Brands Embracing Anime Are Riding the Wave of Otaku Culture

Major brands such as McDonald's are recognising the opportunity to engage with anime fans on a deeper level

By Dani Gibson

The surge in popularity of anime among Gen Z and Millennials presents brands with a unique opportunity to engage with younger demographics.

From entertainment giants to luxury labels, brands are seamlessly integrating anime into their marketing strategies through collaborations and original content. McDonald's recent 'WcDonalds' campaign exemplifies this trend, bringing its fictional counterpart to life.

That latest campaign is perhaps the most high-profile to date and cleverly taps into knowledge that only fans of anime would appreciate.

WcDonald's. It's been around since the 80s, in 100s of anime films and shows with many characters eating, ordering or simply walking past a WcDonald’s location. So McDonald's have decided to play homage to its place in anime culture.

Teaming up with anime heavyweights, the fast-food chain brought its fictional joint to life. Following its 2023 campaign flaunting its entertainment influence, a global effort by Wieden+Kennedy New York underscored its role in animation.

An immersive dining stint in Los Angeles, courtesy of OpenTable, featured 360 projection mapping. The debut of Savoury Chili WcDonald’s Sauce went global, alongside manga packaging by Acky Bright. QR codes offered weekly digital manga drops, while an anime series with Studio Pierrot brought more buzz.

In its attention to detail and high levels of respect, the campaign has won over anime fans around the world.

Why Anime is Now Booming

In a digital age reminiscent of the success of Hallyu, anime has transcended its origins in the Western market of the 80s and 90s.

The explosion of video streaming platforms has made international animation more accessible, and in part due to the pandemic producing a surge in demand for new content. In 2021, the anime sector experienced significant growth with a market value of 2,742.2 billion JPY.

Its appeal lies in diverse storytelling and themes, resonating with millennials who popularised it and Gen Z who embraced it as mainstream. As brands adapt aesthetics to evoke emotion, they tap into the cultural phenomenon shaping the future of marketing and entertainment.

With its rich storytelling, vibrant visuals, and dedicated fanbase, anime presents a unique opportunity for brands to engage with consumers on a deeper level.

Authenticity and Respect for Anime Culture

Marcella Zanin, senior account manager at TBWA emphasises the importance of authenticity and respect when incorporating anime art styles into advertisements. Using examples like McDonald's collaborations with Studio Pierrot, renowned for anime classics like Naruto and Bleach, Zanin underscores the significance of consulting experts and preserving its artistic integrity.

"For brands seeking to enter the anime market, authenticity and relevance are the key," she explains. "This involves consulting experts, preserving anime's artistic integrity while adapting its style for campaigns, steering clear of stereotypes, and gathering feedback from anime fans and cultural experts to ensure content resonates positively."

By avoiding stereotypes and gathering feedback from anime enthusiasts, brands can ensure their campaigns resonate positively with the target audience.

Nathan Crawford, executive design director and Kris Miklos, design director at Saatchi & Saatchi echoes this sentiment, emphasising the need for authenticity in anime-inspired advertising.

"Authenticity isn't just a buzzword in Anime-inspired advertising," the pair insist. "It's the cornerstone of a successful campaign. By involving talent from within the anime industry, we not only maintain credibility but also pay homage to the art form that inspires millions worldwide."

It's also about selecting the right genre and aligning it with the brand's identity which are crucial steps in crafting authentic campaigns that resonate with consumers.

Crawford adds: "Choosing the right genre isn't just about ticking boxes; it's about finding that perfect harmony between anime culture and the brand's identity. It's in this alignment that authenticity truly shines, resonating with consumers on a deeper level."

Targeting Diverse Segments of Anime Fans

Zanin, Crawford and Miklos highlight the importance of understanding the diverse preferences within the anime community. Zanin suggests tailoring ads to specific age demographics and niche interests, such as cosplayers or manga collectors.

"We can see this has been explored in the last couple of years, even massively impacting luxury fashion brands, for example, the Loewe x Studio Ghibli collab, Jimmy Choo x Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon and Gucci x One Piece.

Meanwhile, Crawford and Miklos advocate for aligning visual elements with the aesthetic preferences of different anime subcultures.

"Cultivating a deep understanding of different anime subcultures is key to capturing the hearts of fans," says Miklos. "By aligning visual elements with their aesthetic preferences and weaving in beloved themes and characters, brands can create a powerful bond that transcends demographics and resonates with anime enthusiasts worldwide."

