Mr. Kahn, 56, who imported Pokemon to the U.S., learned about the Japanese comic book-inspired TV show and card game "Yu-Gi-Oh!" in 2000. Loaded with darker monsters than Pokemon, and anime "kids that these kids [want to] emulate," the brand was certain to be as big a hit with American boys as it had been with Japanese boys for years, Mr. Kahn believed.
"When he goes to Japan, he's looking at it from a fresh eye every time," says Roz Nowicki, 4Kids senior VP-sales and marketing. "He's the one who recognizes that kids are the same all over the world."
VIRAL MARKETING SPREADS FAME
Mr. Kahn and his team gave America's 9-to-14-year-old boys six months with the TV show on AOL Time Warner's Kids' WB before they let any American licensees put a single playing card or action figure on store shelves. (Upper Deck makes the trading cards.) 4Kids pushed a viral marketing campaign by sending "Yu-Gi-Oh!" news releases to kid Webzines, shipped out 1 million "Yu-Gi-Oh!" videotapes to the target audience and bought time on other networks to advertise the show.
"The challenge and opportunity of marketing to kids at an older level is to make it cool," says Ms. Nowicki. They wouldn't intentionally go after the Pokemon set: Younger brothers would eventually catch on and want to get in on the fun, but the younger set wouldn't be targeted.
Launched Saturdays in September 2001 on the Kids' WB, the show now runs six days a week. During February 2003 sweeps, "Yu-Gi-Oh!" ranked No. 1 for boys 2 to 11 (7.0 household rating /26 share),according to Nielsen Media Research. In the age group of boys 6 to 11, it earned 9.4 rating /35 share.
"There are a lot of elements to it that we knew our audience would be attracted to," says John Hardman, senior VP for Kids' WB. "It's deep and layered, and the game-play element is something kids are fascinated with."
The show hit "full stride" in March and April `02, says Ms. Nowicki. Then the brand's licensees started shipping the playing cards, videogames and action figures. Retailers were skeptical but bought it in limited fashion.
"The linchpin to all of this is to change the mix [of products and marketing tactics] as fast as you can," Mr. Kahn says. 4Kids will roll "Yu-Gi-Oh!" to about 60 countries over the next two to three years. The worldwide potential during that period: $3 billion to $4 billion in retail.