Wielding the Power of Superheroes in Licensing.
by Ted Mininni – President/Creative Director, Design Force, Inc.
With an incredible year of superhero movies upon us, and with Toy Fair taking place in New York City this month, what could be a better topic for the February issue of BOLT! than the licensing of superheroes?! As many of our readers already know, we’ve been developing the licensing programs for some of the world’s most popular superhero properties for more than a decade. Superheroes are a part of our culture here at Design Force. And, it got me thinking about the value of all the knowledge we’ve gleaned about these characters and their storylines over the years, and how we employ this knowledge to bring these amazing properties to life in an ownable and equitable manner. As the uncle of a particular web-slinging teenager once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. I feel it’s our responsibility to share with our readers what we’ve learned about developing successful superhero licensing programs. Feel free to chime in… your thoughts and feedback are always welcome.
Superheroes. We grew up with them and we need them. There’s nothing like the good guy overcoming great odds and vanquishing the bad guys for pure escapism and fun. How was the superhero genre born and how did it help shape the “superhero” of today? What are the differences among superheroes that position them within sub-genres?
Throughout history, humans have created heroes. Pantheons of gods and demi-gods populated ancient civilizations. Gods like Zeus had awesome innate powers far beyond those of mankind; they could be beneficent or wreak havoc. Heroic demi-gods like Ulysses acquired powers. They were often warriors who conquered difficult tasks, set off on life-altering quests or overcame super-human trials to earn hard-won goals and glory.
As early civilizations gave way and their gods and heroes became a distant memory, people created folkloric heroes in an oral tradition that passed from one generation to the next. Legends like that of King Arthur and Robin Hood were embellished until they became larger-than-life. Later literary works and popular fiction offered heroes like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, who seized the public’s imaginations, leaping from their pages into the movies and television.
There was a difference between these heroes and those of the past. Their identities were concealed in distinctive garb and masks. These heroes had not super-human powers, but unique abilities and superbly honed skills which they handily employed while conducting dangerous missions with aplomb. It isn’t difficult to see how this influenced writers who created the likes of Superman, Batman, The Phantom, Captain America and Green Lantern. These superheroes were pulp fiction phenomena from the late 1930’s through the early 1950’s.
From that Golden Age to current times, superheroes reflect the times in which they are created. Captain America embodies American ideals and it’s no accident he was created during World War II. The X-Men are allegorical heroes. They use their powers to fight against evil and very much represent the Civil Rights Movement. As mutants, they understand how much inequality, prejudice, racism and discrimination hurt people. Underlying message: it’s cool to be different and it’s not cool to target people who are.
For superheroes to draw people in there has to be equally strong adversaries. Both the hero and his enemies have strong back stories that define them and make them who they are. The hero and his adversaries are the antithesis of each other. The sharp contrast between superhero and antagonist bring the unfailing, unflagging values of the hero into constant focus.
Batman, for example, represents social order, morality and law abiding respect. He collars criminals and turns them over to the police. The Joker, on the other hand, creates chaos and is amoral. The interaction of the superhero with this nemesis brings the values of Batman sharply into focus.
Sub-genres of Superheroes
In examining the history of superheroes it’s apparent there isn’t one kind of hero, but many, necessitating classification into sub-genres. Some of the more dominant sub-genres of heroes:
Superheroes speak to generations of fans because people identify with them on a personal level. Many of them struggle to attain their ideals, face hardships and great odds, as well as having to overcome their own deficiencies. These are all traits that draw us in as human beings. We root for superheroes in their personal struggles as well as rooting for them to best their adversaries. The story is universal and as old as humankind. Everyone has a hero they relate to; that’s why superheroes make wonderful licensed properties.
It’s clear from looking at the sub-genres of superheroes that most modern examples fall into one category in a clear manner or are a composite of more than one kind of hero. In the past, superheroes only came from comic books, TV and the movies. These days, they’re also originating from video games and other digital media. Some are transient while others strike a deep chord, becoming an enduring part of our culture. Their qualities seem to enable specific superheroes to make the leap from one entertainment genre to another successfully.
These characters are terrific as licensed properties. But leveraging the assets that make them unique isn’t as easy as it might seem. A style guide has to be developed to ensure a cohesive look and feel for the property in consumer products and in its packaging program. In order to do this property, the character and all of its subtleties must be fully understood. By deconstructing the property to uncover its character’s powers and admirable qualities, its quirks and faults, its origins, and all of the hints its creator has given us, the unique essence and story of the superhero can be captured. Understanding and drawing out the specific qualities that elicit deep emotions among the hero’s fans is the next important step in the process.
It all comes down to nuances. Understanding them helps the designer to develop design elements that embody the superhero in a fresh and vibrant manner. One that resonates with modern audiences. A blockbuster movie may be the platform that launches renewed interest in a property, but it is essential to connect the character to its storied heritage while contemporizing it for modern audiences to remain relevant.
A visual approach for licensees that can stretch to encompass all consumer product categories, allowing for exclusive deals with retailers in all channels is crucial. Developing an iconic visual hook for the property is important as the first step toward establishing recognition, but it’s storytelling on consumer products and packaging that cements relationships. As the character’s story continues to evolve and that story is carried forward in a fresh new manner this is the secret to making a deeper emotional connection with consumers.
Due to the sheer number of superhero-oriented licensed properties, it is essential to develop the property’s design elements in such a way that they cannot be confused with those of any other property. This has to be deftly executed and its applications clearly shown within a style guide or the license may not be successful. Even popular entertainment properties have been known to fail when their design elements were improperly implemented in the development of consumer products. There’s also very real concern about copycats and knock-offs that proliferate in the marketplace. The more distinctive the design elements, the clearer infringements on intellectual property become.
Strategy and execution are extremely important when bringing a superhero’s defining visual assets to life in a connective manner. Demonstrating creative ways to employ these assets is the key to ensuring success. No matter how hot a property is tough competition, huge dollar investments and retailer demands put more pressure on licensors to get it right. As is the case with every valuable brand: the property must be managed, monitored and licensed to consumer product manufacturers in appropriate categories. There’s a lot riding on the success of superhero licensing for every stakeholder. Not the least of which is building long-term success, loyalty and equity in the brand.