Is the target audience elementary school students from 24 years ago? To rebuild the brand based on the deep love for Digimon from long-time fans, Toei Animation.

Fan marketing, D2C, and other terms vary, but more and more companies are now trying to connect directly with their customers. In this series of interviews with partner companies that practice partner relationship management (PRM), including communities, we will clarify "why direct connection is necessary" and "what companies need to change accordingly. The interviewer is Tatsuo Ishii, Executive Advisor of Kao Corporation, who has long been involved in brand marketing at Kao Corporation.

The Digimon series is a popular anime series produced by Toei Animation, known for its devoted fans in Japan and abroad, even after more than 20 years since the broadcast of the first TV anime series "Digimon Adventure" in 1999.

The company's "Digimon Partners" opened in 2021 as a place for such fans to gather and interact, including official staff. While the corporate communities we have seen so far have been started almost from scratch, Digimon Partners is a unique community in that it started by bringing together fans who are passionate about the works already existing on the Internet.

According to Kohei Ukita, community manager, Digimon is a series with a history of more than 20 years, but because of this, there were so many titles that the brand had not been established as a single series. The target audience for each title in the series is children, mainly elementary school students at the time. With the exception of a few enthusiastic fans, there was a structural problem in that they would "outgrow" the series as they grew older.

How can we continue to reach fans who support us even after they grow up? How could we nurture the brand so that the love of our works would be passed on to their children and grandchildren? It was with this awareness of these issues in mind that Digimon Partners was launched.

In doing so, the company focused on the "people who love Digimon the most at this very moment. These were the children of the time when the first TV animation title was broadcast 24 years ago.

The division created by the attitude of trying to win over new fans

--How did you start Digimon Partners?

【Ukita】 Originally, there was a sense of urgency within the company to do something about Digimon itself. Although the series has been around for a long time, we all felt that its power was gradually declining. But the question, "Then what should we do? was a question that had been difficult to answer.

Then, a few years ago, at an internal meeting, the then head of the planning department suggested, "How about a fan base as an opening?" Then, at an internal meeting a few years ago, the then head of the planning department made the suggestion, "How about a fan base as an opening? We all agreed to look into it together. From there, I think our direction was solidified.

TOEI ANIMATION CO., LTD. Kohei Ukita, General Manager, Sales Promotion Department, Sales Planning Division

--What do you mean by direction?

【Ukita】 The most important thing is not to make people who do not yet know Digimon newly aware of it, but to face the fans who love Digimon the most at this very moment, and to create something together with them.

I think it was rather quick from there to "let's build a community.

--There are other ways to connect with your fan base, such as customer management in the form of CRM or social media. Why a community?

【Ukita】 The biggest problem was that although the series was called the Digimon "series," there was not much consistency in the way each title was marketed as a series. Because of this, the fans were divided between the first TV animation series, "Digimon Adventure," and the other titles. The starting point of our idea was to find a way to eliminate this division.

Up to that point, each series had been created with the idea of "what age group would we attract new fans from? This is the reason why the Digimon series has become a fragmented group of titles, even though it bears the name "Digimon. So, instead of trying to attract new people this time, we decided to reach out to people who love Digimon at this very moment.

A place where people who already know and love Digimon can get together and interact with the official side without any barriers. This is the idea that lies at the heart of the Digimon Partners community. In that sense, I don't think we had in mind the option of "using social media to expand the community" as you mentioned in your question.

Comfort for enthusiasts rather than spread

--Generally, many companies track the number of members as a KPI for their community initiatives. However, I understand from what you just said that "Digimon Partners" has decided not to track the number of members?

【Ukita】 To be precise, since we are a corporate organization, we have a plan to "increase the number of members like this. However, that is not our main objective. The main objective is to create a space that is comfortable for passionate fans, a space where they can confront us.

I am grateful that the upper management understood the part of our plan that is hard to put into words: "For Digimon to grow as a series. If we had just started from the beginning with a number and said, "Let's get 10,000 people! we would have ended up with a typical community.

