From Nerd Niche To Branding Superpower: 5 Lessons Every Marketing Exec Can Learn From Comics

Not long ago, comics were a nerdy subculture at the edges of art and entertainment; today, they are at the center of both. How did comics culture take over pop culture, and what can marketers learn from their success?

If you’re in marketing, comics are no laughing matter. Superheroes powered this summer’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, two of the highest-grossing movies in history. AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead shambled out of the pages of Image Comics to eat the brains of its cable TV competition. Graphic novels top the best seller lists, and sales of digital comics are growing at triple-digit rates as tablets become mainstream consumer technology.

In an era when every marketing executive is looking for ways to turn customers into fans, the fans don’t come much more raving than the crowds that descend on San Diego for five days every July for Comic-Con. Many of the 130,000-plus attendees don colorful costumes and brave long lines to bask in the glow of their favorite characters and creators. And they spend piles of money on the stuff that interests them.

So what’s the secret? How did a humble medium and tiny industry manage to mobilize a global army of enthusiasts around their unique brand of storytelling and entertainment? As the author of a new business book that looks at the future of entertainment and pop culture through the lens of the San Diego Comic-Con, I can pass along the following five tips to marketing decision-makers.

Strategic storytelling lets you leap media chasms in a single bound. Comics have found ways to bring their colorful characters to movies, TV, videogames, toys, fashion, merchandise and everything under the sun for decades. But these days, they are managing the process more strategically than ever. In DC’s Batman universe, characters and story details overlap from the Dark Knight movies to the best-selling Batman: Arkham City videogame to various comics in DC’s “New 52” lineup and online games, creating many opportunities for cross-pollination between previously siloed subcultures of gamers, comics fans and the mass market.

Not every company has a blue-chip property like Batman, but every brand is a story and every story can be told well across channels and devices. CMOs can benefit from thinking creatively about using transmedia storytelling techniques to unite fragmented audiences.

Super-brands take time to develop. The Avengers grossed nearly $1.5 billion worldwide in its theatrical release. This huge payday was the reward for years of investment in on-screen brand-building by Marvel (now owned by Disney, which knows a thing or two about brand management), bringing together four successful standalone franchises—Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.

The company’s patience and willingness to fix mistakes (e.g., remaking The Hulk only a few years after the first film flopped) helped them build a super-brand. The lesson for marketers: don’t lose the story thread for your brand. Develop a long-term strategy and execute. The results can be Mighty! Incredible! Uncanny!

Fans respect respect. At this year’s Comic-Con, “Twihard” fans of the Twilight movies and books stood in line as long as three days to get a glimpse of the film’s cast of heartthrobs. Wouldn’t any brand want fans that devoted? Sure, but it’s important to remember that fans are more than consumers, and their unusually high intensity of engagement sometimes leads them to consider themselves co-owners of your brand and co-creators of your product.

The hard-won affection of fans can turn to scorn if you take them for granted. But even small gestures of respect can go far. This year, some Twilight cast members greeted folks in line, bringing them snacks, signing autographs, and hanging out—generating rave reviews in the process. Cultivate your fans by respecting them. Delight them and they will delight you.

Continuity builds loyalty. Stan Lee is known today as the avuncular elder statesman and ubiquitous face of the comics business. But before he became a brand unto himself, Stan Lee was one of the most important brand innovators of the 20th century. In the Marvel comics he wrote and edited in the 1960s, he introduced the notion of "continuity"—the idea that all the characters and stories took place in a shared universe, built up across nearly a dozen different magazines.

Marketers note: the integrity of the Marvel universe and Lee’s distinctive editorial voice kept readers coming back issue after issue, and eager to try anything with the Marvel logo, because they felt part of the larger story. That loyalty endured over decades, and the stories Lee co-created with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko remain the basis for Marvel’s billion-dollar franchises fifty years later.

It’s not the mask – it’s what’s behind the mask. Comics and superheroes are easily reduced to clichés and stereotypes, especially in the media. At this moment of “peak geek,” when comics-based entertainment has taken over popular culture, the gatekeepers of fandom are especially sensitive to exploitation and can smell a phony, even one dressed in a seductive “Slave Leia” costume.

Marketers that want to tap into the enthusiasm and energy of a subculture, whether it is comics, extreme sports or anything else with a devoted fan base, can’t just imitate and pander to fans; they need to get inside the culture and understand what makes it tick. If that sounds like too much trouble, take it as a hint that pursuing a subcultural branding strategy might be the wrong idea for you. Successful companies keep it real—even when it comes to fantasy.

—Rob Salkowitz is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of several books including Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Follow him on Twitter @robsalk.

[Image: Flickr user Super Bomba]

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