I see a lot of people going on about how AKB/AKS has the best marketing in the idol industry and that this somehow makes them the best idol group around that can do no wrong, they’re pure and innocent, etc, etc. Well, I say that you are all full of BS.
Japan has one of the fastest evolving and rotating industries when it comes to idols. You make a mistake and you will disappear in a heartbeat or simply become irrelevant. So lets break down just what makes each idol group different, from the girls to management. First we need some categories to split things into.
So those are the things we’ll be looking at. We’ll be focusing mainly on the “big” names like AKB48, Momoiro Clover Z, Tokyo Girls’ Style, etc. Or to put it another way, AKS, Stardust and Avex.
First let’s talk about management. We have AKS who are very good at marketing, but seriously lacking in actual promotion. In their case their marketing brings in huge numbers for singles and album sales by basically artificially inflating the number with the inclusion of autograph, handshake or 2-shot tickets. This makes the numbers for the analysts look great. A million seller single or album looks wonderful for things like Oricon and MTV and various records.
The next factor we have to look at is Graduations, Shuffles, Elections and Janken tournaments. All of these cause fans and the public to talk, whether they are talking about how AKS is going to mess it up or how they can make everything perfect. It keeps the group(s) in the front of our minds and on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Combine these two factors together and you keep the media going gaga over you, which keeps you in front of the general public. So yes, in general AKS has excellent marketing at least for the general fans and general public.
But what are the negative effects of their marketing? Well I can tell you from years of watching and enjoying AKS and Hello!Project, it gets really tiring after a while. The graduations are understandable and acceptable and while it’s always sad to see one of your favorite members leave in this industry it’s going to happen.
Team Shuffles on the other hand are something I really don’t understand. Team A was the cool beauties, Team K was the awesome cool dancers with the powerful songs and Team B was the cute, basically traditional idols. Now what do the Teams have? Nothing. They have lost their marketing power when it comes to the teams. There is no identity there to sell other then some individual members which is not what you want when trying to sell something to the general fans.
Now, shuffle concerts are absolutely amazing because you get to see members doing completely different songs. This is great for the general public because it adds a bit of freshness into the songs. The downside is that if you use members the general public isn’t familiar with then they tend to loose interest. However that is exactly what the hardcore fan is looking for, and you might just attract some of the casual fans to move a bit more to the hardcore side.
Request Hours are basically a giant screw you. It has nothing to do with the quality of the song what so ever. It could be the best song in the world, but if it doesn’t have the hardcore fanbase’s favorite members it will never make it. The whole thing is nothing but a giant popularity contest for the members, which is exactly what it shouldn’t be. The Request Hour is probably one of the best marketing tools AKS has and the fans completely mess it up. It is our chance to tell Aki-P and management the type of songs we want to hear be it older style songs or more along the lines of “So Long” (please dear god no). Instead we change it into a member popularity contest which is something we already have.
Elections, what can I say, the popularity contest #2. The election is one sided, great marketing but effectively pointless from the hardcore fans side because we all know who the top 16 are going to be. If Watanabe Mayu or Kashiwagi Yuki announced a graduation just before the election then I can almost promise that they would be #1 for the election. While if Takeuchi Miyu announced her graduation she might be lucky to get into the top 32 but still wouldn’t break the top 16. So it’s just another excuse for management to pat themselves on the back and tell themselves they are using the right members, because they are the only members the general public knows and votes for.
The Janken tournament is amazing if it is solely based on random luck and not stacked or setup so that a certain girl wins. As long as it stays completely random it’s absolutely amazing for the fans, as we get the chance to see possibly completely unknown girls from any of the AKS groups. This is good for marketing because they can do the whole “Come see the possible upset of XXXX” angle. The fans also get to see some interesting and odd line ups, which is great for keeping things somewhat new and interesting.
Now let’s look at Stardust marketing. We have three groups we can look at here, but I won’t be focusing on Team Syachihoko because they haven’t been around long enough to establish any sort of real theme. Momoiro Clover Z has probably the best marketing you can get and it follows what I feel idols are meant to be. They don’t focus on the CDs as much, and primarily focus on their concerts, and they don’t even have to sell the concerts anymore. They tell you the title and where it’s going to be and you know exactly what to expect, be it at Zepp, Budoukan, or Nissan Stadium. They sell their concerts as a place to come enjoy some music and stupidity from the girls and release your stress and go away re-energized.
Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku is a bit different because I feel they haven’t settled on only one style of concert. Most seem to follow a festival or play/musical theme and don’t seem to be as high energy as their big sisters but they still manage to make them interesting and worthwhile to see. I will say Stardust does need to take a look at Ebichu for some better marketing because they just don’t match up. Without something, be it CDs or concerts they aren’t going to be able to reach the heights Momoiro Clover has, but maybe they aren’t looking for another idol act.
People are probably wondering why I haven’t talked about promotion at all yet. That’s because marketing is all about selling the brand, so let’s take the time to talk about promotion now.
Promotion is the one area that AKS fails miserably in. You have 16 girls, that management says said are pretty enough, cute enough, funny enough, well spoken, or whatever reason it is to appear on TV. Then there are another 130 girls that aren’t worth having on TV. Now it’s true that the 16 is per group so the numbers aren’t exact, but what is the point of having all these other girls? Well it’s all about the idea of “Idols you can meet”. You’ve got 16 girls to promote interest in the group and get people to look into them, then another 130 girls to give the widest chance of them finding someone they will like and stay interesting in. This is all great in theory but in practice it doesn’t work out as well as it should.
First we have the mass graduation from SKE. A lot of the members who left during the mass graduation were well known members. Maybe not all were in that top 16 slot but you knew them, like Kuwabara Mizuki for example. Whether you loved her or hated her you knew who she was. Then we have someone like Yagami Kumi who was actually one of the front members of SKE. The problem we run into here is that management, while they did a pretty good job of promoting the top 16-20 members, they just had at least 6 of their top tier to top-mid tier members leave. This happened without management ever promoting or pushing some of the lower tier members and preparing them to step into those vacant spots. So they spent time scrambling to figure out who to add to those top 16 spots to fill in on TV shows.
Let’s take a minute to look at this a bit more in depth. We’ll do this by looking at SKE and NMB. Now as foreign fans we don’t get the chance to go to the theater and seem them nearly as much as we would like to. Instead we have to rely on the internet and TV to show us the members. This means we are basically regulated to what the general public gets to see. We get to see the top 16, and maybe a select 8-12 from AKB only. From SKE and NMB we might see the top 4-6 members. That still leaves a whole lot of members that we may very rarely see or never see. They need TV shows to promote the members to the general public but they can’t afford to promote 130 girls on TV at one time. They have to pick and choose, and that is fine for the shows where they are guests and can just send those top 16. The question is, why can’t we have a rotating schedule for shows like “AKBingo”, “AKB Show” and “SKE48 Gakuin”? Why can’t we have a show like AKB48+10 where they introduced us to all of Team B and their various quirks and personalities. “SKE48 Gakuin”, “AKBingo”, “AKB to XX” and “Nemosou” are perfect platforms to showcase the lower tier members.
Yabuki Nako appeared on “HKT48 no Odekake” and did nothing but smile and blush and whisper maybe a dozen words and everyone went gaga over her. I’ll be the first to admit that some members just aren’t suitable for TV but that’s fine, show us that. Put them on TV and show us they suck. You never know, we might like them more because of it if they are good in front of an audience but not TV. I understand that they want the ratings and that’s why they put the more popular members on TV but you know what, it was more interesting watching Team 4 old and new challenge “AKBingo” than it was seeing the same old members all the time on it. You can’t tell me that putting lesser known members on the show hurt, because they had the same or higher ratings which means it’s not the general public that is watching AKBingo. It’s the hardcore fans watching it.
Now I’m sure some of you are thinking “But what about Mio and Meru?” Well HKT is different and it’s always been this way when they create a new group. There is 1 or 2 kenkyuusei who are pushed because they are going to be big in either the current or new team. Sadly when it comes to the secondary teams be it K2, E, M, B2, K4, whatever, if it isn’t the main team all but 1 or 2 members get ignored with AKB being the exception. Then you watch concerts like the Dome tour and see some girl and go “She’s awesome, who is she?”
