At San Diego Comic-Con 2023, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Justin Cavender, Senior Marketing Manager at Bandai Namco Toys and Collectibles America. As the driving force behind the Bandai Namco Universe booth, Cavender provides insight into the thought process behind the interactive attractions and exclusive products designed to engage fans of all ages and interests, embracing the diverse demographics of the convention. From the immersive Dragon Ball experience to the Studio Ghibli booth filled with cherished memorabilia and even the nostalgic Tamagotchis, Justin sheds light on the thought process behind these attractions and how they celebrate the legacies of these beloved franchises.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BUT WHY THO: The Bandai Namco Universe booth at SDCC 2023 offers an exciting lineup of interactive experiences and exclusive products. Given the cons demographics, can you tell us a little more about the thought process behind the attractions and how you aim to engage fans of all ages and all interests?
Justin Cavender: For us, the experiential side of things comes first. We want people to when they come to a convention to remember our booths. A lot of times that means really cool statues, some sort of interactivity, whether it be playing video games, building model kits at workshops, touch-and-try stations, free swag, and awesome photo ops like at the Studio Ghibli booth. Just fun things for people to remember.
Sales are important, but they’re not first on the list when it comes to shows like this. We just want everyone to come to San Diego Comic-Con, have a really good time, and remember, “Wow, that Dragon Ball experience outside was incredible!” That’s what we want to do. We want to build memories.
BUT WHY THO: You mentioned Dragon Ball, and Dragon Ball holds a special place in my heart and in the hearts of lots of fans. What can attendees expect from the ultimate Dragon Ball experience, and how does it celebrate the legacy of that franchise?
Justin Cavender: The outdoor activation is right behind the Marriott Marquis at the Marina Terrace. It has a whole history of Dragon Ball, showing where it all started and how it’s grown over the years, including not only just the anime but even the figures. Over the last decade, technology and creating figures has definitely evolved and changed. It’s really cool to see a figure that came out eight years ago versus a figure that came out today.
Then there are the video games, the trading card game, and the model kits. It really brings everyone together. There’s something for everyone in that experience. as well as the cool photo ops of sitting there and powering up, going like full super saiyan for a photo op, or cruising around on a flying nimbus. All that just sort of has a bit of immersion that takes place and transports you.
BUT WHY THO: You mentioned earlier that the Studio Ghibli booth has lots of interactive things to do. Is there anything else in that area that stands out in terms of the souvenirs or anything that would get people excited outside of just the interactive?
Justin Cavender: Bandai Namco is the official distributor of Studio Ghibli products in North America. So, if you’re not getting it from us or one of our retail partners, like Barnes and Noble or Amazon, or things like that, then it’s a bootleg. It’s not official merchandise. So not a lot of people can get their hands on Studio Ghibli stuff unless you live in Japan. It’s really exciting for people to come to this place, and the line is literally wrapped around the booth along the wall. We have tea sets, teapots, blankets, puzzles, figures, clocks, towels, and people can really just sort of decorate their homes with some of their favorite Ghibli movies. That’s really special to a lot of people. Talk about that wave of nostalgia. And now people that are old enough to have their own kids to show them Studio Ghibli films. It’s fantastic.
BUT WHY THO: Talking about nostalgia, there’s a Tamagotchi booth here. Can you tell me a little bit about what was like bringing that experience here to San Diego Comic-Con? What can people expect if they grew up with Tomagotchi and are looking to see kind of what is new with that technology?
Justin Cavender: So there is a lot of the same. But what’s cool about Tamagotchis is there are lots of fun colors and lots of fun mascots. There’s even the Tamagotchi Nanos, which focus on various IPs, like Jurassic Park, Jujutsu Kaisen, and Spy x Family, with fun interactive games inside those to grow your character.
Last year, we interviewed somebody that stopped by the booth, and they were buying Tamagotchis for their kids because it taught them responsibility. And I was like… you know, I never even thought about that. Like a light bulb moment, those old sitcoms where kids had home economics, and they’d take care of an egg for like a week or whatever. Literally the same concept, you know, and I’m just like, this is amazing.
