Brands need cultural relevance to survive and thrive. Relevant brands merge with specific consumers lifestyles, but the strongest brands inspire and create their own cultures. They’re edgy in some way and they transcend boundaries. They are understood and embraced globally as long as they remain unique, authentic and true to their values.
If we look at the reason why powerful brands have cultural context, it boils down to storytelling. Since time immemorial, humans have responded to storytelling. Stories connect people to brands in an emotional manner. They are compelling. Universal truths are embedded within the mythologies of every cultural group on earth. When they are leveraged as part of core brands, they resonate globally, transcending cultural differences. Their powerful stories attract consumers who become fans and then form a community around the brand, feeding the fundamental human need to belong. These brands become an indispensable part of their adherents’ lifestyles.
Why superhero brands are so ingrained in our collective psyche
This gives us insights into the reasons why people become avid fans of superhero brands. Superheroes have backstories and ongoing sagas. Their stories are riveting, and in many ways, more human than superhuman as these characters grapple with their foibles and challenges. They speak to their fans at a deep level because they embody universal truths. For one thing, they focus on the ongoing battle between good and evil, and the tenacity it takes to prevail. And they celebrate the sweetness of eventually triumphing through sheer willpower and effort.
When fans identify with specific superheroes, they’ve formed a powerful emotional connection with them. Furthermore, they communicate their personal identities through the adoption of these brands. Even in a fast-changing pop culture, classic superheroes enjoy an evergreen existence as long as their storylines remain relevant and evolve. Extending these brands into the licensed consumer products space is an integral part of the marketing strategy that’s keeping them ever-present to their fans. But, it also poses a great challenge: how to make a superhero licensed property stand out against a host of competitive licensed brands that are clamoring for consumers’ attention – from the superstars of Hollywood and the music industry to athletes and a pantheon of new and classic superheroes?
Connecting with fans through a unique visual language
When working with a superhero brand, it is essential to identify its most compelling cues from the fan’s perspective in an effort to establish a unique visual language for its licensing program. There is a tendency among some trend-conscious brand owners and design consultants to take their cues from pop culture. This inclination should be resisted since a hot property is already ingrained within the culture. The focus must be on the actual property, its latest storylines, its most recent and most popular content. Superhero brand owners need to uncover what makes their property unique and authentic when compared to competitive licensed entertainment brands – particularly when cultivating which visual cues to leverage when designing style guide assets. Think of these visual cues as the drivers of the property’s personality. Then think of the property’s fans as a cult.
The visual language that is established must then be infused into each of the licensing program’s design elements: Doing so will create a unique and identifiable aesthetic through a distinctive color palette, stylistically-treated imagery, carefully-selected fonts and ownable editorial – in other words, an aesthetic that speaks only to that particular property. These cues can be incorporated into style guide design elements both overtly and subliminally. If a new film has been released or new storylines emerge via multiple traditional and digital platforms, they need to be reflected in the property’s licensing program. However, these dedicated design elements should not take the place of the classic, or “core” design elements in which the property’s fans are emotionally invested. Instead, they should co-exist with them as part of the brand’s overarching licensing program, but in a separate, dedicated style guide.
Support the visual language with the appropriate verbal language
A property’s unique visual language is supported by editorial as design elements are developed for use on licensed consumer products. It’s important that the editorial aligns with what the design elements are depicting, since specific imagery already calls to mind verbal associations with the property. Selecting the perfect editorial enhances the property’s unique visual language. Using verbiage that isn’t inherently associated with the imagery being represented detracts.
A library of design elements are developed and compiled within a style guide to give licensees the appropriate tools to work with as they’re developing consumer products. Including examples of potential consumer products within the style guide that showcase the proper visual aesthetic gives licensees concrete direction and inspiration. It also ensures brand consistency at retail for licensors, leading to instantaneous consumer recognition among fans of the property, solid sales and increased brand equity.
A unique visual language fit for preschool superhero fans
A good example of how a unique visual language is leveraged on a superhero property would be Marvel Entertainment’s Spidey and His Amazing Friends licensing program. Our design consultancy is often engaged to contribute design elements to the seasonal releases of this popular animated preschool property’s style guide, which introduce new heroes and villains and a fresh, new look for both core and trend-based design elements.
Although the design elements for each release of the Spidey and His Amazing Friends style guide incorporate new stylistic treatments, the overarching visual language remains the same. The design aesthetic is always bold and fun, but also simple, clean and contemporary. One of the primary parameters is to avoid using any sharp corners and angles. Since this property is geared towards preschoolers, everything needs to be soft and rounded in its appeal. For example, when framing devices are used, they always have radiuses corners. Another parameter is to speak to the idea of teamwork. You rarely see the three main “spider” heroes featured in a design element alone. And messaging is always super positive and about working together, with editorial such as “Team Up!” and “Go-Webs-Go!” being used frequently throughout each guide release.
The visual language continues with a limited palette of primary colors along with black and white for all core design elements. And, unless a particular trend theme requires something unique, the licensing program’s typography is limited to a selection of 5 different fun, age-appropriate fonts. All of these attributes work in concert to establish a unique look for Spidey and his Amazing Friends that differentiates it from all competitive brands on licensed consumer products.
When it comes to licensing program design, each property requires a one-of-a-kind visual language that will lead to dedicated and differentiated consumer products. One that goes to its core and essence. Leverage the brand’s most powerful visual cues, create the proper aesthetic and help support licensees with a comprehensive licensing program style guide. Turn the property into an even greater cultural phenomenon for its community of fans.