The Marketing and Advertising of Comics: Marvel, DC, Image et al are doing it All Wrong
As comic stores continue to close across North America, and retail margins continue to get smaller and smaller, nobody seems to be asking a very important question: How to reach new comic readers. The ongoing implosion of the comic book industry due to the lack of new comic book readers, as pointed out by retail titans such as Brian Hibbs and Joe Field is without question the biggest issue affecting the comic book industry today. As Hibbs so correctly pointed out in his Comic Retailers address: I say to you: we do not need plans or programs that are aimed at selling more comics to the same customers – they really can’t afford and don’t want any more titles to buy – our focus as an industry should be on making our periodical releases more attractive to more new readers, and to grow our base, not simply exploit the existing one.
So my question is this: Who’s job is it to find these new comic readers? There are a lot of fingers being pointed at who’s job it is to find these new readers. I read a piece the other day that identified almost everyone in the process, from creators to readers as being responsible and yet this particular article seemed to miss the most obvious culprit that I would suggest is responsible for creating new comic book readers and that would be the publishers themselves; Marvel, DC, Image, et al.
I have spent over forty years in marketing and advertising working in print, radio, television and on-line creating successful ad campaigns for hundreds of different sized businesses. In fact, one of the businesses I worked with for many years was a multi-location comic store in a medium sized market. Amongst all the other things they were doing right, from having the right product to having the right staff, they also spent over $10,000 annually with me and probably an equal amount with another radio station in town to tell new customers why they should visit their stores. As it turned out they were extremely successful and still are to this day. That success came from not asking – “How much is this going to COST me?” but rather asking the more important question “What’s this going to DO for me?” What it did for them was create hundreds of new customers over many years and sell thousands of dollars of product. But even if every single comic book store had their own advertising campaign, that would only solve part of the issue that’s hurting the comic book industry today.
I’m also a comic collector and have been collecting on-and-off since the early 1970’s. I grew up in a time where kid’s discovered comics on “spinner-racks” located in every mom & pop shop and drugstore in neighborhoods everywhere – comics were ubiquitous. So what I’m about to tell you isn’t just my opinion, but the result of four decades of personal and professional trial, error, research and experimentation. The simple truth is this: If you want new customers you need to advertise and create a demand for your product.
It would be an understatement to say we’re currently in a very tumultuous time for comic’s publishers and particularly comic retailers. When the direct market came into its own, it didn’t take long for the publishers to come to love it…because they were able to off-load all the risk to the retailers who were made to “pay-up-front” for the product and were not able to return anything. They had to order well in advance for comics that sometimes had no track record. As a result retailers got stuck with thousands and thousands of comics that didn’t sell. No skin off the nose of the publishers because they got paid regardless of what happened to the finished product.
Did the publishers help the retailers create new customers in the direct market? Not that I ever saw.
In reading the industry press, I constantly come across the term “marketing” seeming to indicate the publishers were attempting to help promote the products they created. They may have sent out some posters to put up inside stores, but that didn’t reach new readers. They may have sent out some free comics to give-away, but that didn’t get new customers. So the one thing that comic stores needed most, new comic book readers, well the publishers they didn’t do anything to help bring them there.
Even the annual “Free Comic Book Day”, an event created not by the publishers but by a retailer, has had a relatively short-term, questionable, limited success for some retailers. The comic creators work hard to create different types of comics and stories that target non-traditional comic readers…put them in comic stores and then tell no one that those comics are there. Then there are always the comic book company crossovers, those big events that are supposed to “change the world as we know it.” Trouble is, all these types of events and activates do nothing but preach-to-the-choir. The best idea the big publishers seem to come up with, is sell more comics, variant covers, rebooted #1’s, at higher prices to the same customers. That is not a solid Marketing Plan because the one component that’s missing from the publishers marketing plan seems to be ADVERTISING.
That’s the myopic problem here. Virtually all the marketing and promotional resources coming from these multi-million dollar corporations, keep in mind they’re owned by Disney and Warner Brothers, is nothing more than a “closed-loop”. Everything they have ever done has simply been intended to reach those already reading comics (or read in the past). It’s a classic “echo-chamber” mentality. However if you are trying to GROW the business you need to reach new faces and you don’t reach new faces by putting all your resources into the direct market that serves the existing market. Difficult as it may be for a generation raised on the internet and social media to accept, “Mass Advertising” still works. It’s all around us simply because it still works!
The comic publishers seem to think that by just going to see superhero movies, viewers will suddenly be triggered into discovering comics as being the source material. This is nothing more than insanity. With all the superhero movies that have come out so far – it hasn’t happened yet. When I went to see Spider-Man did Marvel even have a rack of comics on display at the movie theatres? Nope. When I went to see Batman did DC ever think to put free comics or displays in the lobby? Not where I live. They did nothing to help comic stores build their customer base with new comic book readers. And there are a whole lot more people who went to see the movies than are going to the comic book stores, but the publishers did nothing.
