Interview by: Aki Naoe
Photos by: Kazuya Tanaka
There is a rumor in the creative community that if fans upload their illustrated ideas of merchandise they want to see in the market on social media, that merchandise will never be released officially.
But is it true?
How do companies even decide what merchandises to release? What kind of merchandise is on the rise today?
We discussed the doubts and questions about merchandise with Ito from Aniware Inc., the company that runs SuperGroupies--a brand that designs and develops countless anime and video game merchandise.
■ Verifying the rumor
── So is it true that if someone uploads on social media an illustration of merchandise they would like to see on the market, that merchandise will never be released?
It would be difficult to release merchandise that looks exactly like the one in the illustration. More often than not, companies avoid releasing merchandise based exactly on designs that have been made public on social media. The right to a merchandise design belongs to the artist, so if a company adopts that design and actually produces the merchandise without earning the permission of the artist, they could be accused of plagiarism. Each company has its own policy, but our company avoids producing merchandises based on published designs.
Still, I want fans to upload their illustrated ideas without worrying about the rumor so much.
Because when fans of a certain work get so enthusiastic about it, it surely serves as a mood booster to the company that creates that work.
Also, ideas of merchandise coming from fans are often unrealistic. Especially things like shoes--many of the designs are just impossible to pull off in terms of structure, while other designs might be realistic but at a cost that isn't affordable to most fans. So I think it's rare for ideas that fans have to match the designs that companies deem feasible.
At the end of the day, the final say about a design's feasibility belongs to the merchandise company, so I hope fans can focus on enjoying the works that they like without worrying too much.
── In other words, uploading illustrations of merchandise ideas doesn't negatively influence what can or can't be released as official merchandise.
Yes. If anything, please do write on social media posts like, "SuperGroupies, please make merchandise like this!" We at SuperGroupies love to ego search ourselves (laughs).
■ Fans' voices
── Is there another way for fans to voice their merchandise ideas aside from conveying them through illustrations?
Fans can always send their opinions and ideas through the customer support of Aniware Inc.
── Has your company ever created merchandise based on the ideas it received?
Absolutely yes. But we don't make decisions based only on the ideas that we received. Most of the time, when we receive an idea, we have already considered creating that merchandise. We are always on the lookout for new information, so when fans send us ideas related to a specific work, we are often already thinking of creating the merchandises because we've noticed its popularity.
Fans are welcome to send us very detailed ideas or illustrations when contacting us through our customer support. Please note, however, that we still have to consider the feasibility of the designs sent to us.
── Has your company ever created merchandises based on the fans' voices on social media?
For instance, opinions about the size of a bag. We previously released a small-sized bag and the reaction that we got on social media was negative... When we released Puella Magi Madoka Magica bags before, we released them in two sizes, big and small. The Madoka and Kyoko models were big, but the Homura and Mami models were small. And many of the reviews that we got questioned why the Homura and Mami models had to be so small they couldn't even fit A4 documents. That's how we learned that many fans wanted the bags to be able to fit A4 documents.
We figured that since our products are often used on a daily basis, many of our customers use them to carry a lot of things, such as when they go to school or work. So if our bags are too small to fit large documents or laptops, the customer base will find these bags difficult to use. Maybe our customers want bags that can fit dojinshi as well (laughs). It's true that our large bags are popular.
I'm also aware of the "What's in my bag" tag on pixiv that has gathered many posts. Looking at the illustrations under that tag makes our company realize that our customers in the creative industry do carry a lot of things with them, so these sorts of findings sometimes affect our company decisions to design a bag that can fit large items.
── So if fans want their opinions to influence the merchandises that your company releases, they should make their voices be heard.
── What else have the fans' reactions told you?
However, there is a problem. Characters have their own "image" colors. But just because a character's image color is blue, it doesn't mean we can just go ahead and create blue merchandise because our customers will find it hard to use in their daily lives and decide against purchasing it. Then again, if we create black merchandise for that character, it's going to look like it belongs to another character whose image color is black--so our customers won't want to purchase it either.
We work around this problem by, for instance, choosing a black surface for a bag or wallet but using the character's image color for the lining. This design will allow fans to feel more comfortable with wearing the image color of their favorite character.
For example, the image color of Sakura from Cardcaptor Sakura is pink. But since there are customers who aren't comfortable with using pink merchandise on a daily basis, we decided to release bags and shoes based on Sakura's black battle outfits. There have also been cases where we softened a character's image color into a pastel tone.
If a character is extremely popular, their image color will sell well no matter how "unappealing" that color is in the general clothing industry--for instance, purple.
── And who is this purple character that we're talking about?
■ The process of merchandising
── How does the process of merchandising usually start?