We do have two OG exclusives as well as a special Star Wars Grogu exclusive. It comes in a commemorative box. It’s beautiful. It has sort of a Mandalorian armor coloring to it. It’s fantastic.
BUT WHY THO: There is gachapon here. It’s a piece of Japanese culture that we love. Can you talk to me a bit about the Gacha Gathering and what drove you guys to bring something like that to San Diego Comic-Con?
Justin Cavender: Gachapon has really, really grown here. We started at San Diego Comic-Con last year, went on to C2E2 two, and then to Anime Expo, for crying out loud. Talk about an interactive experience, right? You’re putting in some tokens, you get a capsule, and then there’s lots of variety, but maybe you don’t get the one that you wanted, right? The Gacha Gathering is really cool because it will bring other fans together to be able to share and trade the different gachapon that they want.
Last year at San Diego Comic-Con, we had just a few machines. I think it was like 12 machines in total. And this year, it’s almost a whole wall. It’s really cool to see that grow. We have a pop-up shop in Little Tokyo in, LA, and machines are selling out so fast. My dream is to have an entire wall here in San Diego, just endless gachapon.
BUT WHY THO: We’ve talked about Tamagotchis. We’ve spoken of Studio Ghibli. We’ve talked about Dragon Ball. And I know you have a wide variety of other things here at the convention. What goes into that process of picking what you guys are going to put in the installation?
Justin Cavender: We have a really big team that’s involved. Each brand has its own team. We all put our input in, and we have meetings every week. Planning for San Diego is something that we plan probably 10 months out. We like to experiment. We like to try things differently. Our layout isn’t always the same. It’s not cookie-cutter. So sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t.
You go over to the Tamashii booth, walk through some displays, go up to a window, and purchase something. Whereas at Gundam, you walk through a shop. We have a shoppable experience where you’re able to pick up boxes and carry them and, and, and look at them and make sure that this is the one that you want.
So, it’s different for every product. It’s important to learn that. There are some experiments along the way. We tried the window, and maybe the window doesn’t work. With Gundam, maybe you’re new to it, and you don’t understand what it is that you’re getting. And so when you see that box that just has like this crazy red epyon on it, you’re like, what the heck is that? I got to build that. That’s the one that I want.
So it’s interesting to see how what works for one brand doesn’t work for the other. Even though we’re all Bandai Namco, each little brand within the company has to sort of cater to its audience.
BUT WHY THO: Is there anything coming out technologically that you’re excited about? Maybe something new in the space outside of what we’ve talked about that you are excited about?
Justin Cavender: New IP is always exciting, like Sand Land. Yeah. Yeah, great. Sand Land, I mean, Tamashii, is known for Dragon Ball, Naruto figures, and Marvel stuff, so it’s really cool to add a new property to SH Figuarts.
As far as technology goes, the hobby department has just upped the ante to a whole other level when it comes to the different colorings and the moldings on the model kits and the articulation on the model kits and everything that’s involved. I feel like if a human can move that way, then these model kits can move that way. They found a way to transition a human’s articulation into a model kit. I don’t think that that’s something that’s ever been available before, and it’s an exciting feature.
BUT WHY THO: For those not at San Diego Comic-Con this weekend, where can they go and experience an interactive experience with Bandai Namco?
Justin Cavender: Our neighbors to the north at Fan Expo Toronto. We’re going to be going there next in August. So that’s going to be exciting. We also have a Tamashii Nation flagship store opening in New York at Times Square. So all your East Coasters can check that out. It will be opening this summer. But, of course, you know, it’s con season. We already have Toy Fair coming up in September and New York Comic Con coming up in October.
Justin Cavender’s passion for creating immersive and interactive experiences at San Diego Comic-Con is evident in the success of the Bandai Namco Universe booth. By prioritizing the experiential side of things, he and his team aim to leave a lasting impression on attendees, offering them opportunities to engage with their favorite franchises in unique ways.