Anyone even the tiniest bit immersed in internet pop culture has no doubt heard of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (henceforth MLP) by now. For the uninitiated, MLP is a cartoon show based on Hasbro's long running My Little Pony franchise, primarily targeted at girls ages 3 and up. And it's doing very well in the ratings, both with young girls, and adults, ages 18 to 34, primarily men.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the MLP fanbase is shitastically huge. The primary non official fansite, Equestria Daily, has garnered a whopping 38 million hits in it's short eight months of existence. Furthermore, it gains new hits at the rate of about 3 per second.
Even more striking than the size of the fandom however, is it's self sustaining, self renewing nature. After the end of season 1 of MLP, the fanbase didn't shrivel like many expected it to, in fact, it expended. In lieu of official content, fans took to simply creating their own. A wealth of fics, vids, art and even games began pouring in. This in turn created a seeming perpetual machine of fandom; the larger it got, the more more people it attracted into it, in turn creating an even greater amount of fan content.
In a sense, MLP is the Western equivalent to Touhou. The difference however, is that MLP holds several key advantages over its Japanese counterpart, outlined below:
- Capacity for Monetization
- The Touhou franchise is the intellectual property of the one man development team, Team Shanghai Alice. In contrast, MLP is owned by Hasbro, the toy making juggernaut which following the huge success of the Transformers film, is now entering into the entertainment industry with its television channel, The Hub. As a corporation worth billions of dollars, Hasbro has far greater capacity for marketing, merchandising and distributing as compared to a single person.
- MLP is not Absurdly Japanese
- The other key advantage MLP has over Touhou is that it doesn't have an identity irrevocably tied to its nation of origin. Touhou is ridiculously Japanese, thus meaning its appeal its primarily centered in Japan, with only limited appeal outside the admittedly wealthy island nation. MLP by contrast, can be very easily exported, which Hasbro has already done, having brought MLP to key foreign markets such as Singapore, France and others.
Now consider this; imagine a property with the self sustaining nature of Touhou, but on an even grander scale, effectively marketing towards and monetizing its ever growing fanbase. Surely Hasbro must be swimming in pools of money made from its MLP franchise by now?
But they aren't.
The sudden and meteoric rise in popularity of MLP amongst adult fans was never planned for, and caught Hasbro completely flat footed. Almost a year after MLP debuted, Hasbro has only made very superficial moves towards monetizing this new found fanbase, primarily in the form of licensed t-shirts.
Most interesting however, is that toy sales, Hasbro's bread and butter, has also been fairly lukewarm amongst the adult fanbase.
The reason for this is that the brand marketing for MLP is intrinsically tied to gender. Unfortunately, marketing for girls' toys has been historically been condescending and lackluster. An overabundance of pink is used, cartoon accuracy is sacrificed for supposedly more appealing colours, and gimmicks are often overly simplistic.
In turn, this has severely limited Hasbro's ability to market towards its adult fanbase. Adults, especially men, feel awkward and uncomfortable walking through the girls' toys isle in stores, which are over blindingly pink. Furthermore, cultural bias and preconceptions tend to imply some sort of deviancy, or at worst, pedophilia, to men buying toys primarily targeted towards little girls. For those men who can bring themselves to take the plunge to buy the toys, they are often disappointed due to the low quality of the toys, coupled with inaccurate designs (a common trait amongst most girls toy franchises).
Ultimately, Hasbro's failure to monetize its adult fanbase lies in its failure of marketing. It is still stuck in the gender defined paradigm of marketing its Pony toys solely towards young girls.
I won't pretend to have the answers; I don't know of a truly comprehensive marketing plan that could incorporate both MLP's primary demographic as well as its sizable periphery demographic without compromising one for the other. What I do know however is this; without change, Hasbro is missing out on monetizing what is possibly the most dynamic fanbase it's ever had.
Note: This is part 1 of a two part article. On the next episode, I'll be considering gender based marketing in the context of anime and manga.