And then, we start with brainstorming about what types of products many people would want to purchase. Our employees include otaku and avid fans of anime, manga, and video games, so they are very sharp in that department.
Sometimes we receive requests from copyright owners. For instance, in the case of Kingdom Hearts III, the copyright owner asked us to create products based on the game, which is their newest work.
Still, most of the time, our company is the one that approaches copyright owners and asks for their permission to let us create products based on their works.
── If a manga has an anime adaptation, which side does your company approach?
If it's been ten-odd years after the anime finished airing and the anime no longer has the merchandising rights, our company will approach the manga side. When we created the products based on Phantom Thief Jeanne the other day, we asked for Toei Animation's consent because the studio still owned the license.
── How early can you tell that a product is going to be well-received?
Our employees often go to anime events and browse through the illustrations on pixiv even at home. In our office, we often discuss characters that have been getting more illustrations on pixiv lately. We realize that if the number of derivative works featuring a certain character is growing on pixiv, it means the character is currently popular.
── What genre do you think has the largest number of derivative works?
I would say the idol genre, these days. I think the idols' brilliant outfits often inspire artists to draw illustrations of the idols.
■ Imagination and creativity toward merchandising
── Is there anything your company is particular about when creating merchandises?
For instance, this is a wristwatch based on a work called Joker Game. It's a work about solving mysteries and questions, so we decided to incorporate the work's world-building into the product. When the clock strikes a certain number of seconds, the characters on the dial will disappear and the letters "JOKER GAME" will rise to the surface. It's an Easter Egg put into the product by the project leader based on their research on Joker Game's world-building. The project leader watched all episodes, read the manga, and checked Joker Game derivative works when necessary. Our job requires us to understand what fans think of the work that they like. Products created with borrowed wisdom won't last.
── What else does your company do to seize the fans' hearts?
For instance, we previously included an especially drawn illustration as a bonus for a Haikyu!! jacket that we created in collaboration with BEAMS. We had the character's outfit designed to include pieces of clothing that BEAMS actually sells, except for the jacket. The clothes the character is wearing in the illustration are for men, but I heard there were women who wanted to purchase the entire set and the clothes went out of stock really fast. I think there are people who enjoy wearing these everyday clothes for cosplay.
■ The buyers of anime merchandises
── How old are your target buyers?
Our buyers are of different ages, but most of them are in their early 20s.
── Do you think people leave their otaku identity behind as they get older...?
── Does your company sell overseas, too?
── Do overseas customers look for different products compared to Japanese customers?
I feel like fans in other Asian countries, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, have the same preference as Japanese fans. But works that are popular among fans in Europe and America are indeed a little different. Legend of Zelda and Dragon Ball are smash-hit works over there. Our company is planning to supply overseas customers as well in the future.
── How are the products aimed at men different from those aimed at women?
The size of the products is another difference. Products for men come in a bigger size. When it comes to creating a bag, for instance, a normal size for women is considered small by men.
This PSYCHO-PASS bag was created fairly big so that both men and women can use it.
── So who buys more? Men or women?
When it comes to SuperGroupies' current sales, the answer is fifty-fifty. At first, our company believed that men preferred products with illustrations of their favorite characters on conspicuous spots. But when we released products that prioritized design, we were surprised to know that these were also well-received among men. As a result, the products are selling well.
However, among the opinions and illustrations of merchandise that fans wish were real on social media, we rarely come across ideas of merchandise for men.
Unfortunately, we can't identify the gender of the people who posted their illustrations and ideas on social media accurately... Our customers are also not required to state their gender when sending ideas of merchandises they want us to make through our customer support. Still, I think most of those ideas come from women.
Our sales are equally contributed by men and women and yet, whenever we ego search ourselves, we only encounter posts by women. We figure men don't share information on merchandise that they see on social media. So when we want to conduct some research, we can only obtain information on works and products for women.
No one tweets about our products for men on Twitter so, to be honest, we can't tell if we've been making the right decisions with our designs. Our products are selling among men even though our company can't obtain any information about men and our products--it's a curious phenomenon. I hope men will start posting information about our products.
── Have you ever passed the voices of fans to the copyright owner when creating merchandise?
We have. Many times, in fact. When we receive opinions about merchandise that fans wish were real, we do pass these opinions to the copyright owner. These opinions make copyright owners happy. We've experienced plenty of instances where a project got through because of how persuasive the fans' voices were.
Nowadays anyone can voice their opinions through social media and these opinions have helped our company.
We want fans to keep posting their ideas on social media, asking SuperGroupies to create certain merchandise. We read all of them because we always ego search ourselves. And we will do our best to respond to the voices of our customers.