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The Magic in a Batman T-Shirt: Why Licensing Works

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.
Summer is comic book season in the entertainment world. Blockbuster movies pop up in theaters. Major video games debut at E3. Kids have their comic related clothing. Crossovers dominate the comics market, but mainstream media doesn't notice that unless Superman or Captain America die (again). The interest in the comic characters is arguably highest in the summer, but that interest is often focused on the 'secondary' market, not the source material.

Why? What makes a superhero based TV show or movie so popular? More importantly for our purposes, why does comic related merchandise sell so well every year? I originally explored this idea in an earlier post (See Making Comics Isn’t Really About Making Comics Anymore). Now I'd like to explore the social and emotional aspects of licensing, and those factors can help the independent comic creator.

Disclaimer: Most of my other posts have discussed the legal aspects of the comics industry, but this will be more of a pop culture analysis. While I don't have an anthropology or sociology background, these ideas come from the time that I've spent working and observing consumer behavior as it relates to licensed goods at Central Park Media, Marvel and as an independent consultant.

The Definition of Cool
There is no practical difference between a plain white t-shirt and a white t-shirt with a Batman logo on it. Both of them protect you from the elements and get you into restaurants that have a 'no shirt, no service' sign. But the Batman shirt can cost twice as much as a plain t-shirt. Why? Some might say 'because it's cooler than a plain old t-shirt.' That might be true, but what makes it cool?

A person who likes Batman and owns Batman merchandise gains three benefits that have nothing to do with the practical uses of the items. Those benefits are identity, community and nostalgia.

Personal Identitification: When a person relates to a character or a story, their connection to that brand increases. It could be Superman's morals, Wolverine's rebellion or Batman's determination that we aspire to. It could be the emotional impact of stories like Watchmen or Kick Ass or the wit of characters like Iron Man and Spider-Man. Wherever that connection comes from, a reader sees themselves (or wants to see themselves) in the characters they love. They emotionally identify with that character and on a certain level, the merchandise they wear is an expression of that identity.

Community Acceptance: Humans are social animals. We like to organize ourselves into groups based on some defined characteristic. We are also highly visual creatures. We make decisions about people based on what we see. When we see someone who we perceive to be similar to us, we are more likely to accept them and feel a sense of connection to them, however small that connection might be. This is easiest to see in children. Two boys meet for the first time in the park. Both are wearing Batman t-shirts. "You like Batman! I like Batman too! Let's play!" Now they're friends, very little additional interpersonal screening between them.

Emotional Nostalgia: Merchandise can be a subtle reminder of a past experience with, the power to evoke much of the initial emotions. If you have fond childhood memories of watching Batman cartoons, the Batman t-shirt can act as a kind of artifact. It can bring your mind back to a pleasant event in your life and impact your mood whenever you see it.

Not Just for Comics
It’s a mistake to think that the identity, community and nostalgia concepts are unique to comic geeks and unsophisticated children. Groups on every level of society share the same qualities. They just use different products. A man might express his wealth and status with his Mercedes or his Rolex. A woman can instantly accept or reject another woman because of her Prada handbag or Gucci shoes. A football fan has a connection to the jersey he wore when his team won the Superbowl. The baseball fan has his signed glove. In a larger sense, consumer products on every level use logos to evoke emotional responses in order to sell goods and services. Starbucks, Apple and Nike are universal examples of logo and merchandising power.

The Cure for Oversaturation
With all the merchandise, logos and product placement in our society, why would an independent artist want to add to the wall of noise by selling his own stuff? The answer is evolution.

There was a time when certain characters, logos and stories were popular with a small, but passionate audience. Success and mainstream over time acceptance elevated those properties into the icons that we have today. Now they have become diluted and altered. The sense of community they created has extended so far that it covers almost everyone. Ironically, the wide appeal of a character all but eliminates the original connection the first fans had to it. (See Ninja Turtles: From Parody to Property) People inevitably seek out new characters and icons to identify with. They look for smaller, more passionate communities to connect with. The independent artists of today can create the icons of tomorrow if they decide to extend their work beyond the page and into everyday life.

The Power of Story
How does an artist create an iconic character that translates into a successful licensing property? Two of the keys are appeal and evolution. Appeal comes from good stories. No matter how unique and merchandise ready your character might be, without great stories readers, won't identify with the character, connect with other readers or feel any nostalgia for the property. Evolution comes from a consistent relationship between the character and society. Comic book icons like Superman and Batman are more than 70 years old. Each one has changed with the popular culture, and target audiences, to create identification without losing the core concept of the character. The image is what goes on the item for sale, but it is the story that makes the property successful. (See Image and Story: The Role of Copyrights and Trademarks in Comics).

I'm planning to launch an on demand independent merchandise platform for comic creators this year (See Do You Want to Create Merchandise for Your Comics?). My most successful partners will be the ones who can capture the magic of merchandise in their characters and extend their popularity far beyond the comic book page.

Have fun.