Business

How ‘Demon Slayer,’ other anime helped save struggling canned coffee firms in Japan

An employee prepares maki sushi rolls using a Suzumo Machinery Co. compact sushi-making machine inside a Kura Corp. sushi restaurant in Kaizuka, Osaka prefecture, Japan, on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. Kura operates a revolving sushi restaurant chain based in Osaka. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
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mainichi– One product had Japan’s beverage industry bubbling in 2020: canned coffee featuring designs of characters from the popular manga and anime series “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba.”

“Kimetsu-can,” the portmanteau name they’re known by in the business, were a huge hit, selling some 100 million cans.

“Demon Slayer” is in fact among several anime titles that have injected a shot of popularity into canned coffee over the last two years. The Mainichi Shimbun looked into the circumstances behind the increased number of tie-ins with the canned coffee business.

In October 2020, DyDo Drinco Inc., a major Osaka-based soft drink company, launched its Kimetsu-can range, which included 28 different designs. Among the wide range of characters to feature on the cans were protagonists like Tanjiro Kamado and his younger sister Nezuko, as well as the “Hashira” Demon Slayer Corps., and even minor characters like the sparrow Chuntaro. Because there were designs sold only through vending machines, from which you can’t tell what can design will pop out, many fans took to social media to declare their collections complete, or talk about designs they couldn’t find.

“Collab-cans” featuring anime characters have been put out by other drink companies in recent years. Asahi Soft Drinks Co.’s Wonda brand can coffee came out with designs from “Lupin III” in August 2019; police manga “Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen-mae Hashutsujo,” also known as “KochiKame: Tokyo Beat Cops” in English, in March 2020; and “Attack on Titan” in August of the same year. Coca-Cola (Japan) Co.’s Georgia coffee cans also sported “Mobile Suit Gundam” images in 2019.

To find out more, the Mainichi Shimbun spoke directly with Tomiya Takamatsu, who serves as president of DyDo Drinco’s parent company DyDo Group Holdings Inc. and is the grandson of the firm’s founder. When asked for his view on the successful “Demon Slayer” collaboration, he smiled and said, “To be honest, it was a hit beyond our expectations. It was a shock; a very happy one.”

According to DyDo Drinco, three weeks on from launch day the company had sold over 50 million cans. Its coffee sales in October 2020 were 1.5 times the amount at the same time in 2019, and by March 2021, the product was a confirmed hit, reaching 100 million cans sold. With trips outside reduced by 2020’s ongoing coronavirus crisis, beverage firms struggled. But despite the Kimetsu-can only having had an effect on about four months of DyDo sales, the company’s consolidated operating income in January 2021 was about twice the amount compared to the previous fiscal period.

Speculating on why the coffee had been a hit, Takamatsu said it was a combination of the influence of “Demon Slayer,” which he described as “content with real power,” and the fact that “a wide array of people, not just men or people aged 10 to 29, but women, young children and even older people tried the products.”

According to an individual in the business with deep industry knowledge, the canned coffee market has been kept propped up by its “heavy user” customers; people like the salarymen and construction site workers who buy a can of coffee from a vending machine to have on their smoke break.

This form of consumption has reportedly gone on for years. TV commercials in Japan for canned coffee have often featured working men in them. Among them are the adverts for Suntory Holdings Ltd.’s Boss brand, which feature Hollywood star Tommy Lee Jones as an alien doing investigations of Earth, including by infiltrating various Japanese workplaces.

But the canned coffee market has been contracting for some time. In 1996, Starbucks Coffee Co. established its first Japanese store in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district. It meant people could easily get a proper cup of coffee when out and about. From around 2000, there was a huge rise in cafe chains, and as of March 2021, Starbucks has some 1,600 locations in Japan.

Additionally, 2013 saw 7-Eleven stores introduce self-serve coffee under the Seven Cafe brand, a service subsequently adopted by the other big convenience stores. Over five years after Seven Cafe started, it had sold somewhere in the region of 3.9 billion cups of coffee. Because the products cost around 100 yen (some 92 cents), about the same as a canned coffee, their emergence was a huge blow to the industry.

