SPECIAL INTERVIEW

Kodansha’s New Venture

Kodansha, which celebrates its 112th year in business this year, has developed a striking new purpose and logo to further promote its global presence.

Why the overseas market now? And why has the company chosen now to revamp its corporate brand? To learn more about Kodansha's new endeavor, we sat down with the company's president, Yoshinobu Noma, and Greg Hahn, the founder of Gretel, who helped facilitate the company's rebranding.

Yoshinobu Noma

President and Representative Director of Kodansha Ltd. Graduated from the Faculty of Law at Keio University. After working for Mitsubishi Bank, he was appointed President and Representative Director of Kodansha in 2011. Kodansha was founded in 1909 and has a wide range of publishing activities. The company is also passionate about its mission to promote reading, and offers multiple literary awards such as the Noma Prize and the Yoshikawa Prize, which recognize talented authors’ contributions to the betterment of publishing culture.

Greg Hahn

Owner of Gretel, a creative studio in New York City, USA, which he founded in 2005 and has since spent his career developing brand strategies and visual identities for clients in a variety of industries. Their work with Apple, Netflix, Nike, The New York Times, and MoMA, among others, has received numerous awards and has been featured in design and branding publications. Greg also hosts frequent talks on the mechanics of branding and corporate identity.

Big prospects, big challenges.

Greg

We first met two years ago at a hotel café in Brooklyn. When Mr. Noma came to New York, I couldn’t imagine what sort of business the president of such a historical Japanese publisher could have with us, and I was stunned when he spoke so passionately about Kodansha’s strategy for the next ten years.

Noma

I still remember that day vividly. We’d only just met when I suddenly started rambling about the next ten years, so it’s no wonder Greg was surprised, to say the least.

Kodansha celebrated its 110th anniversary in 2019. As a company, we’ve made a practice of setting new goals about every decade, and for the past ten years, we have been promoting the digitization of publications and content as one of our top priorities. Subsequently, almost all of Kodansha's works have now been digitized. As to where we go from here, I’ve decided to double down on Kodansha’s global development and focus on accelerating its growth over the next ten years.

Of course, Kodansha has always been aware of the global market, and we have been steadily expanding our reach overseas with the establishment of subsidiaries such as Kodansha Beijing Culture in China in 2005, and Kodansha USA Publishing in the United States in 2008. As a result, the total number of copies of Attack on Titan comics and e-books sold has surpassed 100 million worldwide, to name just one example.

However, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The global community is growing closer and closer thanks to advancements in communication technology. At the same time, Japan's population continues to decline. In the midst of such changes, I thought it was inevitable that we should promote faster international expansion.

To help spread Kodansha's works more widely across the globe, to nurture creators overseas, and to promote alliances with companies based in each country, I hope to build a network for Kodansha's works to be read and created worldwide. That is my plan and my mission for the next ten years.

The interview was conducted online.
Greg

There’s a big demand for Japanese content around the world. Anime Expo, a convention held in the U.S. that focuses on Japanese animation, has become a huge event that attracts over 200,000 people every year. Furthermore, Netflix and other distribution platforms are increasingly offering content from Japan. Above all, I myself am a big fan of Japanese works such as AKIRA, and I feel that Japanese media will only grow in popularity in the years to come.

However, I could see that there were some issues that needed to be addressed in order for Kodansha to keep expanding overseas.

Noma

Yes. Issues so major, something had to be done before we could take another step.

Simply put, there are many works from Kodansha that have sold millions or tens of millions of copies worldwide such as FAIRY TAIL, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Norwegian Wood, and Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window, but the truth is that most readers overseas do not realize that these are “Kodansha” properties. In fact, many might not even know that Kodansha is a publisher in the first place.

And so, I puzzled over what we could do to make Kodansha a household name. A name that when heard, people immediately think, “Oh, them? I love their content!”

That was then I first got in touch with Greg and his company Gretel, who became our partners in tackling this major issue.

A design company composed of about 30 designers, strategists, and project managers, founded in New York City in 2005. The company has garnered worldwide attention for its work on branding for Netflix and National Geographic.

Noma

Initially, I was thinking of partnering with a Japanese company to develop a global strategy, but then I realized that if we wanted to expand further into the United States, our biggest market, it would be wise to work with an American team. There is no "right" answer for the content we handle. Sensibility is very important in this business, so we wanted to partner with a team that was rooted in the local market and understood what we do. That's why we decided to work with Gretel, a company with some of the world's top designers who have worked on projects similar to our business in the past.

But what is needed to make Kodansha more known?

Greg

We at Gretel were honored to work with a publisher with such a long and rich history, and the prospect of expanding their business on a global scale was an exciting challenge we were all eager to help with.

As I listened to Noma-san speak in detail, I felt that Kodansha needed to rebrand itself in order to solve the issues it was facing.

The term "branding" might sound a bit obtuse but in essence it is a way to communicate a company’s function and appeal in a user-friendly manner. Kodansha is well known in Japan, and when Japanese consumers hear its name, they are likely to think of it as being well-established, trustworthy, and a maker of interesting media. In the same way, we hope that when people hear the name "KODANSHA" overseas, not only will they think of specific titles, but they will also think of a positive image of the company. Branding is essential for building that public image.

