevate a brand head and shoulders above its contemporaries and cement its spot in the marketplace for a long time.
We’re in a subculture where people literally proclaim that a brand is their “waifu.” Miku Hatsune is listed on 1,562 users’ waifu list, according to mywaifulist.moe, a relatively niche website. Miku is a mascot character, meant to promote a brand a sell a product.
In some ways, however, she is the product, or at least part of it. And in some ways, she’s transcended her role as brand ambassador, simply by virtue of being an appealing character that people connect with.
And no doubt she’s helped Crypton Future Media and Yamaha sell some software in the meantime.
This is the magic of mascots, or “brand characters.”
In one way, they’re a moe anthropomorph of the brand they represent. Just like Kongou from Kancolle is a representation of the WWII battlecruiser of the same name, and L85A1 from Upotte is a representation of the rifle of the same name, Nanami Madobe is a representation of Windows 7, and Megumi Haruna is a representation of J-List.
In another way, however, they’re characters in their own right. Dejiko may be the mascot for GAMERS, but she also has her own manga and anime. Same with Super Sonico, the mascot for Nitroplus.
And that’s the magic. An effective mascot character becomes the best brand ambassador a company could ask for by becoming a household name in and of themselves. And they do that by inviting the company’s audience to join in and involve themselves with the character.
They turn “customers” into “fans” by giving them something to latch on to.
These brand characters encourage a personal connection with the character. And as the character gains visibility, so does the brand. If the character is charming, it becomes an upward spiral. Fans make and share fanart, buy character goods, and promote the company’s brand for them.
Of course, like all marketing, it fails if the product itself is garbage. In a way, brand character marketing is just an extension of word-of-mouth. It just gives people something to talk about other than the product itself.
The best brand characters are, first and foremost, characters. They have mundane facts about them. Hobbies, favorite foods, bust-waist-hips measurements. They tend to have some backstory. But they’re always left open to the audience. The brand’s fans own them just as much as the brand does.
That freedom may be dangerous to some brands. Let’s be real, opening an anime-styled brand character up to fanart means eventual porn. If a brand isn’t prepared for that, they might not be ready to market to otaku.
In a way, it’s a test of how much a brand identifies with their target market. Otaku’s tendency to sexualize characters they like is well-known. This is true for brand characters as well.
Any fear around that paradigm is a trap, however. Fanart doesn’t tend to reflect back onto the brand, no matter how lewd. And anybody it does turn away wasn’t likely to be a customer anyway.
Any brand that’s involved with the anime subculture should have its own brand character. There’s no reason not to. They give brands personality and a personal connection. They also expand a brand’s marketing opportunities, and can even add revenue streams.
Committing some marketing spend to the creation of a cute brand mascot can pay off, if done right. Coupled with a legitimately killer product, an appealing character can turn loyal customers into fanatics. They become brand ambassadors too.
Western otaku are failing fundamentally at one of our core responsibilities. We have a responsibility to take ownership of our subculture. Instead, we’ve consistently relied on outsiders to serve otaku culture fairly.
Much in the same way that otaku have no political allies, businesses not built with the subculture in mind can’t be 100% relied upon. Otaku culture is far too peculiar. It’s the red-headed stepchild of “nerd culture.” Subculture spaces are welcoming to otaku culture, just as long as it doesn’t get too weird.
The problem is: Otaku culture gets weird (by other culture’s standards) very quickly.
Recently, news came out about the Monster Girl Encyclopedia’s Fandom wiki page being shut down. The story is that Fandom was bought by another company that wants to sanitize its content. Fandom is a service that lets people make wiki sites about their favorite pop culture.
As a proud owner of the Monster Girl Encyclopedia, seeing this news is more than a little disappointing. More disappointing, however, is the thought that such a website was still relying on Fandom.
There’s a risk involved with relying on others, especially culturally. While relying on a service like Fandom seems like a safe bet, literally anything can happen to that company. In this case, they got acquired by a company with a differing goal and philosophy. They could’ve shut down, or had a change in leadership and the result would be the same.
We’ve seen this with services like Steam, which bars certain otaku games for seemingly arbitrary reasons. There are certainly advantages to using established services, but what are those advantages worth compared to the way these services treat otaku culture?
How much of your money is going back into the culture?
That is to say, how much of what you spend goes to other otaku? How much of your money makes it to people who appreciate the same culture you do?
Furries have this down pat. They have their own economy. Not only do they have their own art sites and such, they have their own versions of other normal services. There are furry web hosting services. There are furry social networking sites. There’s at least one furry coffee brand.
Say what you want about the many shortcomings of the furry fandom, but they keep their money within their culture. Western otaku culture is far behind, and for no real reason.
Western otaku barely even have a say in our culture’s major businesses. Keeping in mind the attitudes shared by some industry staff, how big a seat at the table can Western otaku really be said to have?
Take the convention scene. From the ahegao clothing bans in 2019 to the culture of shaming and mandates that grew in 2020 and 2021, convention culture is moving in a direction many Western otaku don’t like. They’re, however, powerless to stop it because they don’t have a seat at the table.
Much like the MGE community with Fandom, they relied too much on something they didn’t build always being there for them.
Otaku need our own economy. We need a way to enrich the culture financially. The success of otaku culture should make otaku richer. Right now, it doesn’t.