Superheroes bulk up on licensing deals

Characters becoming powerful merchandising forces

As Licensing International Expo gets under way Tuesday at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, one thing is clear: Just as Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, Batman and Iron Man have taken over movie screens, they're also becoming powerful merchandising forces.

And no company has benefited from the current popularity of superheroes more than Marvel Entertainment, which rebounded from bankruptcy in 1996 by aggressively exploiting its licensing properties.

"We're more in control of our own destiny, which gives us the advantage to bring merchandising deals to the market as opposed to waiting on third-party studios," said Paul Gitter, president of consumer products at Marvel.

Having beefed up its consumer-products division, Marvel has adopted what Gitter calls a "continuity strategy," which focuses merchandising not just around major motion picture releases but around home video and TV animation as well.

The efforts, he said, "act as a thread with each of our theatrical releases. It helps us maintain a continuation of characters and story lines, especially with retailers. So instead of merchandising around a film, brands are merchandising on a day-in and day-out basis." In between films, Spider-Man lives on lunchboxes, backpacks and kids' clothes.

Superhero merchandising also has become more sophisticated because of the sheer proliferation of properties.

"On a big movie, you probably will find something related to the movie, whether it's a product or promotion, in almost every major retail outlet you could imagine," said Brad Globe, president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, which will be trumpeting its Batman lineup at the licensing show. "We have our core companies like Target, Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart, Kmart. Then you have more specialized stores," including Neiman Marcus, which has upped the merchandising ante by selling fashion-plausible T-shirts for $40 each.

Another example of upscale merchandising is Estee Lauder, which got into the Iron Man game. A page on the beauty company's Web site offers tips on how women can achieve the look of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark's sexy spokesperson.

"With the amount of activity surrounding our properties, it's enabled us to create a resurgence in the marketplace for superheroes in general," Gitter said. "Unlike in the 1990s, where you didn't have many superhero films, now you have a tremendous amount of marketing, theatrical activity, animation, theme parks, product expansion and other synergies in place to really ride the market."

Just as Marvel is cross pollinating its movies -- Tony Stark, for example, will make an appearance in the upcoming "The Incredible Hulk" -- Chris Thilk, who writes the industry blog Movie Marketing Madness, noted that movie makers are now negotiating group or cross-merchandising agreements.

Marvel has bundled Iron Man and the Hulk for Burger King to make for a superpowerful branding campaign. In the future, superhero movies, at least those released by Marvel, "will connect the dots with each other" to compound the power of character brands, Marvel worldwide marketing president Geoffrey Ammer said.

Cheryl Rubin, senior vp brand management at DC Comics, said she sees no end in sight for superhero blockbusters.

"2007 proved that 10% of domestic boxoffice gross was based on comic books and graphic novels," she said. "Consumers love superheroes."

As superheroes proliferate onscreen and off, consumers could suffer from superfatigue as the movies begin to turn to second- or even third-tier characters.

That saturation point doesn't appear to be on the near horizon, though.        

Reebok might have had reservations about how well known Iron Man was, said Matt Feiner, head of kids' product marketing at Reebok.

But after the movie kicked off the summer like a boxoffice cannon shot, Reebok felt vindicated. "From a brand perception and overall energy standpoint," Reebok's flashy red and black leather Iron Man sneakers and upcoming Hulk shoes "can really make a difference for us," Feiner said.
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