I've heard a fair amount of chatter this past week about Marvel and DC's branding, and how their respective "big event" comics this week helped or hurt them. Instead of wading into that discussion, though, I'm going to step back and cover something a little more basic: what is a brand?
Let's clear up this misconception right off the bat. This...... is not DC's brand image. It's their logo. Whether or not and how they might choose to kill off their most popular characters affects their brand image, but not their logo. If DC wanted to tarnish their logo, they'd have to do something like this...But that change doesn't have much of an impact on their brand.
See, a brand isn't easily quantifiable. That's because brands are wholly intangible and ephemeral. A brand is NOT just the sum total of all a company's marketing and PR work. A brand is what you think and feel about a company. Let me break that statement down.
A brand identity (or image) is what you think and feel about a company.
First off, "think and feel" is important. If you think of Marvel, there's a certain impression that comes to mind. You have a general idea of the types of things Marvel produces, and you have a set of expectations surrounding that. You don't think of just Spider-Man and the Hulk when you think of Marvel, but you also think of Joe Quesada and Brian Bendis, and Rise of the Silver Surfer, and the type of paper Marvel prints their comics on, and how late Fantastic Four is, and that Greg Horn poster of She-Hulk you have on your bedroom wall, and the new Kang action figure you're still looking for so you can get the final piece and complete your Ares build-a-figure, and everything else associated with the company. All of that rolls up into a collective impression that you have of Marvel.
Which brings me to the other important element: you. All of those different things that make up Marvel? Those all means something to you. They mean something else to me. They mean something else to Joe Quesada. They mean something else to the guy who empties Quesada's office trash can. Marvel is viewed differently by every person who knows anything about them.
"So Marvel has no control over their own brand image?"
Not as much as they'd like, I'm sure. Because a brand image resides in the heads of individuals, a company can only guide and suggest how they should be viewed. They can control their own actions, but it's really the implications and consequences of those actions that shape their brand image.
Let me ask a rhetorical question: what do you think of when you think "Marvel Comics"?
Whatever runs through your head when you answer that question is Marvel's brand image. The same holds for every other comic company, whether they've got a marketing department or not. The same holds for the Friends of Lulu and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Hero Initiative and even your local comic shop. And for every comic book creator!
It's fairly easy to see that Stan Lee has a brand image. He's spent years cultivating it. But, everyone has one. When you think of "Dave Sim" or "Wendy Pini" or "Paul Ryan" or any other comic creator, you think of their body of work, but you ALSO think of the photos you've seen of them, the stories and anecdotes you've heard about them, the interviews they've given... everything! That's what a brand identity is! What you think of a person or organization based on the sum total of your experiences with them.
So if/when DC decides to off one of their oldest, most popular characters, does that really affect their brand? I say no. Were people really that shocked and taken aback by the event? Maybe I'm just traveling in the wrong circles, but I gather there's more cynicism there and general irritation at the execution of the issue (if you'll pardon the pun) than outrage over the event itself. And that suggests that DC's brand hasn't been impacted much, because it's not out of line with what they've been doing in the recent past as a company. The bit about Diana snapping some guy's neck. The slutting up of Mary Marvel. The death of the New Gods. This is pretty much just par for the course.
Couple this with the fact that the Spider-Man/Obama issue was the one that made news headlines, and you also throw into the mix that your average non-comics person remains absolutely clueless about the issue. Which means that they can go buy their DC action figures gleeful ignorant of anything detrimental about DC outside the accidental death of Heath Ledger. And since they are in the majority, DC's brand -- collectively speaking -- is even less affected by what happens in the comics.
So, are Marvel's and DC's respective brands impacted by recent issues? To some degree, I'm sure, but one single issue is hardly going to have a devastating effect on them. And, in each of their cases, I haven't seen any evidence that anyone was especially surprised by what was in those issues. A brand is an implicit promise made by the company to their audience, and Marvel and DC -- from what I can tell -- are continuing to deliver exactly what people expect them to.
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