Comicbook films striking up the brand

BILLIONAIRE INDUSTRIALIST Bruce Wayne wants to bring order to an unruly city. How does he do it? He transforms himself into a brand – the biggest brand in Gotham, celebrated and vilified by equal measure. That’s the story of “Batman Begins.” It’s also the story of Martha Stewart, whose corporate empire bears more than a passing resemblance to Wayne Enterprises. (Is it any coincidence that Wayne Enterprises’ most controversial product is a giant microwave?)

Coincidental or not, the analogy explains, in part, why Hollywood remains so fixated on comicbook movies — a fixation that a slew of second-rate superhero movies (“Elektra,” anyone?) has failed to check. It’s all about branding, and re-branding.

Superheroes like Batman and the Fantastic Four are the perfect fodder for our name-brand-crazed consumer culture. Like Martha Stewart (at least before the five-month prison sentence), they’re symbols of trust in uncertain times; they have a big built-in fan base; and their identities are easily reducible to a trademark that can be planted anywhere, from kids pajamas to a cell-phone screen to the K-Mart advertising circular tucked inside your Sunday paper.

“Batman Begins,” like most superhero origin stories, deliberately plays off the idea that the protagonist has to brand himself for the public. Early on, Wayne tells his trusty butler, Alfred, that before he battles the criminal underworld, he has to turn himself into a symbol – “something elemental, something terrifying.” Cut to the Batcave, as the fledgling superhero buffs his Batsuit and sharpens his Batarang, the titanium replica of the Batman logo, a comicbook logo as iconic in Hollywood as the Nike swoosh.

In recent weeks, Fox and Marvel Comics have been milking the Fantastic Four brand for all it’s worth, securing some $100 million in corporate sponsorship from consumer goods companies eager to drape their products in the radiant glow of a summer tentpole with the word “Fantastic” in its title. The producers have mounted an unprecented cross-branding blitz for the movie — licensing the name to everyone from Kraft Lunchables to Samsung Electronics.

WHAT IS BRANDING? It’s a marketing cliche whose exact meaning tends to elicit long, academic explanations from adfolk. Ask Jupiter Research’s Gary Stein about branding and he’ll trace the concept back to 19th century pragmatist philosopher William James. A senior analyst focusing on the packaged goods industry, Stein says a brand boils down to “a set of ideas inside a consumer’s mind that compels an action.”

Alex Frankel has an interesting take on branding in his book “Wordcraft,” which looks at marketing companies like the Sausalito-based outfit Lexicon Branding, the creator of high-concept names for such products as Zima, Dasani, the Subaru Outback and the Blackberry. One freelance namer at Lexicon tells Frankel, “as a namer you try to compress the inner nature of something into a small package.”

The power of branding cuts both ways. The Blackberry was chosen by its manufacturer from a list of names that included the AirWire, Outrigger and Nemo. It’s hard to imagine the device would be as popular today if it was called the Nemo.

And for all the success of the Nike brand, Stein says, the sneaker company was associated for a while with sweatshop labor. “That compelled an action,” he said. “There were protests and a giant rat was placed outside Phil Knight’s office.” Martha Stewart lost control of her company and hundreds of millions when she went to jail. But a glossy spread in the latest issue of Vanity Fair documents Stewart’s rebranding campaign, as she prepares to give Oprah a run for her money with a new daytime TV show and a stint on reality skein “The Apprentice.”

WHEN IT COMES to comicbook branding, studio marketers are acutely aware of such cultural vicissitudes, spending millions currying favor with brand loyalists like the 100,000-plus comicbook fans converging on San Diego this weekend for Comic-Con. This year, Warner Bros. is flying Bryan Singer to Comic-Con from Australia to promote “Superman Returns.” Last year, it brought “Batman Begins” screenwriter David Goyer to the convention, along with a videotaped message from Christian Bale.

The trick with “Batman Begins,” Warner Bros. domestic marketing chief Dawn Taubin says, was to demonstrate to fans that it wasn’t an extension of the earlier Batmans. “We needed to re-establish the identity of the character and we needed to be loyal to the core property. How nice for us that the movie was doing the same thing.”

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