Effective Advertising Strategies

In effective advertising targeting anime fans, Zanin emphasizes the value of engaging narratives and maintaining a positive brand reputation within the anime community.

"However, it's crucial to choose a story/character that aligns with the brand's beliefs," she adds. "Ads should tell stories that evoke emotions and cater to the audience's interests, creating a connection with the brand and encouraging actions like website visits, product purchases, or subscriptions."

And let's not forget that brands must uphold a positive reputation within the anime community. Zanin emphasises how this entails fulfilling promises, delivering high-quality products or services, and authentically engaging with fans.

Crawford and Miklos stress the significance of cultural sensitivity and visual consistency. They advise marketers to pay close attention to cultural nuances and ensure that any representation aligns with the tone and themes of the original series.

"Whether it's the dark and gritty aesthetics of legendary Kentaro Miura for 'Berserk' or the vibrant and colourful world for mainstream 'Naruto', maintaining visual consistency enhances brand recognition and captures the essence of the anime. Fans will instantly be able to see through it."

Now, we take a look at some of the best works to emerge from the Anime genre.

The Mayda Creative Co/Nissan USA: Nissan ARIYA Lofi

In 2023, Nissan chose an unconventional route to spotlight its new Ariya electric vehicle. A four-hour-long Lofi girl playlist, a favourite among those seeking background tunes for focused tasks, became the canvas for the campaign. Infused with Japanese anime illustrations, the playlist aimed to transport viewers into a serene realm, inspired by the captivating world of Japanese animation.

The strategy proved fruitful, with the extended ad amassing an impressive 1.1 million hours of watch time on YouTube. Nissan's channel witnessed a notable surge in subscribers, tallying an increase of at least 27,000. Further validating its impact, the playlist found its way onto 35,000 YouTube playlists.

MullenLowe L.A/Acura: Chiaki’s Journey

Anime is not short of sport-centred shows; basketball, football, golf, badminton, swimming and even racing.

Redline, Initial D and Speed Racer; the racing genre is popular among anime fans. So Acura created an entire series to showcase its new Type S vehicles. The first season was viewed nearly 275 million times, and effectively connected with Gen Z premium car buyers, emerging as one of Acura's most successful marketing endeavours.

The second season built on the protagonist, Chiaki's story, delving deeper into her origin and her passion for racing, culminating in her challenge of conquering Colorado's Pike's Peak in the latest Integra Type S. Acura extended the series into real-world experiences at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach showcasing the 2024 Integra Type S in a recreation of Uncle Noboru’s garage and wrapping race vehicles in anime-style vinyl.

Deutsch LA/Taco Bell: Fry Force Nacho Fries

Reminiscent of the mecha-robot and monster genre, 'Fry Force', in partnership with the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, saw Taco Bell target millennials' nostalgia by tapping into their yearning for pre-pandemic bliss.

This anime-style extravaganza, complete with anime talents, like actress Karen Fukahara and VTuber Gwar Gura and a plot thicker than queso, heralds the return of Taco Bell's Nacho Fries. Led by Rei, a spunky protagonist on a quest to save the world from spice-addicted monsters, the ad conjures up fond memories of '80s cartoons, eliciting smiles even from the most stoic of viewers. In a stark contrast to the dystopian future of "Demolition Man," where Taco Bell stands as the lone beacon of dining, "Fry Force" offers a glimmer of hope amidst the chaos. The campaign featured an animated commercial and a downloadable free manga with anime enthusiasts calling for Taco Bell to turn their anime ad into a fully-fledged series.

Mullen Lowe/Wagamama: Bowl to Soul

Wagamama's anime-style ad 'Bowl to Soul,' directed by Mads Broni, took viewers on a whimsical journey reminiscent of Studio Ghibli's charm. Rendered in clear animation and full of stylish exaggerations imitating Japanese anime, it showcased Passion Studio’s eye for detail.

A young woman dives into a bowl of noodles at a Wagamama restaurant, embarking on a fantastic trip. As a chef prepares ingredients, the woman is transported to a flavourful fantasy world of dumpling gondolas and exploding star anise, conjuring a vivid landscape akin to Studio Ghibli's enchanting scenes and the mouth-watering visuals of Makoto Shinkai's work.

Drawing on the historical importance of food in anime, the ad embodied Wagamama's philosophy that food nourishes the soul. Targeting new customers, it focused on the emotional resonance of their cuisine. Combining hand-drawn and computer-illustrated artwork, it captured the delicious, soul-feeding feeling of Wagamama food.


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