Brands as Super Heroes: Lessons from the Comics – by Jeff Hirsch

“Yeah, I can fly,” says Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man in the blockbuster that opened with over $100 million at the box office this weekend. Films based on comics are certainly soaring, with Marvel alone touting $4.9 billion in worldwide gross to date for its comic-based feature films. In his review of Iron Man in last Thursday’s L.A. Times, film critic Kenneth Turan observes, “the comic book movie is clearly the genre of our time.”

Marketers should be paying a lot of attention to this ever-growing phenomenon. My young friend Ben Jackendoff, our go-to-guy for his insight into the youth and young adult markets, gaming, new media and social networking, has a laser-like focus on bringing comics to the big screen in his movie-producing career. Beyond Batman, Superman, The Hulk, X-Men and the other household names, there are immensely popular graphic novels and comics out there that will work their way into the mainstream sooner rather than later if Ben and his like-minded colleagues have anything to say about it.

Ben constantly reminds me of the Jungian, mythic power of these timeless stories. There is much more going on here than good versus evil. The ambiguity of these characters, their fears, weaknesses and darker sides of their personalities are a direct reflection of our struggles to make sense of and survive in a morally complex and dangerous world. Regardless, the numbers speak for themselves – comics are huge and highly relevant.

There is a lesson in this for marketers. I often talk about the mythic power of great brands and the “hero stories” of their visionary founders. But when iconic brands are discounted and line-extended to the extreme, can there be any surprise that brand loyalty continues to erode?

Villains such as The Joker, The Penguin and The Riddler are the line extensions of comics. But while he may have many adversaries, but there is only one Batman. Imagine what Batman line extensions would do to the franchise – new, additional “Batmen” like “Batman Las Vegas” or “Urban-Gang-Busting Batman.” Mess with your Brand Myth, and you’ve got trouble. Something to think about next time you pass by Fruity Cheerios in the supermarket.

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