As a fan of the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender I am perplexed why the network is ignoring the best marketing opportunities for it. The show is an American anime that takes many of the familiar themes of the genre — magical children, the struggle against an evil empire, etc. — and used them to tell a story that is emotionally satisfying, intelligent and fun. It doesn’t hurt that it happily borrows ideas from some of the all-time great anime. For example, there is the air bison Appa (left) a homage to the cat bus (below right) in Miyazake’s My Neighbor Totoro. It is a show that Collateral Damage Jr. and I watch together happily.
From what I’ve seen Nick has marketed this in the exact same manner it has marketed other successful animated shows like Bob L’ePonge and The Fairly Oddparents. They have done licensing to major toy makers and the fast fooders. There are also the t-shirts, hats, backpacks and other standard items. Given this and the fact that the show is about to enter its fourth season, some may wonder why I am saying Nick is missing it with the show’s marketing.
I just returned from my annual sojourn at Anime Boston — a three-day long fest of anime, manga, and anything vaguely related to that. The last semi-official attendance figure I heard was 14,000, so it’s no small thing. There were Avatar fans in abundance, as there have been at every anime convention I’ve been to since the show debuted in 2004. It is easy to tell who the fans are. They’re the people dressed as the series’ characters (even Appa) in costumes they made themselves. They are also the artists selling their own drawings of of the various characters (if Nick interferes with that then they are truly idiots). Each one of these people is an asset being ignored by Nick.
The age range for these conferences is generally high school to early 30s (I am an outlier, to put it mildly) — well past the 6-11 slot that Nick mostly aims at. The con features an enormous dealer’s section where people come to find tchotchkes of all sizes emblazoned with their favorite characters on them. Indeed, the dealers’ room is always a huge draw at these things. I spent a lot of time in it — as usual — I can report that all those dealers didn’t have so much as a single Avatar item for sale. In fact I have never seen an Avatar item for sale at any of these cons. A glance at the Nick online store makes it clear why. Other than the Avatar t-shirts and plushies, there is nothing that any fan in this age group would buy. These are people who want to wear their brand identification — which rules out action figures and Lego sets.
My entirely anecdotal research suggests that Nick isn’t having much luck with selling these items to the 6-11ers. I always see a LOT of Avatar merchandise in the discount aisles at Toy R Us and other big boxers.
It seems to me that this is an example of Nick ignoring The Long Tail — selling less to more people — and blowing the opportunity to turn Avatar from a niche hit into a genuine phenomenon. As a result of its inability to market patches, stickers, keychains, clothing and accessories that might appeal to anyone over the age of 11, Nick is leaving a lot of money current and future money on the table.
Anime fans are trendspotters and trendsetters for the youth market. These are the folks who knew about Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Hello Kitty, Emily The Strange, and a host of other brands long before they became mainstream sales phenomenons. While some of them (including CD Jr.,) are in the 6-11 age range, most are not. But they are enormous influencers on this market. That’s because they are the big brothers/sisters who define cool for the under 12-set.
Another thing Nick needs to know is that the anime community is very design conscious — so it’s not enough to simply slap the characters on to product. Find some good graphic artists — I’m sure the folks behind Avatar could point you in the right direction — and apply the same creativity that marks Avatar the show to its marketing. Some outreach/listening to the fans the show already has could make Avatar into a SpongeBob Squarepants type of earner for Nick. Failure to do this will make it nothing more that a slightly more successful Code Lyoko — the French anime franchise that Cartoon Network killed with its one-size-fits-all approach to marketing cartoons.