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The Rundown: Why anime is having a marketing moment in 2024

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After languishing for years as a niche interest for basement-dwelling nerds, anime has made its way into the mainstream — and in 2024, marketers have gotten the memo. This year, major brands such as McDonald’s are investing in anime to build goodwill among its diverse and growing Gen Z audience.

To today’s youngsters, the idea that anime was ever anything but wildly popular might come as a surprise. Thanks to the growth of dedicated streaming services such as Crunchyroll, Japanese animation is now more accessible than ever before. But no cultural force truly hits the mainstream until brands and advertisers get involved. And in 2024, they are getting involved.

“2024 is the start of brands having dedicated global strategies for the anime space, in a way that they might have for the sports industry, music industry, gaming industry, et cetera,” said Tatiana Tacca, the founder of Oni Vision, a consulting practice dedicated to the anime and gaming space. “We have not necessarily seen that on a global scale until recently.”

Here’s a breakdown of how — and why — anime has become one of brands’ favorite marketing tools in 2024. 

The key numbers

  • On February 27, McDonald’s kicked off its first anime-inspired marketing campaign, an animated narrative that takes place in a fictional world named “WcDonald’s.” The campaign has already been tremendously successful, at least in terms of its high engagement, with the English version of the campaign’s introductory video rapidly drawing over 250,000 views. “WcDonald’s is a best-in-class example of how brands can contribute to culture by finding a meaningful and credible role inside culture, instead of intruding and disrupting it from the outside,” said Huiwen Tow, head of APAC strategy for the agency Virtue.
  • Anime viewership is higher than ever, in part because anime is extremely accessible in 2024. The most popular anime streaming app is the Sony-owned Crunchyroll, which surpassed $1 billion in global consumer spending at the end of 2023. 
  • Anime is a medium, not a single genre, which means its audience spans across many demographic groups, particularly in Japan. In the United States, however, anime is particularly growing in popularity among Gen Z. A January 2024 survey by Polygon revealed that 42 percent of American Gen-Zers watch anime weekly, compared to just 25 percent of millennials and 12 percent of Gen X. “In Japan, anime is enjoyed across generations, with subgenres and characters to appeal to every age,” said Yasu Sasaki, global chief creative officer of dentsu, which spun up a dedicated anime subsidiary last year. “The style of anime content you consume evolves with you as you grow up.”

The gaming connection

There are many parallels between the rise of anime as a marketing channel and the rise of gaming as a marketing tool. Much like gaming, marketers recalcitrantly viewed anime as a niche interest until its popularity became impossible for them to ignore, at which point they began doing everything they could to reach this young, plugged-in audience. 

There is a very natural connection between the anime and gaming audience, and brands are quickly realizing that there is ample overlap between the two. A brand’s marketing investment in anime can bolster its presence in gaming, and vice versa.

At the moment, many brands’ anime activations also feature some kind of gaming integration. McDonald’s’ WcDonald’s campaign, for example, went live alongside a custom-branded “Fortnite” experience.

“While the communities’ respective styles of engagement with anime and gaming differ — passive for anime and active for gamers — there’s a definite affinity between the two communities,” Sasaki said. “There are the obvious commonalities, such as both being enjoyed indoor and both portraying worlds in symbolic forms. More significantly, they have a cultural kinship; anime has often influenced gaming, and gaming often influences anime.”

A diverse audience

Another reason for brands to be interested in anime in 2024 is the demographic diversity of the anime community. Much like lingering misconceptions about the gaming audience, anime has long been plagued by the perception that it is largely the territory of men or Asian Americans, but this is changing as marketers become more familiar with the space.

The media company Cxmmunity Media, whose origins lie in the gaming and esports space, has taken note of the power of anime to reach a diverse audience. To that end, the company has invested in Trap Sushi, an anime-inspired club and event venue in Atlanta, with plans to use the space as inventory for its partnerships with diversity-focused brands. 

“17 percent of Black Americans over the age of 18 are anime fans, compared to 13 percent of Asian Americans. As it relates to the Black community, that’s one of those things that we over-index in,” said Cxmmunity CMO Chris Peay. 

Celebrity endorsements

Anime’s moment in the spotlight is the result of a slow build in the medium’s popularity and accessibility, not a single flashy moment that launched anime into the stratosphere. But there’s no denying that prominent American celebrities have jumped into anime at an unprecedented level over the past year. As luminaries such as Meghan Thee Stallion and Usher post their cosplays on social media, it’s not surprising that brands and marketers have been motivated to demonstrate their own familiarity with anime. 

“I always keep going back to anime culture, and how anime fandom is more than just watching,” Tacca said. “It’s this multifaceted experience that’s also defined by the things that you wear, and the music that you listen to, and the celebrities you enjoy, and the references and themes and values that you have.”

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