So what do we need to do this? Over the course of the discussion we decided that we need to redefine Kodansha’s core purpose, and create an identity that matches the company’s personality. The purpose captures a company’s corporate philosophy, and the identity can be thought of as the ‘business card’—it’s what people see when they first come into contact with the brand.

Noma

The truth is, Kodansha did not have a unified corporate logo until now. In order to further expand our business globally, it would be difficult to gain recognition if there were several Kodansha logos in existence. Therefore, we decided to create a new Kodansha logo from scratch.

Since its establishment, Kodansha has been providing publications, content, and services based on the key concept of “omoshirokute, tame ni naru” (interesting and useful). These words may sound abstract, but in the wide range of publications we handle, sharing this essential and thought-provoking concept has ensured the appeal and quality of all our publications and services.

The question is, how should we express this concept to the world? That was another thing that troubled me. At first, I thought that I could just translate it into English, but when I attempted to do so, it just didn't really fit. Realizing it would take more than just a simple translation, I was once again reminded how challenging yet invigorating creating a global strategy would be.

Greg

We had to create a new, world-class philosophy and logo without compromising Kodansha’s historic image of being "interesting and useful.” We spent nearly a year tinkering with these concepts.

What we are doing is not creating a new brand, but revisiting the company’s core values and purpose that it has traditionally held, refining them, and making them both stronger and sharper. Purpose is the reason why a company exists in a society.

To achieve this, the Gretel team interviewed a total of 100 Kodansha employees to extract the essence of Kodansha.

Noma

This was before the COVID epidemic, but the team at Gretel actually visited Kodansha many times. Despite the language barrier, it was truly impressive how quickly they were able to grasp the essence of our work, asking us countless questions and offering advice.

The Gretel and Kodansha members who were involved in the rebranding project.

With their deep understanding of Kodansha, the members of Gretel threw out a number of inspiring proposals, to which we responded with our own ideas. I was very surprised by their approach of building things up from scratch and creating something both pure and refined. It was really a pleasure to work with them. When I heard that our teams stayed up talking till almost dawn, then went out to eat at the 24-hour beef bowl place together on several occasions, I was moved by their passion (laughs).

After going through this process many times, we came up with something that we both agreed on. And the result is our new logo and the motto "Inspire Impossible Stories," which represents our newly-defined purpose.

A place where “creative tension” is made.

Greg

At its core, Kodansha is a business that produces and disseminates stories. This might seem obvious, but it’s a key part of their identity.

The motto Inspire Impossible Stories was created to convey to the world what Kodansha is and why they exist, pulling from its core tenets of “entertaining and edifying.”

Noma

At first, many of our employees were confused to hear “impossible” in our motto, because it has such a negative connotation. I myself was surprised by the word choice.

Greg

Western consumers often use words like “impossible” or “unbelievable” to describe exciting, never-before-seen content, and that’s precisely the sort of sentiment we wanted to capture with “impossible” in this case.

Kodansha is a company that provides incredible content that moves both authors and readers to create their own tall tales. The purpose “Inspire Impossible Stories” is an expression of that commitment.

Noma

Kodansha is a publisher that covers a wide range of genres, including manga, novels, children's books, journalism and fashion magazines, all of which, in retrospect, have provided readers with new stories, values, and discoveries. We believe that Inspire Impossible Stories is both a new purpose and a reminder of our roots as a company.

Greg

I believe that the new logo also does a great job of representing Kodansha’s roots.

The K making up Kodansha’s logo represents a crossroads where stories of all sorts are conceived. Creator and consumer, entertaining and edifying, Japan and the world, tradition and innovation. Kodansha is a junction where all these things come together.

At Gretel, we often use the term “creative tension,” because we believe that tension is always necessary in order to create something good. When two concepts—tradition and innovation, for example—are mixed together, tension forms, and it is actually this tension that drives us to create something good. Kodansha will be a crossroads of various values, and the driving force created by this tension will be used to create good works and contents. Hence the new logo.

Members from various countries were involved in the logo’s design.
Noma

When I heard that, I realized once again that "interesting and useful" was also a motto that was designed to blend the two concepts together (laughs).

Greg

That's exactly right. We included 10 colors in the new logo because we wanted to highlight the company’s diversity of offerings.

The ultimate goal is for people who see this logo to feel that "this content is trustworthy because it is made by KODANSHA.”

Needless to say, this is just the beginning. At the moment, we are still at the stage of creating a platform to convey "who KODANSHA is" to the global market.

Noma

You are so right. We don’t intend to just make a new logo and purpose then pat ourselves on the back. To the outside world, the logo and motto will act as our business cards, but to the members of Kodansha, they are symbols that will inspire us to take on new challenges. Each and every one of us is more conscious of the world than ever before, and we are determined to continue to make excellent products.

Greg

I look forward to the day when people around the world hear “KODANSHA,” they think quality content.

Noma

When we look back in 10 or 20 years, hope we’ll be able to say with pride that 2021 was a major turning point for Kodansha, and we will continue to provide the world with interesting, informative, and impossible stories to delight readers and users around the world.