On top of all this, said Takamatsu, the firm was also affected by the introduction of “Taspo” cards, which must be used to buy cigarettes from vending machines. “When people were prevented from buying cigarettes from vending machines without a Taspo card, cigarette vending machines disappeared all at once from the streets. Before then, there were many locations where DyDo beverage vending machines and tobacco machines stood side by side, and many people had bought their coffee and cigarettes at the machines.”

With the 2008 implementation of Taspo, tobacco customers migrated to convenience stores due to the bothersome procedure to get the card, and cigarette vending machine numbers fell drastically. Sales of canned coffee that people had bought at the same time as those cigarettes also took a dive. The negative effects were compounded by the 2014 consumption tax hike, which raised the price of a 120 yen ($1.10) vending machine can of coffee to 130 yen ($1.19).

But consumer attitudes have also changed. Increasing health consciousness has led to people avoiding canned coffee products containing milk and sugar, and the heavy users the industry counts on have started deserting the drinks. Data from the Japan Soft Drink Association shows that coffee cans with stay-on tabs, the kind used today, have gone from an annual production of around 1.89 million kiloliters in 2004 to about half — 910,000 kiloliters — in 2020. Recent years have seen increased prevalence of plastic bottle coffee, and in 2018, the volume of plastic bottle coffee surpassed that of canned coffee.

It was then that canned coffee firms hit on the idea of collaboration cans as a way to bring demand back into the shrinking canned coffee market.

Takamatsu reflected: “I somehow wanted to bring excitement back to canned coffee, our category of products that has struggled the most.” By joining up with “Demon Slayer,” DyDo managed to get women and young people, who weren’t typically familiar with canned coffee, to buy the products.

One official at another canned coffee maker told the Mainichi Shimbun: “The manufacture of receptacles and other items is cheaper for cans than for plastic bottles, so the rate of profit is better for cans. The more cans we can sell, the more it supports the company as a whole.”

But some have voiced skepticism about using anime characters as a way to promote the drinks. One individual connected with the beverage industry said, “Collaboration cans are temporarily effective at pulling in customers, but if the only reason they’re buying it is because they’re collab cans, then if the company behind them doesn’t launch a similar campaign in the future it won’t retain those consumers.”

The individual added firmly, “For companies, collaborations have their good and bad sides; they’re a double-edged sword. You could say they’re like a drug.” When asked to elaborate, the individual said that while an explosive rise in sales can be expected, there’s no guarantee it’ll go on for a long time. There are concerns that when one collaboration boom ends, another range has to go on sale, thereby creating a loop companies can’t escape. They emphasized: “In the end, soft drinks are nonessential food products; whatever the drink is, if customers don’t think they taste good, then they won’t keep selling.”

Regarding those points, Takamatsu responded: “It’s not the case of building a peak (with a hit product) and then returning to the way it was before, but rather thinking, even if it does fall back to a certain level, how do we retain new customers? If we can increase our base, then even without putting out quite so many (collaboration can ranges), we should be able to maintain a certain basic level (of sales).” It seems the key for canned coffee is how high the base customer rate can be raised.

But other companies are looking for ways that don’t involve tie-in products. The catalyst for increasingly popular plastic bottled coffee was the 2017 launch of Suntory’s “Craft Boss” range of 500 milliliter drinks. Suntory’s target market had been “small sip drinkers,” as it had noticed more and more people working at their desks while taking small, occasional sips of coffee. Its transparent, cool-looking bottle and the coffee used, which had a lighter taste than most products up until that point, was a success with young people and women.

Production of the Kimetsu-cans ended in March. Will there be a second round of them? Takamatsu said, “There are still things I can’t talk about, but I want to think about it if there is excitement with anime, when movies reopen, or something like that. But, I feel it might not have the same impact as last year.”

Regarding the collaboration with “Demon Slayer,” he said, “We would like to thoroughly investigate how many customers are still buying our products and why even after the campaign is over, and plan our next campaign.”