The power of the Customer

The customer chooses whether or not you succeed or if you fail. This can’t be overstated, but what has been understated that not all customers are one group. Take a sample of any consumer group, be it fans of a franchise, soda drinkers, candy eaters or whisky juggers, you’ll always find that they have something in common and something very much uncommon with each other. Within your target audience, you can’t appease everyone. You can hit different parts of your target audience with multiple products that appease different varieties of tastes, even if those tastes might clash harshly against each other. There’s a reason one of my random banners at the top is quote from Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, stating the there’s only one boss, the customer. Money moves almost everything in our daily lives, from the power you’re getting from your wall outlet to the clothes you’re probably wearing. Simple change in spending habits, like going to another chain’s store than your usual one, can affect things rather strongly. While the Internet has made campaigning against and for something so much easier, compared to letter campaigning or phone calling, the best form of stance taking is still hitting where it hurts the most; the wallet. However, wallet voting has taken hit on how effectively it is. The Internet has allowed movements to become louder and more obtuse, especially with the advent of social media. This has obfuscated the real amount of consumers doing anything, as majority of consumers are still silent. That is to say, most companies hear the voice of the minority of their customers, which leads only small sects sometimes impacting production, sales and whatnot of products that would otherwise have normal sales. Reasons vary, from mother’s campaigning to pull out GTA V from Target’s store shelves in Australia or some animal awareness group pointing out how Pokémon is animal abuse, you can take your pick from whatever ideological and political spectrum and you’ll find a group that’s making noise.

The creative industries have a hard time dealing with consumer wants and demands from time to time. Individual entrepreneurs have probably the hardest time finding and keeping a customer base. Individuals have to do everything on their own, and very few realise early on that having sensible finances and being able to keep your own book is highly important. Nowadays it is easier to find your own niche, though competition is even fiercer. Despite the rosy image of an artist giving his heart and soul to the piece and sees the world celebrating it, the reality is that artists still work in a service industry and their work needs to reflect the consumers. While art is culture, it is also a consumable. Only a fraction of a fraction of works that get cited as art will enter the cultural lexicon, something that’s becoming ever increasingly difficult as out 24/7 cycle of everything sees everything getting old within a matter of days. Fifteen minutes of fame has been reduced to closer to five.

The net’s full of comparisons like this

This has lead some to question if fans, a.k.a. consumers, have too much power over the products they consume. Or to put it like BBC Culture did, are fans too entitled? To touch the opinion piece a little bit, it mostly covers history of fans able to change and influence creators, citing examples like Sir Conan Doyle resurrecting Sherlock Holmes ten years after killing him off due to an intense reaction from the readers. For 1893, maybe ten years was long enough time for the books to spread. That, or in reality the considerable large sums of money ultimately changed his mind. After all, that made him one of the most well paid writers of his time. Stephen Kelly, the aforementioned piece’s writer, considers the change of Sonic’s model change in Sonic the Hedgehog unprecedented in modern relationship between artist and fan, something that is false. Video game characters have seen redesigns from time to time for numerous reasons after fans backlash, or have the perceived atmosphere has directly impacted the designs. This most notably has affected female characters, while the male characters have been left mostly alone. From Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s Tifa being more toned down compared to her original design (despite still getting riled by some) to something minor like a win pose being changed in Overwatch. While changing how Sonic looks in his movie resulted in tons of good PR, and the staff have been saying the fan feedback was invaluable. Whether or not this is a positive example is really up to you. Whether or not you prefer the original movie Sonic design compared to the current one.

The point of the piece is whether or not fans have entitlement over the things they buy. One example she cites where a minority of fans hammered down a movie despite critics and other fans liking it is The Last Jedi, though now that we’re two years after the fact looking at the results of the film, and how it affected the franchise as a whole, it wasn’t exactly a minority that rejected the movie. Sure it has its core fans, but the culture and general consumers at large simply for numerous reasons, which all can ultimately be bogged down as They didn’t like it. The franchise is feeling and reeling from the after shakes still, and will be for the foreseeable future. Kelly tying identity politics with Star Wars and the 2016 Ghostbusters is false, as the 2016 Ghostbusters is simply a terrible movie that failed to launch a new franchise for Sony to bank on. Then again, #GG is used as a boogyman in the piece and represented highly inaccurately, and really has nothing to do with anything aforementioned. There is no true conclusion to Kelly’s writing outside Fans are the problem, but fans are also the solution, which really means jack shit.

Let’s take a recent case about fans being split about a character redesign. A Japanese illustrator and character designer named Ban was employed by Flame Toys to redesign a Transformers character named Windblade for their Furai Model line of model kits. Flame Toys is known to redesign characters while working under Hasbro’s license, and these redesigns can be drastically different from the original works. If you check Ban’s Pixiv, you will notice at least two things; clean and smooth style, and that a lot of his works are Adult Only. His works are hard to represent in plastic due to him employing some shading and linework that works only in 2D. After Flame Toys revealed Windblade’s physical prototype in New York Toys Fare, there was a backlash against the design, forcing them to take down their posts on social media. The designer, Ban, still retained the prototype images on his Twitter.

