NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Iron Man and Spider-Man have been known to trounce super-villains such as the Vulture or the Mandarin. But can they conquer monster trucks and customized choppers? The question will be answered in the days ahead, as the characters' owner, Marvel Entertainment, partners with Harley-Davidson, Orange County Choppers and Feld Motor Sports' Monster Jam.
It's all part of an effort to reach audiences whose familiarity with the characters may not necessarily come from reading their exploits in comic books. Marvel believes its strategy of "co-branding," or pairing Marvel's popular characters with other well-known properties, "will help not only generate some extra revenue but open up some new demographic segments," said Paul Gitter, president-consumer products, North America, for Marvel Entertainment.
The move, which comes not only as Marvel has an ambitious slate of super-hero movies in the pipeline but is also slated to be acquired by Walt Disney Co., reveals an interesting twist in the company's thinking. Not only will it have to depend on consumer acceptance of its dozens of characters, but it must also consider developing an overall "master brand," Mr. Gitter said.
"As the retail landscape changes, and as consumers become more brand loyal, you're going to see partnerships that may be unconventional emerge in the marketplace," he said. "We are also looking over the next few years at potentially partnering with designers and artists to help re-purpose some of our characters in order to appeal to various audiences and open up new channels of distribution." He also believes these kinds of pacts will grant Marvel "the ability to generate revenue from a customer as they get older, and allow us to grow older with them."
When it comes to the current deals, Marvel can expect to reach families and broader audiences in venues that are decidedly different from the toy shops, TV screens, comic book stores and movie theaters that creations such as the Fantastic Four and Captain America call home.
One of those venues will be Monster Jam, which features giant trucks competing in what Feld Entertainment calls "a car-crushing frenzy." With 35% of the audience at its live events at age 12 or under, Monster Jam is "very family-oriented," said Mark Abernethy*, senior director-brand marketing, Feld Motor Sports. Iron Man and Spider-Man will be featured on two new touring monster trucks, which will debut on the tour in January 2010.
In another example of using a partner to reach a different sort of consumer, Harley-Davidson will be selling apparel and accessories for newborns, infants and toddlers. The merchandise will use both images of Harley-Davidson cycles and logos with Marvel-style art. "Particularly in the youth category, many of [Marvel's] characters are natural, and some of the characters are already on motorcycles," said Joanne Bischmann, VP-licensing, Harley-Davidson.
Actual motorcycles that make use of Marvel characters are on tap at Orange County Choppers, a builder of custom and production motorcycles. The pact could get "a lot of new sets of eyeballs for Marvel they normally don't get," said Joe Puliafico, senior VP-licensing, merchandising and retail operations, Orange County Choppers.
One branding expert thinks the motorcycle deals have a smooth road ahead of then but suggested the Monster Jam alliance might be somewhat tricky. Placing characters alongside motorcycle merchandise represents a way for Marvel "to connect with their slightly older consumers, outside of the kid category," said Michael Stone*, CEO of Omnicom Group's Beanstalk Group, a branding and licensing consultant.
Monster-truck shows, however, are "a service, not a product. You go to watch them," he added. The shows will no doubt work well for promoting "Iron Man 2" and other films, he said, but "whether or not there's longevity to it, I'm not quite sure." Will it work? Sounds like a good time for a classic comic-book ending: To be continued ...
~ ~ ~
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had the wrong first names for Michael Stone and Mark Abernethy.