-- So where did you place the specific KPIs for doing the community?

UUkita】 As well as the latest movie, which will be released on October 27, 2023 (see note), there are other Digimon-related projects planned for the future. Eventually, we have an idea to connect to that. It is true that we have set some numbers as KPIs, such as the box-office revenue of the movie, though not the number of members.
(Note: "Digimon Adventure 02: The Beginning")

--We have been working with e-commerce since launch, is this one of your KPIs?


【Ukita】 That's right. Digimon merchandise has been moving well for a long time. In particular, the goods of the first title work are very popular. Moreover, more than 20 years have passed since the release of the first Digimon title, and the children of that time have followed the series into adulthood, making it possible to sell not only the so-called toys but also general merchandise. In this context, online sales are one monetization point.

Up until then, we had been doing pop-up stores and the like, but in e-commerceterms, toys were toys, figures were figures, and so on, and our affiliated companies were doing it in a scattered manner. There was talk of bringing them together separately from community initiatives, so we merged them into one.

--Not only did you create a new axis for the previously fragmented works, but you also made it possible to handle a variety of products under the Digimon brand, transcending the boundaries of genres. Rather than expanding the customer base, I would like to think of it as a way to get people more involved with Digimon, so that they will go to see the movie and buy merchandise through e-commerce.

【Ukita】 You are right, but I think this is not just about how much money the company can make. For customers, I think that buying goods itself is one aspect of the enjoyment of being in touch with the artwork.

Moreover, by mixing the community and e-commerce, we can enliven the community by creating goods together with fans. I think it was a natural step to add e-commerceto the community in order to change the conventional approach of "we create something on our own, throw it out into the world, and see if it resonates or not.

(left) Members voted on the music box to determine the song and design / (right) Music box born from co-creation

Wonder why the community is not "roughing it".

--I think one of the characteristics of "Digimon Partners" is that there were originally highly passionate fans of the first generation works on the Internet. How did you let these customers know that you were starting a community and get them to come together?

【Ukita】 We had a Digimon movie account with about 100,000 followers, so we saddled it directly into the Digimon Partners account. Of course, I didn't expect all 100,000 to join the community, but I figured that the movie followers would include quite a few of the people who love Digimon the most.

At first, I thought it would be a good thing if we could start with a few thousand members, but when I opened the lid, the number of members quickly exceeded 10,000. I said that the number of members was not our goal, but we got off to an unexpectedly good start. But that may have been the result of the rapid spread of the "thousands" of people.

--We call it "PRM" (see note below). We call it "PRM"(see note), and it is exactly what eLifewants to achieve with its partners.
(Note) PRM = Partner Relationship Management. (Note) PRM = Partner Relationship Management, a marketing concept that considers consumers as partners, and seeks to create value and expand contact points through collaboration with partners.

【Ukita】 I would like to expand on that.

We are releasing a new movie, and even if the advertisement was posted at a train station, for example, I don't think I would normally see a Digimon movie until I was an adult.

But what if a close friend around you said, "The new Digimon movie was hot! What if they sent out a message? If you say so, there may be some people who will go to see it, thinking, "If you say so, I'll go to ......." That is what I am hoping for.

For that purpose, rather than chasing numbers in an attempt to expand the circle in the dark, I think we should face the people who love us the most at the moment. With this in mind, I try to make moves that all come back to that. I don't know yet what kind of results that will lead to in the future.

【Shimomura】 The number of members is currently just under 30,000 and is slowly increasing. It is not increasing dramatically, but it is not decreasing either. I think that is one point.

The story I mentioned earlier about "converting the movie account as it is," originally it would not be surprising if we lost a lot of money there. But even there, the numbers did not decrease. I think this is a pretty big deal. I would like to take care of those people.

TOEI ANIMATION CO., LTD. Eri Shimomura, Producer, IP strategy office, Planning department, Sales planning division

--I think the reason why the number of fans is not decreasing is because the community has become a comfortable place for the fans. I think there are two types of communication in a community, one between the company and its customers, and the other between customers and their customers.

