The Holy Trinity of Soft Power

The more I think about “Media," the more I think about Los Angeles, Japan, and Korea. The birthplace of Hollywood, Anime, and K-Pop. The holy trinity of soft power. The microchip, which was invented in California, produced in Japan and, mastered in Korea have wired our cities into one mega metropolis. An electric economic environment where we’ve been sharing symbols, media, information, and ideas for decades since the last world war.


It was only as recently as 1952 that the U.S. occupation of Japan, and the press censorship between the warring countries was removed by the Treaty of San Francisco. During the 1970s, Korea’s GDP was so low that it was at the same level of North Korea’s. Ravaged by war, in just a few generations, without any natural resources, and with land a quarter of the size of California’s, South Korea became the tenth largest economy in the world. [The fourth largest in Asia after China, India, and Japan]. Korea however, is the #1 exporter of culture in all of Asia. [The largest producer of popular TV outside of the U.S.] More than 60% of all Netflix subscribers watched a Korean show last year, and when Netflix was first expanding into Asia, they quickly realized that it was Korea, not necessarily Japan, that would be key to attracting new subscribers throughout Asia. Planning to spend another $2.5 billion on Korean content over the next four years—it's a core component to Netflix's global aggregation strategy as Korea holds the title for producing three of most watched shows in Netflix history. The gravity of which can also be felt on YouTube. 


A Global Hyper Culture

This circuitous relationship between the east and the west has birthed some of the greatest innovations in art, media, and technology. Japanese art inspired European art movements. Disney inspired the forerunners of modern manga, anime, advertising, and gaming. Anime inspired and continues to inspire Hollywood, Korea, and internet subcultures. Sony inspired Steve Jobs, and the design of its products at Apple. Even manga is credited to saving the video game industry in the 1980s. Miyamoto Shigeru, the creator of Donkey Kong and Mario, drew inspiration from manga to add story elements to the game. Nintendo would then go on to inspire generations of new artists and innovations in film, manga, anime, and gaming. Korea learned from both countries and took pop culture to a new level. The interplay between these cultures can be summarized as a Neo-Art Nouveau movement that continuously blends eastern and western sensibilities into a new global hyper culture. 


The Franchise Model

The United States, although big and slow, can still squeak out people and companies that leap over the status quo. A Pixar here. A Tesla there. An OpenAI everywhere. Despite occasional bursts of innovation, the average executive management understanding of media in the United States lags about 10-15 years behind Asia's. The US media industry has been slow to adapt, often sticking to a franchise model that relies on hitting home runs. In contrast, Japan and Korea have developed the media mix model to accommodate their circumstances and manage risks better. Media mixes provide multiple entry points and modes of interaction, making them more flexible and accessible than traditional franchises.


I’ve written before that Western and Eastern media is synchronizing, but that the U.S. is slow to catch up. We get fast followers like Twitch that act as a bridge and a catalyst into latent demand for media consumption like streaming video games, but the ecosystem of brands, media companies, advertising agencies, and executives are mind numbingly slow to follow suit and would rather not build on top of the new media ecology because it threatens their post. They move begrudgingly from platform to platform without a meta philosophy to guide their overall strategy. Squeezing blood from a stone, they end up producing rerun after rerun. Reboot after reboot. Maintaining their channel spend. Maintaining the status quo because they don't know what to do or where to go. They treat franchises like a McDonalds franchise. A self-contained system with an ad budget to dice and slice up. 



The Media Mix

Why the dislocation? There’s one media strategy that explains Hollywood's Innovator's Dilemma. While the United States deploys a franchise strategy across all of its media properties, countries like Japan and Korea deploy an ever-evolving media mix model. A media mix is a Japanese-English term for what we call media franchising. Japan imported this term from marketing. A portmanteau to mean marketing and creativity. Media Mikkusu. [メディアミックス]. This isn’t to be confused with how advertisers use the term 'Media Mix' to refer to their allocation of different channel spend. Franchises on the other hand is a term to describe a large scale IP like Star Wars. It’s produced and released in a linear, serial way. The narrative flows one way.


A recent, and typical franchising model in the states goes something like this: 

1. Disney announces a new Star Wars series by Favreau.

2. It does well, so the toy companies and their licensing departments, who cannot anticipate the demand, run out of baby yoda dolls. 

