DC’s Brand New Brand
I had a thought from reading the comics news these past couple of weeks:
What if DC isn’t just fiddling with their product offerings?
What if…. DC is re-branding?
It’s not as crazy as it sounds…
A Quick Branding Definition
By “branding,” I don’t mean the logo. The logo often can mirror the brand, but the “brand” refers to something bigger.
The best definition I can find is the quote from legendary ad man David Ogilvey, who said a brand is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”
What does the consumer think of when they hear the name of the company or of the product? That’s the brand. When a company wants to be thought of in a different way than they traditionally have been though of, they go through a “re-branding.”
They align all their products and practices under their own new definition of “brand.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the DC brand is becoming recently.
Reshaping the Line
The pattern is clear:
DC pares down its publishing line, eliminating some experimental titles and some that were D.O.A. to begin with.
They rethink the Black Label line, hoping to avoid any sort of controversy over “mature” interpretations of their most valuable things — their IP.
They clean up stories reprinted in Walmart-exclusive comics to make sure certain anatomical features are better covered up.
Vertigo is rumored to be shutting down. That’ll help get rid of those politically-tinged books and weird mature titles Vertigo loves putting together. Even if it’s not shutting down entirely, they’re cutting properties loose that they had planned to publish instead of moving them under a different imprint or finding some other way to publish them.
Meanwhile, sales figures from Book Scan were dismal last year. Not only has DC slid in the rankings of publishers, but the drop-off is dramatic. They literally sold millions of dollars less in collected comics in 2018 over 2017.
Something has to change.
And it feels like something is changing. AT&T has come in. DC Comics has a new boss. And a certain new imprint DC is experimenting with has more corporate support than anything I’ve ever seen DC do.
What does this mean? Anything? Well, one could make an argument that DC is dipping its toes in the water for a potential major change in the years ahead.
I’ll be that one today.
Follow the Money
DC Comics is owned by AT&T, which just acquired it as part of their deal buying up Time Warner. AT&T is a company that has only one mission on Wall Street:
That’s what the stock market demands. It’s grow or die when you’re a publicly traded company, lest you risk the wrath of the investors. That’s a good chunk of the reason why they bought up a Hollywood studio in the first place.
So when AT&T gives someone new — Pamela Lifford, in this case — the job of watching over DC, what does she find when she sits down at her new desk on Day One?
Batman. With his pants down.
But she also saw a company whose overall sales charts are heading in the wrong direction. Not only is it losing ground to its rivals in the Direct Market, but it’s also losing ground in the bookstore market.
There’s no hockey stick on a graph pointing up and to the right.
Oh, and AT&T is struggling to pay back a few dollars of that nearly $170 BILLION (yes, with a “B”) worth of debt they have hanging over their head from the Time Warner acquisition and all its businesses.
Small measures are not useful now. They could single-handedly turn the Direct Market around and still not pay much back from all the additional sales of those $3.99 comics.
It’s go big or go broke time.
Go Where the New Audience Is
There is, however, one initiative that shows promise.
The Direct Market is an insular thing. It panders to the people who are already there. It’s hidden in a series of low-rent stores (that quickly go out of business when the rents are raised) that are spread unevenly throughout the country. The profit margins are horribly small. The audiences are fickle and fractured.
The population that spends money there is not growing, despite billion dollar movies based on the very material those shops sell. The IP are all household names; the comics are the alternate delivery method nobody has the time or money for.
On the other hand, the biggest growth market in book publishing these days is young adult graphic novels. (It’s more differentiated than “Young Adult”, and “All Ages” isn’t even a thing. Let me simplify here for the sake of argument. For more details, I recommend this Sarah Gaydos interview on the “Creator At Large” podcast.)
Believe it or not, there’s a market for books that kids eat up voraciously, and it keeps growing. Their numbers are staggering. They sell more copies of each of those $10 or $15 books than every Batman 32 page comic DC might dream of publishing in a year.
For example, Raina Telgemeier’s next book, “Guts,” has a one million copy first printing.
How many North American comics have sold that many in the last two decades?
DC Enters a New Market
DC is entering that so-called “bookstore” market now with their lines, DC Zoom and DC Ink. It’s aimed at readers ages 5 to 17, roughly. The books are planned for much wider distribution than just comic shops. The books are in the preferred format, design, size, and distribution that the kids have been gobbling up for years in bookstores, libraries, Scholastic Book Fairs, and various retailers like Target.
Who can challenge those guys? Maybe the makers of Batman, Superman, and Harley Quinn?