Arguments about this design were conflicted. While a portion disliked it, a larger portion seems to like it. Difference is, most of the detractors on social media were English speaking customers, while the customers with positive feedback shared both English and Japanese. Unsurprisingly, few different posts explaining the backlash to the Japanese fans popped up, to which some Japanese laughed at and some thought the situation was unfortunate. Criticism ranged from it not being aligned with the original design of the character, which should have been a given seeing this is a Flame Toys product and that The Transformers toyline is full of redesigns of all sorts, to all the way how Ban’s design gave the character bikini, despite Wingblade’s bust and crotch always had red accents, as seen on the right. The wings where a sticking point to some, as they seem to be clipped in Ban’s redesign. This is of course natural, as Ban emphasized their nature as the bow in obi, the sash Japanese use with kimonos. I didn’t hear anything about the head crest’s size, but some issues with the second proto photo’s pose, and some were asking why the other, masculine models weren’t put in the same position. This is an example of false equivalency though, as what attracts men and women, and what shows their best sides, is different between the two sexes. The two sexes also value each other in different ways, emphasizing regions of body in altogether different manner, which is very much apparent in most more designed Transformers toys, where masculine emphasizes can be seen on broad shoulders, well defined chest and flat, sixpack stomach regions. Let’s not forget strong chins.

If I’m honest, I never liked Windblade’s design. The head crest is silly, the wings looked dull and generic, turbines everywhere, they manage to make the face look terrible, not much unique body definition after seeing what sort of design Animated series had. Personally, I don’t think Transformers as a whole needed sex, the species is mechanical in nature and could’ve been treated as one-sex or sexless

The fans were split, and not evenly even. This is an example where smaller sections of the target consumer group was split on a character design. You had a section that disliked it, you had a section that was as vocal about liking it, and then you have those who don’t really care. This is a gross simplification, as the reality is that there are thousands of small fractured groups working under similar umbrellas. Some have echo chambers, some don’t even interact with the rest of the fandom, and some simply had no interest on the topic as it was about a model and not about a transforming toy. Considering Furai Model kits are targeted at adult collectors, the niche audience this model was targeting most likely already excluded a lot of voices on both sides. A French Youtuber put many peoples’ thoughts rather well; There is a store package version for children, and this model kit is clearly not for them, but one of the many adult collector’s figurines. It’s pretty funny to use the term “objective” about a machine… Last bit of course refers to the complaint that Ban’s design is sexist and makes women sex objects. It considering this is a robot toy, objectification of a fictional robot is expected, as that’s what making a toy is. The design is sexy without a doubt, with expected curves, but as a friend so elegantly put it, You’re telling me Ban draws something else than boys with dicks? the design is rather held back from what it could have been.

If we are to consider the creative industries, or just arts, as something untouchable by external forces, why shouldn’t Flame Toys celebrate Ban’s redesign of Windblade and sell it to the customers? Or should they listen to the part of their broader possible customers and cancel it, losing whatever money they’ve had thus far in the production? If we were to stick with the idea that art should be independent and ignore both positive and negative feedback, Sonic’s designs wouldn’t have changed and Flame Toys would still have their New York Toys Fare posts up just fine. Some might see this as false equivalency due to supposed ideologies and whatnot, but stripping all the excess fat off and getting to the point, it’s all about customers voicing their opinion on a revealed character design.

Every kind of design and form of media has its customers. One thing has more than other, I doubt anyone really contests that in a serious discussion. However, not all products require to sell high numbers. Prestige and deluxe products are intended to be produced in relatively low quantities but in high quality. Their price tag represents this, often tacking more than few zeros at the end. The main difference between the two main examples in this post, Sonic the Hedgehog is intended for all audiences at an open marketplace. Furai Model Windblade on the other hand is (maybe was at this point) targeted at a niche of a niche market, an adult collector who builds robot models. The two markets are at rather opposite ends in popular culture media landspace, but not quite.

There’s no real stance here regarding the blog. While one of the stances this blog has is pro-consumer, it also supports the idea of companies looking at the cold data over customer response. The reason for this is that the customer doesn’t know what they want. We as customer think what we want, but when we’re given options to choose from, we often find ourselves picking something completely new, something we didn’t expect we’d want further down the line. Despite customers voicing their disagreement at times, offering variety of products is as important to hit all the niches in your targeted customers. This of course leads into juggling with the PR, both positive and negative such move creates, but that’s business as usual, as this is a chance to use both positive and negative attention for net positive gain.

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