3. Advertising agencies meme into the hype, but its too late. 

4. Since nothing is pre-built into the media strategy, the energy flames out until a new series/film is released. 

5. Rinse and repeat. A wait and watch, stop and go strategy. 



The U.S. lives and dies by this franchise strategy. It's model is dependent on home runs. But in Japan, and Korea, they couldn't afford these risks. They had to incubate a different media franchising strategy out of necessity. Media mixes allow them to get on base. A media mix is a particular type of franchise. It doesn’t have to be a self-contained narrative. This is where its different from North American franchises where you have to play the game or read that book to understand what’s going on with the IP.


"Wave after wave of popular Nintendo games with manga-like characters and story elements were created throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually games would be designed and released with an eye to companion. Media forms such as manga and anime. The 1995 release of the Pokémon game, for instance, was quickly followed by a manga series and an anime series. Across manga, anime, and games there arises another dimension of interaction and communication, now between media forms and platforms. As this sort of multimedia franchising became increasingly formalized throughout licensing and marketing in the late 1980s, it came to be called 'The Media Mix.' Today a media mix franchise may centre on any combination of media properties - among them, toys, manga, light novels, anime and a variety of game forms. But a closer look at popular manga series of the 1980s demonstrates why manga continues to play a key role, and maybe the key role, within the development of the media mix."

— Thomas Lamarre, Professor of Cinema and Media Studies


The media mix doesn’t demand that you read everything, follow the novel, or watch the TV show. You can enter and exit at will. Since it's distributed across different mediums and formats, there are multiple entry-points. It's multi-modal. What’s an example of a media mix? In the states we call them franchises, but Pokémon, Hello Kitty, and Mario are media mixes. Hello Kitty doesn’t have a story, there are numerous Pokémon universes, and all types of ways to play Mario games. All of which do not require you to understand a core narrative. 


Marc Steinberg, the author of Anime's Media Mix, highlights that the modern media mix started with the beginning of television animation in Japan. The media mix model has deep roots in the history of anime, beginning with Astro Boy in 1963. The need to fund expensive animation projects led to pre-selling sponsorships and licensing characters, setting a precedent for future anime productions. This practice has been integral to the anime genre and has later been adopted by the K-Pop industry in Korea.



If you couldn’t merchandise the character with goods, it would be impossible to cover the cost of production no matter how good the show was. This would set a precedent for all future anime production where they would have to make stylistic choices that would define the anime genre to save money or guarantee that a spaceship would be featured so that it can sell the toys on the backend. Which is how a hit-show with a vague synopsis like Cowboy Bebop got green lit. The creator was given creative freedom as long as there was a spaceship in the show. As Steinberg continues, "There is no Astro boy without the comic, there is no astro boy without the toy, there is no astro boy without the chocolate. Anime as we know it starts with Astro Boy in 1963." Anime is inseparable from this media mix practice.  



I bring up the dichotomy between franchises and the media mix for a couple reasons: 

1. The U.S. entertainment has finally awoken to the power of asian content and gaming franchises like Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. and the Last of Us, but seem hopelessly unaware of how to support these franchises outside of a few licensing deals, merchandise, and collaborations. 

2. The hit-driven model that Hollywood has come to rely-upon will have to shift towards the business models found in Asia. Particularly that of Japan and Korea. The Media Mix is a more powerful model to be deployed in a fragmented media environment where there are variety of formats to monetize content. 


Challenges and Barriers

1. Media mixes depend on an ecosystem of partners, management, industry, platforms, and talent. Managers of the IP must be able to create stand alone pieces across mediums while operating as a whole. Not many people or companies can think and operate in this manner. Japan and Korea have been so good at this that what should be culturally foreign to us is globally familiar to all of us. The difference in ability and scale is comparable to the difference between U.S. and China's manufacturing and logistics. We simply don't have the infrastructure. 


2. While 64% of the world is Gen-Z and Millennials, the people in charge tend to skew older. Gen X will be at the helm for awhile, and control some of the most valuable IP in the U.S and abroad. Unless they have good talent or are also consummate consumers of media themselves, most of them will fail to see or realize the latent demand or potentiality of media mixes in their IP. A top down approach to creative marketing is dangerously slow to the bottom-up nature of the internet. 


3. The U.S. is not as homogenous as Korea and Japan. Meaning, our values are way more individualized. We don't think and operate as a collective. We also lack a super app that can widely distribute and monetize micro content. There is no comparable Kakaotalk, WeChat or Line. So while we have creative agencies and production partners, someone or a core dev ops team always has to exert a ton of energy to coordinate groups of people who simply lack the context, passion for the IP, or the situational awareness of globally shared moments and niche subcultures worth capitalizing on. 



IP Management Strategy in the 21st Century

This has made me think and reassess the role of IP management and what it means to design an effective media strategy around this new media environment. Typically companies want to control the source code of IP. Anything not officially blessed by the company is deemed not kosher. Unable to be consumed because it diverges from the grand narrative. A cathedral model imposed upon a bazaar. 