That market is still growing, and it’s ruled by a relatively spare few properties: Wimpy Kid. Dork Diaries. Big Nate. Captain Underpants. Dog Man. The, uhm, “Raina Telgemeier-verse”.
If you owned those DC Comics IPs, wouldn’t you think you had a chance in that market? Kids love those characters, even if they only know them from previous animated series and movies. Kids drove the market for comics for decades, after all.
IP is the Unfair Advantage that DC has in this venture.
DC is going to use that to get back a younger readership now, as those kids (usually through their parents) hold a huge amount of purchasing power.
But can that line thrive on its own without rethinking DC entirely? Should that be something AT&T attempts to do?
Should DC re-brand itself? Is DC already re-branding itself?
Follow the Money (Redux)
DC is serious about the DC Zoom and DC Ink lines. How serious?
Five hundred thousand dollars‘ worth of seriousness.
That’s their marketing budget for the books, complete with previews, advanced reader copies (ARCs), mainstream news articles and marketing to libraries, author school visits, advertising, social media accounts, and much more.
It’s an actual budget with real money to fund all the kinds of things you need to do to market actual books. Yes, the plan started before the AT&T/Warner Bros. deal was finalized, but the fact that it hasn’t been outright canceled and swept under the rug as a mistake of previous ownership already speaks volumes.
That half million dollars is better and has potentially longer term upside than killing a character every quarter and bringing them back six months later in the latest company-wide crossover.
Remember when Lifford did a little restructuring at the beginning of the year? Out of that came a new business unit:
Publishing Support Services is a new business unit consisting of all departments that support the sales, marketing and promotion of our books…
That’s a good structure to have when you have that much marketing and promotion money to spend on a project like DC Ink and DC Zoom.
Disney doesn’t spend that much money promoting Marvel Comics. Warner Bros hasn’t spent that much in the past on its comics. This is a real show of support, and it’s something they’re willing to go all out for.
DC’s Spring Cleaning Time
To help facilitate this move, DC Comics needs to clean up its act. If it’s going for growth from the bookstore market (which includes the multiplying effect of libraries, not to mention distribution in stores like Target, Walmart, etc.), it needs to maintain a clear and consistent message.
They need to straight up and rebrand themselves.
You can’t try to sell books to tweens about teenaged diarist Catwoman, while Batman is parading around the Batcave commando and Jesus is the butt of all the jokes in another book. Particularly in the eyes of the parents who are the ones who actually buy the books for their kids, that can be… confusing.
That’s the price of a half million dollar investment; DC needs to re-brand. Pam Lifford is the President of Warner Bros. Global Brands. She’s a brander. She knows licensing. She knows what you have to do to keep your IP package inviting to consumers and to licensors.
And that means some changes to how DC operates and what it publishes. That means keeping everything on brand.
Throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks might work for formats, but not for content.
The Ultimate Irony
Remember when we were all asking for the comics-equivalent of the “Got Milk?” campaign? All we wanted was for the megacorp owners of Marvel or DC to put up a few bucks for a concentrated marketing and advertising campaign to help make comics cool again.
Awareness would win over new readers. Let’s bring back the generation of readers we lost in the late 90s/early 2000s!
Guess what? We’re getting it. DC is doing it with its Ink and Zoom lines.
That’s not what you expected, though, is it? It’s not a half million dollars going to promote the Direct Market or the comics being sold there. It’s a coordinated and well-funded marketing campaign to boost new comics made for audiences *outside* the Direct Market.
Clearly, the work has already begun.
Reading the Future, i.e. Speculation and Question Time
Will this be a “Careful what you wish for?” move, or will this be a play that will pan out in the long run. Will those “Wimpy Kids” readers shuffle into comic shops when they’ve outgrown those crudely-drawn diaries? It doesn’t feel like they have yet, but maybe it’s still in the future? Or maybe DC needs to start thinking about the bookstore market for readers over the age of 17 next…
In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see how far DC goes in cleaning itself up to cater to this new audience. What will the DC brand look like in a year from now? If the Zoom and Ink lines take off, what will DC look like in two or three years? It would make sense to focus more on that market and less on the old one, wouldn’t it? Follow the money, once again.
Company structures reflect the type of material they produce. Is DC currently structured to thrive in the book market? Is the creation of an additional level on its org chart to handle marketing and publicity just the start of the change?
Will the “top” Direct Market creators of the day want to work for a company that wants to sanitize their works? Will the current readership turn their backs on their favorite characters if they’re not “dark“ or “edgy” enough?
