The Brand Radar: Fandom takes centre stage as licensed – and unofficial – ranges fly at MCM Comic Con

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how a show-specific approach might be the way forward for brands looking to tackle ‘unofficial’ product at MCM Comic Con.

Earlier this month, the MCM Comic Con took place at ExCel in London. The event is described as ‘an unforgettable three-day celebration of all things pop culture.’

Open to the general public, the event brings together genres such as sci fi, anime, gaming, comics, manga and K-Pop. It blends trade stands selling merchandise with activations from brand owners, as well as celebrity signings, talks and product launches. There is also a heavy representation from the artist community, with the chance to buy original art from them. It’s a vibrant and colourful fan-led event.

The vast majority of attendees are fans of one or more of the genres. Many of the attendees arrive dressed in costumes celebrating their fandom – cosplay is a key feature of the event, as is the opportunity for fans to meet other fans and to share the fan experience.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, MCM Comic Con

As the MCM Comic Con website puts it, the event provides ‘the freedom to be yourself.’ I have attended quite a few Comic Cons over the years and that latter point is one that has always struck me… It’s an event that celebrates fandom, makes no judgments and allows attendees to embrace being a fan. Given its links to pop culture, it naturally flows that Comic Con has links to the world of licensing…

One obvious connection to licensing is the presence of independent retailers selling pop culture merchandise, with specialists dealing with the different genres. Much of the merchandise on sale is officially licensed, sourced from established licensees including the likes of Funko.

Regrettably, there’s also examples of unlicensed and unauthorised merchandise. In the context of a fan-led event, this is particularly disappointing as it should be an environment where consumers can trust the merchandise they buy. Indeed, most of the attendees at Comic Con understand and respect the status of ‘official merchandise’. This is maybe something the licensing community can look at with the show organisers.

It’s also a point that Max Arguile from Reemsborko picked up on. He tells me: “There were, of course, still a bunch of people selling counterfeit products and Reed Pop should be ashamed – they should be, but I imagine they just don’t care. So long as people pay for the stands, who cares if the product is legit, eh?”

Max makes a good point, but there is also probably an argument that the show organisers may not recognise the difference between official and unofficial merchandise, whereas IP owners would. It could be an area of collaboration and perhaps something trade organisation Licensing international could look at.

Max was also pleased with the balance of exhibitors at the Comic Con. He said: “Both halls were full but there was much less in the way of corporate stands with companies pushing blockbuster films and TV series that have very little relevance to most of the attendees. I don’t think this is a bad thing – it makes it more fan-focused.”

In previous years, a number of IP owners had taken space to promote new films and TV franchises but – as Max observes – some of these didn’t quite fit with the Comic Con vibe. That said there were some great examples of IP owners supporting their franchises with brand stands. This included gaming companies such as SEGA and production companies supporting films such as The Amazing Maurice.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, MCM Comic Con

The Amazing Maurice is a 3D animated film produced by Sky based on a Terry Pratchett book. Given the link to Terry Pratchett, it’s easy to understand the attraction to Comic Con. It’s certainly a good opportunity to promote franchises, but they have to be a good fit with the attendees. Other brands that were showcased with dedicated stands included Dungeons & Dragons, Transformers and Yu-Gi-Oh.

One element of the gaming companies’ stands was the opportunity to visitors to play new games, whilst most stands featured photo opportunities for fans. Taking photos is a big part of the Comic Con experience, including attendees talking photos of each other in their costumes. It’s a very social experience with lots of posting on social media.

It was also interesting to see retailer HMV in attendance. HMV have recently undertaken an extensive programme of new openings featuring fresh store formats, with a heavy focus on pop culture brands and products. They attended Comic Con with a stand selling a range of merchandise.

Gary Williamson, the Head of Pop Culture at HMV, explained the thinking behind their attending Comic Con: “We decided to attend our very first Comic Con as an exhibitor to tie in with the massive expansion we are undertaking in-store. It was also a way to highlight the pop culture lines we are supporting. Comic Con is our chance to meet pop culture fans face to face in a different environment to our stores.

“It was also a great opportunity to get feedback on what we are doing Instore which was overwhelming and very positive they love what we are doing and wanted to know what we are doing next. It was also a great opportunity to see suppliers and the products they have. I was very impressed with the likes of Mighty Jaxx, Trademark and Hasbro amongst many others. Was also glad to see the New Traders Hall and the likes of Pinku Kult and Darling Despair. It is my intention to give them a route into retail. “

Gary also explained how HMV keep in touch with pop culture beyond Comic Con, highlighting that the HMV team are a valuable and knowledgeable group. He added: “There are over 1,100 pop culture fans in our teams and they tell us daily what our pop culture customers have been asking for.”

Gary also highlighted how HMV can trial and test a new concept in one store, but roll out a success quickly. He tells us: “When we opened our first new store concept, we introduced for the very first time the Zombie Makeout Club brand. It went down so well that within a matter of weeks it was in all stores. With the help of our suppliers, we can move quickly to get the pop culture fan what they want.”

It’s really encouraging to see a retailer like HMV putting so much effort and focus into understanding its consumers and their interests. In this context, Comic Con is a very effective way of gauging market trends, but by being there HMV have also shown a very public commitment to being part of the pop culture family.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, MCM Comic Con

Another retailer that has been a long-term supporter of pop culture in general and Comic Con specifically is Forbidden Planet – and hey were at the show again this year. They had a couple of stands sited near each other, one of which was selling a general range of merchandise, including books, graphic novels and t shirts. They linked this stand to a series of signing events featuring authors. This is an interesting aspect of Comic Con – attendees seem to be keen to meet authors, artists and actors. Of course, this is an extension of the fan experience. The other stand that Forbidden Planet had at the show was dedicated to Doctor Who, a franchise that has had an ongoing presence at Comic Con.

