Riding a slow grassroots swell of interest that saw U.S. teens satisfying their Gundam fix with model kits ordered from Japan, Bandai America is finally ready to take the Gundam Wing merch program to the U.S. mass market.
The show has only been airing in the U.S. since March, when it debuted on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, but it’s already earning respectable ratings. In its first three weeks, it averaged a household rating of 1.5, up 7% from the same time last year, when The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest held the slot. Kids nine to 14 saw a 50% increase to 2.1, and particularly interesting was a 233% jump in viewership by girls ages nine to 14 to 1.0, though the number falls significantly short of the 3.1 rating for boys of the same age.
Gundam Wing is one of seven series in a Gundam franchise that has been thriving for over 20 years in Asia. Not only has it survived over two decades on the air, it has seen eight feature movies and a licensing campaign that has pulled in over US$5 billion in sales in Japan alone. Central to this campaign has been Gundam plastic model kits with over 1,000 variations. Three hundred million units of these have been sold in Japan to date.
For the U.S., Bandai America’s licensing campaign is starting slow, but aims to go big fast. Model kits retailing for US$7.99 to US$24.99 have been available at Toys `R’ Us and other mass outlets in key California markets since last fall. The product has recently been made available at select stores in Philadelphia and Chicago, and will go national by the end of the year. The first of 10 video releases (available on DVD and VHS) followed mid-May at mass across the U.S.
Ken Iyadomi, executive VP of Bandai Entertainment, says the next step is the fall launch of a product line not previously tested in Japan. ‘Bandai America is developing an action figure range that is just being developed for the U.S.,’ he says. Eighteen different 4.5′ figures (12 regular, 6 deluxe) will be aimed at aspirational five- to eight-year-olds who know Gundam is cool, but don’t yet have the dexterity or patience for the model kits.
At press time, Bandai was busily signing licensees to the Gundam franchise with an eye on shipping apparel, stationery, back-to-school supplies, backpacks, posters, stickers and wall scrolls as soon as this month. Iyadomi says the program will start out in comic book and specialty stores this summer with plans to launch an all-out national mass market program in key categories by spring 2001.
Bandai will support the program through a string of cross-promotions with Cartoon Network, as well as grassroots marketing including appearances at more than 20 anime and gaming conventions a year, placing ads in high school student papers and Gundam Wing screenings across the U.S.
The next Cartoon promo, slated for the fall, will tie in several components: model kits, the www.GundamOfficial.com Web site and the series. Cartoon and Bandai plan to search for a Gundam model-building spokesperson and kids will build their own models and send in pictures to be posted on-line. All entrants will receive their own Gundam wings, designed by the creator of the TV series, and the winner will go on air to present his or her creation.