【Shimomura】 How about ....... As for official events, we basically try to make them interactive. Instead of a one-way talk show, we try to make it so that the audience can join in the conversation. We also solicit questions in advance so that people can participate in the planning.

For merchandise, we start by asking, "What kind of goods do you want? and then we communicate with them about what they want and in what way we can make it happen. I think this kind of interactive communication between fans and officials is unique to Digimon Partners.

But at the same time, there were horizontal ties among Digimon fans even before the official side started working. Even after those fans gathered at Digimon Partners, I could see that they continued to communicate with each other. So it's difficult to ask, "Which is more important? It's difficult to say.

But one thing I do think is that Digimon fans are really well mannered. It is not uncommon for things to get "rough" on the Internet, but that doesn't happen.

Sometimes I wonder why. I think. The majority of our fans were exposed to Digimon when they were in a tender stage of their childhood. I think that's why we have such a warm community.

--Because those who were exposed to Digimon when they were in elementary school are still nurturing their love of Digimon as adults. I hope those adults will come to see the movie with their children this time.

Not to be an errand boy. Good tension between fans.

--You mentioned that you sometimes work with customers to create products. So I would like to ask you, even in such cases, do you think you are not listening to 100% of the customer's voice?

【Shimomura】 Of course there are physical restrictions as goods, but apart from that, I think we are making them pretty much as the fans' voices tell us.

-Would you make something like "make a new Digimon" if you were asked to do so?

【Shimomura】 We rarely receive outlandish requests. Rather than creating something new, we are trying to give shape to the Digimon that everyone has in their mind. We often get requests for behind-the-scenes stories from the production team, or for illustrations of this kind of thing. We often go in that direction.

【Ukita】There are so many things we have not done. We've been saying, "We haven't done that one, what about that one?" I feel like the fans are filling in the gaps. If we do all of those things, then maybe we will be able to do something outlandish. But we haven't done all of them yet.

--When we talk about community and co-creation, we often end up doing things like "listen to the customer's voice and create what the customer wants. But that doesn't work. Toei Animation is a group of creators. I thought it is the pride of creators to listen to the customer's voice to some extent but not 100%.

【Ukita】 That is true. If we were to discuss the possibility of making a video together, we might come up with ideas together, but in the end, the director, producer, or other person in charge of the creative process would make the final decision. I think we take pride in the fact that we leave that to them.

As Ukita said, we are a video production company . We draw a line in the sand when it comes to creating stories, and I think we will pull back the reins firmly. We don't make films with the fans in mind. I think that is different from the way the community thinks.

【Ukita】 The philosophy we created when we launched the community also clearly states that "the final creative decision is ours. Part of it is that if we ask the fans about everything, it would not be realistically possible to come up with a coherent plan.

Besides, even if we offered what everyone thought was right, it might not be appreciated. When you open your bento box, even if it contains your favorite food, if it is exactly what you imagined, you may be surprised and think, "Here we go again. On the other hand, there is joy in finding something that you don't like but that tastes good when you try it.

That is the fun of creativity, and I think it is good for the customers as well, which is why we offer our creations.

--I see. While listening to the customer's voice, there is a clear distinction between what we propose and what we offer. There is a sense of pride in being a creator, or to put it in a cool way, a good sense of tension between customers, brands, and companies. I felt that the management side of the community is doing a good job of sharing what it is important not to lose when conducting a community.

A good sense of tension between the customer, the brand, and the company is important in running a community," said Tatsuo Ishii, Executive Advisor, eLife.

The goal is a collection of villages with a square in the center

--I think this is because the place is well organized. If the management has a firm attitude and the customers feel that "this is a place of real value to me," they will take action to prevent it from becoming a strange place. That is exactly the kind of place it has become.