It's well known that both Disney and Nintendo ban certain fan-fiction and unofficial uses of their original work that violate copyright. But there's a huge fan community of amateur creators that self-publish. What's known as a 'Doujinshi,' which means fan produced work that operate in a legal copyright twilight zone. For example there's a Pokémon Doujinshi that's widely considered to be better than the original manga and anime series. Let me say that again. There is a fan made version of the highest grossing franchise of all time, that is widely considered to have a better storyline than the original and official versions of Pokémon.



Franchise Properties in the AI Economy

A Harry Potter TV series was recently announced for HBO Max, but it will have to contend with an equally striking fan fiction community. Now that fans can create entirely new narratives at a level that rivals its original progenitor, the question isn't about the future of media, but rather, what is the future management strategy of media properties? Especially in an age where AI super powers an individual creator to be it's own studio. 


Steinberg pointed me to Otsuka Eiji, a media theorist and writer of manga works like MPD Pyscho and The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. In one of his seminal essays titled World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative, he writes: 


"In this way, at the same time as narrative consumption motivates the excessive consumption of the kind shown by the desperate child consumer, it also bears within it the possibility of a new stage wherein consumers themselves begin to create commodities and consume them on their own terms. At this future point in time, the commodity producers [okurite; literally “senders”] will become excluded from the system of consumption and will no longer be able to manage the commodities they themselves had originally produced. For this reason, the final stage of narrative consumption points to a state of affairs wherein making a commodity and consuming it merge into one. There will no longer be manufacturers. There will merely be countless consumers who make commodities with their own hands and consume them with their own hands. Let us be clear here: this would mark the closing scene of the consumer society that saw the endless play of things as signs." 



Narrative Collapse: Cathedrals vs Bazaars

What Otsuka is referring to when he says "closing the scene of the consumer society that saw the endless play of things as signs," he's referring to Jean Baudrillard's theory of sign value which argues that consumption is not just about acquiring goods and services for their practical use, but also about their symbolic and cultural meaning attached to them. In other words, people consume products not just for their function, but also for what they represent and how they make them feel. 


According to Baudrillard, consumption is driven by the need to signify one's social status, identity, and desires. The value of a product is not just based on its utility, but also on the sign value attached to it - the cultural and symbolic meanings that it represents. Baudrillard's theory suggests that the value of goods and services is not objective or inherent, but rather constructed through cultural and social processes. The meaning attached to products is created and reinforced through advertising, media, and other cultural institutions. As such, consumption is not just a practical act, but a cultural and symbolic one as well.


I can only assume what he means is that when people can both create and consume worlds of their own making, the sign value cultural goods will collapse. This creates a fundamental tension between the creators of the official grand narrative and consumers of alternative narratives born from the same world. At the extreme end of this, if I don't like HBO's version of the Harry Potter series, I can simply fork the [narrative] source code myself, create my own story, share it with the world, and it has the potentiality to become equally legitimate (if not more) than the official series. Maybe not in the legal or commercial sense, but certainly from a cultural standpoint. The witch trials of J.K. Rowling has shown that a mob mentality can mobilize to delegitimize the original creator of a beloved IP. 


The future of media, strategy, brand, and IP management lies in understanding the evolving nature of media, creation, culture, and consumption. Recognizing the potential of media mixes in the IP requires rethinking the conventional approach to controlling the source code of IP and embracing the diverse and creative world of fan communities. The challenge is to strike a balance between maintaining the essence of the original work and empowering fans to contribute their unique perspectives and creations, ultimately enriching the media ecosystem.


In an age where AI empowers individual creators to produce content rivaling that of the original source material, the focus must shift from merely creating a single piece of media or object to fostering an ecology of fandom. This involves embracing the potential for open-source narratives, where fans can actively contribute and create their unique versions of stories, and share them for consumption, enriching the cultural value of the IP. By striking the right balance between control and openness, IP managers can ensure that the value of the IP remains intact while also allowing for new creative expressions and ideas to flourish. IP strategy becomes more like having your hands on the toggles and faders of an organization's IP. Feeling out the board, and anticipating when to bring elements in and out. Perhaps even pushing control and the creation of the IP to the edges to create shared value like an open-source project. On the other end of the spectrum is complete control over cultural production by mediation of platforms—centralizing control and promoting winner-takes-all dynamics. One thing is for sure. What was once a niche subculture of fan-fiction and fan-art confined to a handful of communities will now permeate every single social platform. Interesting times head. 



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