Lets take a look at a couple of girls, Kobayashi Kana and Tanabe Miku. Kobayashi, a 2nd generation member and Team K original, has only ranked once in the election at 41st place, was in a few of the earlier singles, appeared only a few times on the various shows and very rarely appears now. When she did appear originally she was funny and silly and added to the show but in recent appearances she just doesn’t appear to care but can still be funny when she wants.
Tanabe is a 3rd generation member and Team B original who I believe has appeared on even less singles and TV shows than Kobayashi has. I think she is funnier than Kobayashi though and more willing to look like an idiot to get a laugh. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why girls like Kobayashi and Tanabe have stayed with AKB for so long, clearly there is a reason but we don’t know what.
NMB and SKE are basically in the same spot that Kobayashi and Tanabe are in. Team N and Team S get promoted but the other 4 teams are practically ignored and we may never see the possibilities that those teams hold in their members. Of course some of you might be thinking, but it’s not up to AKS to promote the girls on TV and you would be wrong. NMB members are part of the Yoshimoto Kyaraku agency, SKE members are part of the Pythagoras agency while HKT members are all AKS. AKB is a bit different with the most popular members being parts of big agencies like Ota Pro, Watanabe Pro, HoriPro, but most of the new members are part of AKS.
For NMB we can lay some of the blame on Yoshimoto for not promoting the members of M and B2 but also AKS for not involving them in more AKB48 Group TV shows. With SKE it’s not exactly clear who is managing them be it Pythagoras or AKS, but whatever the case, the management team behind SKE needs to take a long, hard look at things. HKT like I said is with AKS and so far they have done pretty good with HKT but they probably just haven’t gotten to the point yet where they only show a select few members and ignore the rest because they are still a young group.
So what does this all mean in the end? It means that while the older and popular members continue to graduate, they aren’t doing enough to promote new members to replace them and keep the general public interested in the group. Sooner or later the members are going to see the lack of promotion and interest and like any employee in any business that isn’t getting the recognized they are going to leave because they can do their current activities without being tied to the group. Be it modeling, acting, or whatever, some of the girls might even feel like they are being pushed to leave because they aren’t allowed to do some things, or from the simple fact they are being ignored. It’s my personal opinion that SKE will be the first hit hard by this.
To recap, marketing is excellent overall while promotion is a large failure overall.
So that’s AKS, now let’s take a look at Stardust Management, the ones in charge of Momoiro Clover Z, Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku, and the newly formed Team Syachihoko, and Takoyaki Rainbow. What do they do so differently?
First let’s look at marketing, or should we say the lack of marketing. At least when it comes to singles and albums. There’s no handshake tickets, no 2-shot tickets, no autograph tickets, if you’re lucky you might get a free picture with your CD. DVDs and Blu-rays normally come with some sort of concert photo collection, but you aren’t getting anything that would make you want to buy multiply copies unless you are one of those that wants to collect all the different cover arts. That alone isn’t going to make you buy hundreds of copies like AKS does though.
They don’t even have TV shows really. Ebichu has a short 2 minute show called “Ebi-land” which is similiar to “DERA SKE”, and I believe Syachihoko has a local Nagoya TV show. Momoclo does have “Momoclo-chan” on TV Asahi which for a long time was web only and I believe is now airing weekly on TV, but nothing like AKS does with it’s dozen of TV shows and appearances every week.
Stardust marketing revolves around live performances more than anything as that is where the Stardust groups really shine, with each major concert being a unique experience.
Now some of you are probably saying “But they make fans buy singles to get handshakes at events!”, but there is a major difference with the smaller idol groups and indie groups doing this and what AKS does with selling tickets included in their CDs. Selling them at events doesn’t inflate the numbers that appear in the rankings. If Oricon says Momoclo sold 90,000 copies of their latest single then that is how many sold in major retailers like HMV and Tower Records, as those sold at events are not counted any longer for Oricon at least. So even though they may be using the same type of tactics, they aren’t getting the numbers for it.
Promotion for Stardust is also vastly different from AKS, and shares more similarities to what Avex does with Tokyo Girls’ Style. With internet live streams of the members chatting and talking about various events and happenings to small lives at Tower Records and HMV and even personally packaging and handing out CDs at release events, again at Tower and HMV stores. You also get things like bus tours through Akihabara with the girls explaining details about their newest single or whatever over a PA system as they drive through the area or areas. Generally special events like that have special free lives at the end of the tour. The real difference with Stardust promotion is a lot of actors, comedians, TV announcers are fans of at least Momoclo and will do special runs on morning shows, where I don’t see a lot of big names going on about AKS groups. This is in addition to the music shows they appear on.