【Shimomura】 If anything, they may be too nice. I think that the fact that the number of members is not increasing very dramatically means that perhaps the people who make negative comments are elsewhere and may have decided not to come in here.

While it is true that the first step is to face those who are here now, perhaps the next challenge is to face those who have once turned their backs on us. If we can get them to face us again, even if they say some harsh things, and get them to come in. Maybe that would create more expansion.

【Ukita】 I'm not sure about that. To use a lowly example, when I read an article praising Shohei Otani on the day he hit a home run, I feel good as if I were being praised. On the other hand, I feel like I don't want to read an article that says, "Ohtani is no good.

In that sense, I feel that the current atmosphere of Digimon Partners, where everyone is in a go-getter mode, is more correct. ......

【Shimomura】 I really like the current atmosphere too. I myself am often encouraged by reading the posts of fans. Feeding off the excitement of the community, I think of projects every day with the feeling of "Is there anything I can do for these people?

On the flip side, for example, if someone feels dissatisfied with something they saw in this movie, it would be sad if they had to go somewhere else to voice their dissatisfaction. So, instead of that, I thought, "Why don't we have a small room in the community dedicated for that purpose and say, "Let's all talk bad about the movie together! I wonder if it would be possible to make it a project like "Let's all talk bad about the movie!

--Because when you say "bad words," you probably mean kind-hearted bad words.

【Shimomura】 I think that's right. Rather, I think the most important thing is to become a place where people feel comfortable saying, "It's okay to say it here.

-As a community grows, the number of people who engage in dialogue within it may be limited to a few. Then, the voice of one part of the community becomes like the voice of the entire community, and customers who cannot participate in the conversation may leave. One way to think about this is to provide several separate rooms for each topic that customers want to talk about at some point.

We want to provide a place where Digimon lovers can gather and interact with each other, transcending the boundaries of genres," said Shimomura.

【Shimomura】 That's right. Digimon is not just an anime. Some people like cards, some like toys, some like games. Therefore, there is a big square in the middle and many villages around it. Sometimes people come out of their villages and gather in the square, and the villages can freely interact with each other. I thought it would be good if we could become such a community.

After the Interview
For the third installment of "visiting prm practice companies," we visited TOEI ANIMATION CO., LTD..
What has changed most with the development and penetration of social media is the power relationship between companies and customers. Many marketers have experienced that word of mouth on social networking sites by individuals not only motivates people to buy products, but can also cause them to stop buying, rather than TV commercials created by companies with large budgets.
Without fear of misinterpretation, I believe we have entered an era in which digitalized customers are equal to corporations in terms of their ability to communicate. However, this does not mean that it is the right relationship for a company to give the benefit of the doubt to a customer who has the ability to communicate.
The company we visited this time, TOEI ANIMATION CO., LTD., is working to build relationships with its customers with the pride of being a content creator, meeting with highly enthusiastic fans in the community in a congenial and sometimes serious manner.
Because the community is not only a comfortable place, but also a space with a sense of tension, fans actively speak out and make suggestions based on their "love of Digimon," and through interactions among fans, the bond between them has grown even stronger. The result of co-creation is not only the creation of goods together with fans, but also the creation of a relationship in which fans invite fans and foster new fans. (Interviewer: Tatsuo Ishii)
Tatsuo Ishii, Executive Advisor, eLife Inc.
He served as manager of a number of brands for 14 years at Kao Corporation, where he also launched Agience as a new business. In 2003, he established the Digital Marketing Center, where he was involved in the planning and operation of web-based strategies and established the Digital Marketing Center as the head of the center. In 2017, he was appointed as Executive Advisor for eLife Inc..
He is a part-time lecturer at the Graduate School of Business Administration, Waseda University, a Marketing Meister of the Japan Marketing Association, a member of the Digital Media Committee of the Japan Advertisers Association, the Chairman of the Brand Experience Jury of the Dentsu Advertising Awards, and an auditor at C Channel K.K. He is a leading marketing expert.

(Composition: Atsuo Suzuki)