Anthony Garnon ­– who now works at Aardman – was working at Comic Con for his former employer Forbidden Planet and gave a good insight into the thinking behind the Doctor Who stand. He said: “In a packed pop culture environment, the most immediate benefit to attending is brand visibility. An MCM Comic Con weekend has over 30,000 visitors, all passing through eager to see every stand and live every possible experience. Having an activation or offer promoting exclusive retail items makes your stand is a must-see and, at the end of the day or weekend, a very definitive memory of their convention.

“Fundamentally conventions are fan driven. A stand allows IP owners to meet their brand’s most passionate fans and to understand IP through their eyes. What did they make of the most recent season? Are they excited by what’s coming up? What moments stick out in their mind the most? Who are their favourite characters? With the latter, cosplay is a great tool too in understanding what is in the fan zeitgeist.”

Anthony went on to explain more of the thinking behind the stand and how this was developed to resonate with fans: “The cynical approach is to go in to promote, promote, promote or to just make money, but that’s misunderstanding how a convention serves the fans. Yes, they bring their wallets and are happy to spend – but really they just want something special and unique to their experience, that understands and celebrates all the things they love most about the IP.

“The Doctor Who stand had the TARDIS prop and, for the first time anywhere, costumes from next year’s big anniversary episodes. It also deliberately offered rotating exclusive merchandise daily. 15 items, a mix of product categories, one item for each on-screen incarnation of the Doctor. This gave weekend ticket holders a reason to visit and then revisit the stand every day, making Doctor Who a greater footprint on their convention experience as they queued and met other fans. I’d estimate anywhere up to 10,000 photographs were taken with that TARDIS prop across the three days of MCM – which in turn contributed five-digit revenue on the retail side.”

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, MCM Comic Con

Anthony also gave an interesting view on the question of unlicensed merchandise at the show but also provides an interesting suggestion about how show exclusives could help overcome the issue. He tells us: “The problem definitely exists, especially along the far sections of the halls, but it has got a bit better since ReedPop bought the show. I’ve never seen or experienced anybody from Trading Standards at a convention and I’m not sure what a vendor would do if challenged about the legality of their merchandise.

“The problem is two-fold. Yes, vendors shouldn’t be breaking copyright in such an obvious way at a big trade show – but licensors and retailers need to wake up and realise that fans expect more from convention merchandise. An asset on a t-shirt just doesn’t cut it there. Make something truly special, maybe exclusive, and the fans will support the official items.

“Years ago, Forbidden Planet ran the official Rick and Morty stand. Cheap counterfeit items were everywhere during that convention, but fans recognised who was ‘official’ and also saw we’d curated an odd-ball line of merchandise so fun, niche and on-brand that they paid the higher price. All items were exclusive to MCM that weekend which no doubt helped decide matters. Fans hate missing out on exclusives!”

Seemingly Anthony’s experience reinforces the fact that for brands to succeed at Comic Con they have to take a show-specific approach, which includes a commitment to developing show specific products – plus continuing to understand what fans want.

Interestingly, there were a couple of clues at the show to other aspects of fandom that seem to inspire fan engagement. I noticed a few examples of vendors selling bespoke or custom product. There was a footwear company selling one off handpainted trainers and baseball boots featuring fan-friendly designs. Elsewhere, Bespokemon were selling bespoke one off art pieces featuring Pokémon models. The chance to have a bespoke piece of art or apparel seems to fit well with the Comic Con fan.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, MCM Comic Con

A number of licensees were in attendance at the show selling directly to fans. This was across a range of categories including toys, apparel and craft. Examples included crafting company Craft Buddy who were selling their Crystal art kits featuring brands like Star Wars.

Clearly selling directly to consumers has a benefit but I would also imagine that being at Comic Con is about brand building, raising awareness and seeking to bring new consumers into the crafting tent. It is good to see licensees investing in opportunities like this, and as noted by HMV’s Gary Williamson, it’s also a way for a supplier to become part of the pop culture scene.

One licensee who seemed particularly busy was Trademark Products. They were selling a range of pop culture t-shirts across a range of genres. Trademark Product’s Phil King highlighted their thinking about being at the show, noting again the benefit of being able to engage directly with fans. He said: “Comic Con London is always one of the best shows for us with the split of licences we hold, and this year was no different. It was worth the time having a stand and selling at this event. It also gives you so much feedback on what people are watching and popularity of shows. They are the true fans and are more than happy to share their views.”

Phil then went on to pick out a show highlight in IP terms: “While we focus our licenses more towards the anime titles, which has the obvious appeal to the Comic con visitor, this year the stand out licence was Don’t Hug Me I Am Scared. This slightly off the wall property was a surprise hit at the show with a much broader appeal than anticipated.”

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, MCM Comic Con

He also reinforced the point about how fans enjoy the show experience – and indeed make the experience – adding: “Visiting the show, you can see from the start the relaxed atmosphere and enjoyment of the attendee’s just being at the event. Whether being dressed up in character costume or just normal attire, they want to share their passion for these characters. It creates a safe environment to indulge in the love of this genre. Walking around and seeing people taking photos of people’s costumes and hear them talking about that show, you soon realise it works so well as everyone shares the passion for all varieties of characters.”

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, MCM Comic Con

The passion that Phil King observed is definitely something to celebrate and encourage. Comic Con is a great forum for pop culture, and in turn a great showcase for licensing. It’s also a timely reminder that fans have to be understood – they know their subject and have great insights to share. The relationship with fans needs to be nurtured and not abused.

Comic Con has some issues around non-licensed products, but this shouldn’t be overstated and shouldn’t overshadow the fact that it creates a fabulous forum for fans to embrace their fandom and meet fellow fans.

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