Now we’ll look at the music. As an idol fan you’ve probably said “I’m not into idols for the music, I’m in it for the girls.” Well that’s just not true, and yes I can hear you yelling now that it’s true and I’ll tell you again that it’s not true. Let’s take a look at what an idol is. There are two parts to an Idol, the first being that we want to cheer and support the members in reaching their dreams, be that singing, acting, modeling, or something completely outside of the entertainment field. At the same time we want to be cheered and support by the members. For some, going to an idol concert might be akin to going to the spa, where they come back refreshed and ready to take on the world.
So the music is important or idols wouldn’t be doing it. The music picks us up after a hard days work and lets us forget about the stresses of life. Now that doesn’t mean it has to be great music, or that the music has to follow any particular genre. I will say personally that when idols start taking themselves too seriously or get too professional is when I start loosing interest in them. Morning Musume was that way, when they started being serious and professional on TV shows I started loosing interest in the members. I still liked the music but even that started waning after a few singles, at least until recently. I’m enjoying the sound from H!P currently, and while the members can be serious and professional when need be, they don’t act that way all the time and even say some things that I don’t feel were acceptable to management even a year ago.
Again, the music is important and when our favorite idols release a bad song it’s okay to say so. It’s not the members fault 99% of the time, people like Aki-P and Tsunku are not perfect and it’s okay to call them out on it. Let’s be honest, we are here to support the girls and I’d like to think the girls are here for us too. Yes Akimoto and Tsunku or whoever is bringing them to us, but we are the ones paying for their lifestyles and at least in the case of H!P and AKS/AKB48 Group, if we don’t express our displeasure with what they are doing, then sooner or later people will get upset and leave or simply get bored and stop paying attention. Then our favorite members are going to disappear along with the groups.
So why am I bringing this up while talking about music? Because music is where the majority of the money and focus is, but nothing says that is the way it has to be. I see no reason why we couldn’t have comedy corners during concerts, or VTRs during costume and set changes voiced by the members. There are so many other things they could do during concerts or shows to show off the various members hobbies, talents, skills or quirks.
Since we’re on the subject, why not talk about members, not specific members but just overall.
This is also where we will start comparing the differences in idol groups.
We’ll just name a few groups and look at them, we’ve got AKB family, Momoiro Clover (Momoclo), Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku (Ebichu), Dempagumi Inc. Tokyo Girls Style (TGS), 9nine and Passpo. These are some of the groups I’ll be referring to in the following sections.
How about starting with personality? Every member has a different personality, this is what they show on various TV shows. These are the things that are harder to cover with their character. Bits and pieces of who they really are behind the idol image, but it’s also part of their character’s personality, like Okada Nana’s majime or serious personality. Sometimes it’s hard to tell just how much is real personality and what’s character, like Takamina and not bathing with members is I believe real personality, whatever the reason is be it modesty or she doesn’t like looking at naked girls or whatever. Personality is also something that is shown while performing, like Nishino Miki who is going all out during performances.
Unfortunately I think management would rather have a perfect dance/singing performance than one personalized by the members performing it and this is where shuffle concerts and performances suffer for AKB. They tend not to show a lot of personal personality during them, and really only show off during the big all member performances. I would much rather see more ad-lib and personality than a perfect performance.
On the other hand Momoclo, Ebichu, Dempagumi and 9nine from what I’ve seen (which I admit for Dempagumi and 9nine is not much), would much rather personalize each performance than have a technically perfect performance. Some even emphasize not being anywhere near perfect, which for me is absolutely perfect. I don’t want my idols to be so stressed about putting on a perfect performance that they can’t have fun doing it. As I see it, if you can’t have fun as an entertainer then you should probably find something else because if you aren’t enjoying doing it your audience isn’t going to enjoy watching it.
Now as for character, we have in some cases two different characters. One for the group and the character of the members, or even the character of the song. For example, Passpo has the character of flight attendants while Momoclo has this Sentai/Power Rangers/Wrestling character in a lot of their songs and performances.