It’s always puzzled me that the publishers clearly love the mass media coverage they get for comic events such as the Death of Superman. They love to see the national networks like CNN or various entertainment programs pick up a comic book story and run with it. That’s because there is usually a bump in comic sales because people outside the bubble become aware of the product and then make an effort to hunt down the comic book stores to acquire it. And yet knowing this kind of coverage works the publishers still fail to be proactive and create advertising campaigns to intentionally reach new readers.
Come to think of it, have the big publishers, Marvel, DC, Image, et al ever purchased ads in their own superhero TV shows? It would make perfect sense, wouldn’t it? If you like watching the Arrow program you may enjoy reading the Green Arrow comic book on which it’s based. Visit your local comic book store. If you enjoy Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, check out more stories in the comics at a store near you!
Instead all we heard or saw from the publishers is: “crickets.”
The publishers have got it all wrong. It’s supposed to work like this – they are the manufacturer and they should be creating a variety of mass media marketing AND advertising campaigns to tell people they’ve created this product which can be purchased at a local comic store.
In my years of advertising, for a period I was the marketing director of a very large Ford dealership. My advertising budget for the year was almost a million dollars. And this is how it works. The manufacturer, in this case Ford Motor Company, does its own corporate advertising with the basic message being: You should buy a Ford. The dealership where I worked advertises it’s message saying: You should buy that Ford here at this dealership. Then there was a third pool of money called “Co-Op Dollars” where the manufacturer supported the dealership by reimbursing specific ad dollars for advertising specific products.
This is how it’s done in everything from cars to grocery products. But not, it seems, in comics. To the best of my knowledge, over the past four or five decades this has never been done. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had a few conversations with store owners, and while one acknowledged that DC does provide “some” co-op dollars, it’s extremely restrictive in its use and despite its availability, store owners are still required to pay for the advertising up front and then hope to get reimbursed by DC. So once again, the makers of comics put all the risk at the feet of the comic store expecting them to spend their money to promote comics in their store with little or no help from them – and that’s not right.
Given that each of the big comic makers has a “Marketing Department” my question to them would be “who are you marketing too?” Because what the comic book industry needs right now are new readers of comics, more people getting interested in comics, and that message needs to come from the big guys: Marvel, DC, Image, etc. From the people who make the comics. They must do a better job and that begins by ADVERTISING their product.
Some will say: “What about the internet, isn’t that effective marketing?” If done properly it can be, but only to a point. Nobody wakes, turns on the computer and asks – “I wonder what I should buy today?”. The internet works really well for existing customers and reaching them with a targeted message about what’s new. However, it’s not that great when it comes to finding NEW readers or customers because they’re not out there looking at comic sites. So, sure, use the internet – but remember it’s more targeted and ultimately more effective for people who are specifically looking for what you are selling.
What my advertising experience has demonstrated, especially with the advent of social media, is that advertisers will most often try to take the least expensive path, thinking if only I can get that video to go “viral.” Trouble is that rarely happens. None-the-less they try to go for the “path of least resistance” and end up putting too much faith in methods of advertising that produce very limited results. I have always recommended and encouraged clients to invest in advertising to intentionally make things happen rather than simply hoping or waiting for “something” to happen: being proactive, while more expensive has always proven to be more effective in the long run. To DC’s credit getting comics back on the shelf of a mass marketer like Walmart was a small step in the right direction when it came to reaching new readers. But here again, they did it without telling anyone and just waited to see what happened.
I’ve come to the conclusion that retailers need to start applying maximum pressure on the major publishers to change their ways. To change the way they do business. If comic book sales are down, they’re the ones who can change that. They’re the ones “steering” this ship. The publishers need to start ongoing mass-media advertising campaigns that sell the idea that comics are fun to read which in turn will get new customers into the comic stores. If the comic store has new customers then the comic store will happily order more products and everyone wins. Or we can stick with the status quo. If the publishers continue to sit back and do nothing…like they have been doing up until now, well I can guarantee you what will happen – NOTHING will change and it will only get worse.
Now to give the publishers (Marvel, DC, Image, etc) the benefit of the doubt, let’s say just for the sake of argument, they’ve been doing some advertising. I’m sure of it, but I’m also sure I’ve never seen it. I’ve never experienced any of it. But hey, if they in fact have been doing some advertising in markets I’m not familiar with, all I can say is it doesn’t appear they’re doing the right thing in the right markets using the right media because it sure doesn’t seem to be having much effect. With comic readership declining, and comic stores closing the results kind of speak for themselves. That’s why I would suggest Marvel, DC, Image et al are doing it all wrong.
If you disagree, sound off in the comments below or share a link that shows where they’re advertising to new readers.