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Part 2: Getting the Girls
By Oliver Chin
Reprinted with permission by the author
Double Your Market
N'Sync. Britney Spears. The Backstreet Boys. What do they have that comic retailers don't? One audience and two words: girl fans.
Girls are the other half. Dainty. Mysterious. Fickle. Who needs them? You do. If men haven't thought about women, even only as buyers, then that huge oversight demands immediate correction. Ignoring female customers is not sexism. It's stupidity.
On all fronts, the business of selling products to youths is booming. The mass market roils in a feeding frenzy to push hot properties to teens. But many niche marketers have succesfully cultivated specialty products, especially to girls. If they can do it, why can't comic retailers?
The same question of teens can be asked of girls: what have you done for them lately? If the answer is nothing, then what can you really expect?
Excluding 1/2 your potential audience puts you at an immediate disadvantage. It simply halves your potential revenue, profitability and survival. Today, retailers need all the patrons they can get. Desperate times require wiser measures. Therefore outreaching to girls may be the smartest thing you ever did.
---------------------- The Publisher vs. Product Problem ----------------------
Whether because of narrow product appeal or locations far from the mall, comic stores draw few girl fans. It's funny how adults change their habits as they get older. Most boys dream about attracting swarms of girls. Why don't more men (i.e. comic retailers) want to attract female customers?
The ongoing retail challenge is to match the right product with the right audience. Retailers commonly complain, "How do I attract female readers if publishers don't make suitable products?" A typical chicken and egg dilemma. Is the culprit inadequate supply or demand?
The comic market admittedly is too inbred: publishers cater to current customers (men) and pander to an increasingly constricted spiral of taste. Publishers hesitate to make "alternative" material, since comic stores barely retain their existing fan base. Conventional wisdom opines, "If publishers don't give fanboys what they want, then failure ensues." This vicious cycle of depicting oversteroided crusaders and oversexed centerfolds cripples product diversity and stunts consumer appeal.
Is the responsibility to broaden the market the publishers' or that of retailers? It's both. Girls don't care - they continue to shop and spend million$ elsewhere. But with anime and manga, retailers have no valid excuse.
---------------------- Make Mine Manga ----------------------
The supply theory doesn't wash with anime and manga. Japanese animation and comics have deep reserves of female-friendly titles which span all genres and styles. To sell to girls, retailers first need to stock the titles. Let's clarify a few misconceptions:
Do you have to like them to sell them? Absolutely not. Is there more than Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon? Absolutely. Will all girls like the same material? The succinct answer is, "Do boys?"
Use the Pokémon craze as an unprecendented opportunity. Now you can educate legions of new fans (especially girls) on the wealth of anime and manga that they can enjoy:
historical fantasy (Fushigi Yugi)
modern fantasy (Oh My Goddess)
fantasy adventure (Magic Knight Rayearth)
realistic soap operas (Maison Ikkoku)
crazy humor (Urusei Yatsura, aka Lum)
Both girls and boys like manga and anime because both girls and boys are stars. Girls can be protagonists, not relegated as the accessories or objects of desire. They force the action which readers identify with. Girls do not start as heroes, but exhibit vulnerability and doubt when confronted with adversity. However, they adapt, learn, and uncover hidden potential. Girls succeed not by brute force but by employing intellect and empathy. True 98 pound weaklings in the traditional "super" hero world, they are "human" heroes. Girls' characters and voice, not their skin-tight beauty and mega-powers, make them attractive to readers.
In Japan, "shôjo" manga is a very successful category: comics made by females aimed at females. These authors tackle subjects from marriage and love to homosexuality and the supernatural. Readers respond to the sensitive depictions and renderings, which have no US equivalent. Examples available are Four Shôjo Stories and Clamp's dramatic X/1999, as seen in Animerica Extra.
Japanese female creators are starting to gain the acclaim in the West that is lavished upon them elsewhere. Rumiko Takahashi (Ranma 1/2) is the best selling female comics writer on the planet, and has spawned hundreds of merchandise lines. They become instant role models to girls who had only known American comics where men controlled the depiction of women.
---------------------- Grrls appreciate authenticity ----------------------
Success breeds imitation. Recently, American creators have generated loads of manga-inspired titles; from Nickelodeon's Powerpuff Girls to comics of every stripe and publisher. More power to them. But will they satisfy girl readers?
The ones which take the easy road - copycat 2 dimensional drawings that cover shallow characterization and plot - will not. The ones that defy stereotypes and promote story over superficial titillating images might. Style needs substance. Of course, scores of "authentic" manga exist already which merit wider circulation.
Young readers want to be surprised. Like the Harry Potter books, anime and manga depict a hyper "reality" where common problems (social acceptance, competition, peer pressure) have fantastic solutions. Unlike teen idols and teen magazines who strike trendy poses and spout ingenuous emotions (sex without commitment, voyeurism without guilt), manga tackles gender issues without flinching - the price of celebrity, growing pains, the complexity of love (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Nausicaä).
Bringing girls into comic stores is not "embarrassing." It is necessary. It is not a mutually exclusive proposition: "either boys or girls." Look at any bookstore or toy store for proof. Focusing on girls shouldn't come at the expense of your current customer base. It is complementary like the other side of a coin.
Manga and anime have a longer shelf life than the Spice Girls. There is no "secret formula" for success except giving customers what they want: products that sate the imagination and satisfy its expansion. Loyalty will follow. Now, retailers, it's up to you.