Superman may be more powerful than a locomotive, but when it comes to self-promotion, even the caped-one could use a little help on occasion.
Given the advent of interactive video games, the Internet, and a multichannel universe, it’s no big mystery why comic book sales have suffered in recent years. According to Henry Watkins at DC comics, monthly circulation sales have slumped from US$5 million to US$3.5 million over the past five years.
But the New York-based creator of famous superheroes like Batman and the Green Lantern, is determined to stay in the consumer psyche. The 60-year-old company is revamping its marketing strategy for its custom comic book division.
‘Creating custom comics for advertisers is a great way to not only expand where the DC brand can be seen,’ says Henry Watkins, national advertising director at DC Comics, ‘but it gives clients a chance to create something original as part of their promotional campaigns.’
One of DC’s biggest campaigns launches early in 1999 and is scheduled to repeat that same summer. The comic giant is working with Time Inc. on a massive anti-drug initiative that is part of the U.S. government’s US$1 billion drug prevention program. As part of the campaign, 16 million digest-sized, custom comics will be inserted in February issues of People, Entertainment Weekly, Time and Sports Illustrated. Watkins says his company is still deciding which storylines and characters will be used.
‘It’s a historic program for us because it shows the public and advertisers the diversity of the comic book medium,’ he adds. ‘It can be used as an educational tool, as well as for promotional purposes.’
As an advertising medium, custom comics are generally offered as a premium with a product purchase. To date, DC has worked on a variety of campaigns, from a Batman promotion with Kellogg to educating children in war-torn regions about the dangers of land mines. Having the ability to tailor the properties is the appeal for advertisers, but DC remains highly protective of the reputation of its characters-storylines may support a
product, but DC personalities do not directly endorse them.
‘We think seeing Superman holding a product in his hand takes away from the character and what the advertiser is trying to accomplish,’ says Joel Erlich, senior VP, promotions at DC Comics. ‘We use the characters as support.’
Although Batman and Superman are most often requested by clients, the superheroes are not the only personalities on the roster. DC, a division of Time Warner, uses Looney Tunes, Cartoon Network classics like Scooby Doo, the Jetsons and the Flintstones, as well as other Warner Bros. animation.
DC artists have also created new characters when its properties are unsuitable for a campaign. Since these characters are not part of the DC brand, the company does not include its red and white logo on the book covers.
The custom books can also be used as a research tool. ‘Sometimes we’ve included reply cards asking readers what they thought of the comic, or we’ve added coupons for client products,’ says Erlich.
Although DC has recently been pushing its custom division, specialized comics are not conceptually new. In the early 1980′s, DC created a book for Honda that promoted seatbelt safety. Since then, it has leveraged its characters both to educate kids about allergies, with Schering Plough, maker of Claritin allergy medication, and to sell a Superman action figure pack for Hasbro.
Most of DC’s custom comics have run in campaigns targeting kids and preteens, but Watkins says adults who were comic readers as kids remain an untapped market. ‘There is the nostalgia factor that comes into play with adults,’ he says. ‘We’re keen to explore every avenue when it comes to what we can do with the brand.’