Nerd Love Is Worth Millions at Comic-Con

Brands spend big on superfan loyalty

Brands are opening their checkbooks to reach fans at Comic-Con in San Diego.

The going rate to put an image on the facade of the Marriott Marquis, which sits next to the convention center hosting the event, is $500,000, according to a source.

What exactly is the limit on what marketers will invest to rise above the noise at SDCC, arguably the world's single largest gathering of self-selected superfans—and to brands, rabid, pop-culture evangelists? "I think it’s endless," says John Keefer of Crave Online, which is putting together Friday night's shindig in support of TNT's Michael Bay-produced contagion drama The Last Ship aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Midway. "Clients aren’t per se giving us a budget. If they’re putting something out there that gets massive coverage, I’m not sure it really will be capped," he added.

The important thing, according to Keefer, is to get your clients noticed in the space of just a few days. "It’s hard to spend people’s money in a short amount of time," he said. "These conversations start a year in advance, and sometimes more." Some brands will invest as little as $50,000, while others may spend up to $1 million, he added.

Hilary Daly, senior brand manager on Schick's Hydro, explained her brand's strategy. "I think you're obviously trying to break through and get attention—there's so much going on—but to do it in a way that makes sense for the brand," she said. Schick has plenty of geek-guy activations at this year's event, but one really stands out: a partnership with Ubisoft that has taken up a huge chunk of the green space between the convention center and the trendy Gaslight district, where most attendees and exhibitors wander in search of food around midday.

Its main component is an American Gladiators-style obstacle course staffed by 19th century gendarmes in honor of swashbuckling video game Assassin's Creed. Even as Daly talks branding, a boxy, brief man in a letter-perfect red, white and blue Captain America uniform leaps up and over a wall behind us. Cap is still a little too cornfed and nerdy to be a super-popular costume among the attendees (there are plenty of pin-uppy gender-bent variations), but this guy has it down cold. "That's awesome!" Daly says. "I wonder if we can get him to come get a shave?"

Meantime, the men's grooming brand has found the perfect prop in a French Revolution-themed video game: the National Razor herself, looming in the background behind period-attired barbers who shave the beards and heads of volunteers. It's a prime opportunity for the brand: SDCC is probably ground zero for facial scruff.

The activations around the ring of the convention center are incredibly elaborate, including a giant funhouse with Adult Swim branding and free t-shirts, the Assassin's Creed obstacle course (also with a t-shirt at the end, and possibly a copy of the game for the person who runs the course the quickest), and a massive pavilion for the DC Comics-based horror series Constantine, where fans-to-be go can drop by to get scared (as well as a branded tote bag). Behind the center, patient fans stand in line near an impressive re-creation of the Gotham City skyline through which they plummet one by one on a zipline, Dark Knight-style.

"The most exciting thing for me is to see people play the game and getting their reactions. There's a camera inside so you can see people," said Al Hope, creative director for an atmospheric video game called Alien: Isolation. Based on the movie, the game is designed to give the player the same feeling of terror enjoyed by Sigourney Weaver's character, and so players are shut inside a lightproof, sound-muffling egg modeled on the late H. R. Giger's prop for the film. Inside the egg is a vibrating game chair, a hi-res monitor, several speakers and a PS4 controller.

There's also a video camera that broadcasts players' reactions to fans who are armchair quarterbacking their reflexes while waiting in line behind the booth—and to Hope's team. "Events like this are really cool because it does give us a chance to get some feedback," he said. "It's really valuable to see how people play and react."

Also at Comic-Con fans can enjoy an installation for History's sleeper hit Vikings, featuring a "visit-the-set" extravaganza equipped with multiple greenscreens putting the fan himself on a poster. (Plenty of marketers hand out fliers and show preview trailers; Vikings is the only one so far that manages to make its promotional materials a keepsake starring the fans themselves.)

As it happens, the industry that spawned the convention and many of its most popular attractions (just try to walk a few feet without coming across a gun-wielding raccoon) has seen its share of struggles. While stalwarts DC and Marvel press ahead, venerable publisher Fantagraphics (home to R. Crumb, Los Bros Hernandez and many others) initiated a Kickstarter campaign to get back on its feet. When asked what was next for his company, the publisher of a different but also large indie house said it would be "going dark for a little bit while we pay printers." But will the company be OK? "None of us are ever really OK," he said.

And yet, the fall TV slate is wall-to-wall superheroes, as awestruck fans here in San Diego line up to get their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics signed and artists hold forth on their craft alongisde props from the Batman movies. These fans mean business—especially to the many content creators and marketers flooding this town.