Momoclo is a great example of member character, like you have Sasaki Ayaka as the idol character always trying to be cute and happy and silly. AKB you have Kojima Haruna with the sexy character, Tano Yuka and Oshima Ryoka with the kusogaki character and Ota Aika who had the tsundere character. A character does not make an Idol but sometimes it’s a certain character type that attracts a certain type of fan and that is what they come to handshake events for. A character also helps them to showcase and sometimes steal the spotlight on TV.
Character is needed but I feel it should be a natural extension of the members personalities, forced character just becomes uncomfortable and awkward on TV. It’s true that sometimes it works out, but a natural character just has a better flow to it. This is something that AKS does well and not so well at the same time. Some of the girls have strong characters that naturally come through and strengthen over time, while other girls don’t really have any specific character type and these are the ones that tend to be less popular.
Some of this is also why the AKS shuffles are good and bad. The good being if you shuffle it right, you might get girls who seem to lack character mixed with other girls that they have more in common with or less in common with which they can feed off of and show more character traits. At the same time this is also the bad part as they may feel stifled by the girls they are now surrounded with and they end up falling in popularity.
This is where groups like Momoclo and Ebichu tend to shine through, the members have been around each other for so long that they know how each is going to react and they know what to say to get certain reactions. This is just one of the main benefits of having a smaller group, you get a much more intimate feel between the members.
The other side of the coin is TGS, they don’t really have characters for themselves. Personality sure, everyone does but they also don’t classify themselves as an idol group but as a dance and vocal group. The fans see them more as an idol group though, and they have been to Tokyo Idol Festival, so by the industry they are an Idol group. From an agency standpoint that might not be the case, and while Nakae Yuri might be viewed as the comedian of the group it’s not a fully blown character that is pushed and developed.
Well if you’ve stuck around this long I’m surprised and if you aren’t pissed me at this point I’m also impressed. Now let’s continue on to something that I find odd about the idol industry.
Let’s go into skill and talent, some may see these as being one and the same, but they are two very separate things. Skill is something that can be learned and practiced and even mastered. Talent is something that comes naturally, that once discovered you have a natural adaption for, be it singing, dancing or playing piano. However just because you are talented doesn’t mean you have the skill to use that talent, but it does mean you can generally learn the skills and master it easier.
So you ask why I bring this up when talking about idols who have had a somewhat notorious reputation in lacking talent, and even skill? Well let’s just name a few names, Moriyasu Madoka, Azuma Rion, Matsui Sakiko, Takeuchi Miyu and Masuda Yuka. Now lets look at some data.
Azuma Rion, excellent piano player be it skilled or natural talent, said to have perfect pitch, in the last election didn’t rank, but that really isn’t surprising as she only debuted 3 months before the election. She is getting recognized, be it for her skills or personality I can’t really say.
Takeuchi Miyu, 9th gen member, skilled piano player, pretty good singer, trained in classic ballet, has been in 4 of 5 senbatsu elections and never ranked, and only been in senbatsu twice.
Matsui Sakiko, 7th gen members, talented piano player, has been in all 5 elections, the first 2 she never ranked, her highest rank is 38th in the 3rd election, after that 53rd and 60th.
Moriyasu Madoka, 1st gen HKT member, skilled at least if not talented piano player, from what I’ve heard a quality singer, was in the last 2 elections, never ranked but not really surprising.
Masuda Yuka, 2nd gen Ex-AKB member, talented singer, appeared only 5 times in senbatsu, out of the 4 elections she got senbatsu once with a rank of 20th, and undergirls the other 3 ranking 25th and 26th.
Why do I bring up specific examples? Well because skilled and talented girls are under utilized. Just look at HKT48, Tashima Meru, Tomonaga Mio, even Miyawaki Sakura are barely passable singers, but they are the ones put in as the aces and faces of the group. Even Itano Tomomi is a barely passable singer which is why all her singles are so heavily auto tuned. Then you have girls who you would expect to be weak or even terrible singers and they turn out to be pretty decent singers like Akiyoshi Yuka (HKT48) and Hirota Aika (Ebichu) who sounds like she’s 5 when speaking, can sound like she’s 5 singing, and then suddenly breaks out in this voice that is astonishing.