Can the current DC leadership team sourced from the worlds of animation and comics create these changes? When will word stop coming down from the top to clean things up, and instead never getting that dirty to begin with? How can a company master the vagaries of the book market without leadership in position with that experience?
I don’t have all those answers. I don’t want to cry that the sky is falling. People have already accused me of that in the past. (Wrongly.)
It all also depends on how successful these two new lines are. Will AT&T have the patience to let them build the lines up? Or will they give up if the first couple of waves don’t set the world on fire? If it failed and AT&T didn’t want to bother with it anymore, would they license the books out to other publishers? (They wouldn’t sell DC outright, as they need to hold onto that valuable IP.)
Strangers things have happened…
But I do see a future where things will have to change. The only question in my mind is, “Who will make the first step?” Not “when”.
Is this DC’s first step? Will Marvel follow? Will the market have to follow?
We shall see. Right now, though, it appears to me that management at the top of DC Comics might be looking in directions that the level below her has mostly ignored for… well, decades. Are they all on the same page now? Or is this just the start of struggles yet to come?
The Canary in the Coal Mine
I can picture the scene deep inside AT&T HQ. There’s a board room with Pamela Lifford at the table with all the heads of TV, Movies, Publishing, etc.
Someone from Publishing says,
“Hey, I notice that DC Comics has work from Neil Gaiman. I didn’t know he did comics. He’s huge in the book publishing world. He’s a well respected author and best seller and has a great British accent for readings at book tours.
“Why aren’t we publishing that? Why is it hidden at DC? We should move — let me check my notes here — “Sandman”? – to our book publishing line. DC can keep all its super heroes and family friendly material.
“We’ll take the challenging, dark, gothic, best-selling stuff off your hands and take it from here. We can give it some great promotions and re-issue it next year to a whole new audience. Gaiman deserves better.”
That might be a bit over-the-top, but why isn’t “Sandman” under a book publisher’s purview with the rest of Gaiman’s type of material? Does it fit in with this new DC brand I’m talking about above? No, not really.
Shouldn’t a book market incumbent with a promotions budget and pre-existing relationships and experience handle this mainstream book of material?
The Surprising Twist:
There is one minor issue with this theory: AT&T/Warner Bros. doesn’t have a book publisher.
Of the big five publishers, one is owned by CBS and another by News Corp. The rest appear independent.
Time Warner used to have a Time Warner Book Group, but that got sold off to Hachette a few years back.
AT&T can’t really afford to try to buy one of the remaining Big 5, so DC might be safe for now.
But, then, with this theoretical re-branding, DC is becoming more and more like book publisher on its own, anyway. Maybe that’s the way AT&T wants to groom DC? Turn it into their book publisher for the emerging younger reader market, and who cares about the rest?
And those, my friends, are my crazy theories and thoughts for the day. Be honest: How crazy do you think I am at the current moment? Am I overthinking things? Am I anticipating big changes when life will just continue to trudge on as per the usual?
Something’s gotta give eventually…
Updated 21 June 2019: DC Has Re-Branded
Zoom and Ink are gone. Instead, everything is DC, but they’ll have age labels, which are absolutely nothing like imprint names at all, no sir.
“DC Kids” will be for pre-teens. “DC” (the superhero stuff) is for 13 and up. “DC Black Label” mysteriously survives to be the “mature” stuff. It’ll be mature up to a point, but DC will be careful not to make it too mature, because the “mature” label only goes so far and nobody wants to see what’s in Batman’s shorts.
Remember the Batarang!
Good stuff. We’re not seeing much (any, really) interest in the Ink/Zoom books, and YA’s probably our biggest growth area at the shop. I tend to think that The Youths aren’t much interested in their (grand)parents’ superheroes, but if a part of that big budget is going to get those into and accepted in libraries and school libraries, it’ll all pay off — my real question there is if they’re in it for the long-enough haul to wait for that that happen.
(I’ve not fully read any of the Ink/Zoom books, but, from where I sit, they’re doing everything right so far)
Makes perfect sense. On par with the few business articles I’ve read recently.
I hadn’t realised how much DC changed their logo in the past few years, that screams “we have no idea where we’re going”. And the ones for those two new imprints are ugly as sin, wonder how much they paid the design agency lol.
In any case the AT&T merger might have some good impacts, first shelving the DC Universe subscription platform to go towards a more generalistic Warner media one is definitely a step in the right direction, in order to compete with Disney+, no way they would have made any money with just the DCU, such a niche market. An online full DC library would be so wonderful to have on tap, their library and back catalog is so rich, many times before in discussions with collector friends I have suggested they should set up an on-demand printing operation. Would certainly make me happy.