On to the point and this comes back to what I said earlier. We don’t want professionals for idols, we want amateurs people who are flawed, who make mistakes. I think this is why management pushes those girls with lower skills or talents, and why the fans don’t pick up the more talented and skilled members for them to be massive popular members.
Now lets switch tracks here and go to Momoclo where people complain because they “can’t sing”. Why is it that people complain Momoclo can’t sing, yet AKS has demonstrated that several dozen of their members are barely passable and they get huge popularity out of it. I won’t argue that Momoclo are the best singers because they aren’t. They aren’t talented singers but they are skilled to a decent to good level. They do lack some technically in their singing but that isn’t why people say they can’t sing. They say it because they have a really hard time dancing and singing, where AKB gets nice auto tuned studio recordings to play during 95% of their lives. Momoclo uses maybe 5-10% studio recordings and when given the chance to sing without the high energy dancing they are quiet good singers.
So I guess this brings us to our conclusion, how can a group that sells 80-100,000 achieve the same level as a group that sells millions every single? Lets just look at that for a second here.
I made a point that I believe is a key factor to being an idol group earlier “release your stress and go away re-energized”. This is what it all boils down to really, be it in concert, handshake events, 2-shots, or whatever other event a group does.
Not always does this refer to the fans, it could refer to the idols as well. This has been documented though where an idol has said something to a fan and changed their outlook on something, and though I don’t have any proof I’m sure there have been some idols who have had their fans tell them something that has changed their outlook as well.
This is the whole basis for being an idol or idol fan, the idol supporting the fan however directly or indirectly and the idol fan supporting the idol.
Now back to the key, and where it really comes out and that’s at the concerts or lives, here is something to think about. What is the turn over rate for an AKB concert? How many of the people who attend are casual fans who might go to 1 or 2 concerts? I’m sure it’s high but honestly I don’t think this is something that has ever been researched. I say this because even though I would consider myself a hardcore fan, in the last couple years I’ve found most of the 48Group concerts to be very lackluster and frankly boring, and i would never want to buy an election DVD. The election is boring to watch. The Janken tournament at least has some suspense in it, and it’s interesting to see the outfits that the girls choose to wear, but I’m not sure I would ever want to watch it more than once or twice.
I understand that watching the shows live is completely different, but I can’t think that their shows are all that much fun even live, and I’m not sure after 2 or 3 shows I would really want to go back. I also realized something else, I wouldn’t want to see any idol group at a large venue like Tokyo Dome or Nissan Stadium, simply because I would be so far away I couldn’t see them clearly.
If we take a look at Momoclo, this will tell you why I had nothing nice to say about AKB here.
Momoclo concerts are in one word “Godlike”. I could sit down and watch any of their shows from 2010 to now and be entertained. All of their shows are interesting and unique. They don’t have any of the “we are going to stand in this spot and sing” thing going on. They are always running around or dancing in different areas, running into or up to the crowd, basically there is nothing standard about their performances. It’s also different because the girls have a hand in creating what they are performing, be it songs or events. If you look at just how much goes into each major Momoclo concert, be it money or effect, you can see a huge difference. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of being a small group, you can put more of your time and money into the experience and less into the members.
For 48G everything is standardized and very static except for the member performing the song. Outfits are shared and there are little to no stage props. While I can understand this because it allows them to throw just about any member into a song and not have to do a lot of practice once they know the dance, but this ends up being dull after a while. Now I’ll admit the Tokyo Dome City Hall concert (the 3 graduation one), had interesting stage design and some good stage props but it’s pretty rare for them to do that.
The other factor here is that Momoclo doesn’t try to be something it’s not. They know not to take themselves too seriously, and maybe it’s that frank honesty that has attracted the industry talent that has put themselves behind Momoclo. I think it’s also the lack of gimmicks in their CDs, and just the genuine nature of the girls and their music that has drawn in such a wide variety of fans for Momoclo. You’ve got everyone from the 80-year old grandma and grandpa to the 4-year old kids going to their concerts, I’m pretty sure we can’t say the same for 48G.
So the tl:dr of how Momoclo reached the same stage as AKB 3 years earlier than AKB is fun, variety, and being genuine in who and what they are.
If you read this far, you might as well leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!