No longer shrouded by the stigma of nerdiness, today’s comic conventions are more than just a place where adults gather to play dress-up or meet their real-life superheroes – they’re where the future of entertainment unfolds. Drawing hundreds of thousands of self-proclaimed nerds, as well as the companies who court them as customers, comic conventions like San Diego’s Comic-Con International and the New York Comic Con have grown from grassroots gatherings to high-profile media and tech-saturated spectacles.
Arts and entertainment companies have long looked to comic conventions as important sites for understanding what makes comic, superhero, sci-fi, and fantasy fans tick – and other industries would do well to take cues from these centers of nerd culture. Comic conventions abound with hints about shifting human needs and desires that have important implications for both business and technology. As sites where fringe, niche, and mainstream cultures collide, comic conventions offer unique opportunities for examining how millions of people seek out and create new ways to engage in and play with the content and experiences that they find both exciting and meaningful.
From James Dean to Drake, creating an aura of coolness has long depended on not trying too hard or caring too much. Acquiring the reputation of a “geek,” “nerd,” or “fanboy/girl,” on the other hand, requires a person to display an undeniable zeal for and knowledge of a particular interest or hobby. Those who spend considerable time amassing knowledge of a fictitious world – for example, by attending events revolving around it or even dressing up as characters from it – feel that they have earned the right to call themselves fans or nerds; they take pride in this identity. In part, this is because having an intimate understanding of something is one way that we, as humans, form our sense of self. Putting that understanding into practice – that is, by performing it in public – is how we signify and solidify our chosen identities in the minds of others.
According to performance researcher Jennifer Gunnels, dressing up as a character is not mere escapism; rather, it is about adopting an identity that may not be feasible in daily life. For comic convention attendees, Gunnels asserts, dawning a cape, mask, or costume allows them to temporarily embody their desired identity among peers who eagerly accept them as extraordinary.
As society becomes increasingly accepting of the fluidity of identities, however, it is no longer unusual to come across people who publicly play with their identities, defying gender, class, and other categorizations through their dress. In fact, Gen Z, the cohort of people born between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, has been described as rejecting the Millennial practice – largely born of social media – of curating their lives and presenting only their best selves to the world.
Comic conventions deserve some of the credit for making identity play through dress more mainstream. For previous generations, there was strong social and economic pressure to look a certain way – having a visible tattoo was often cause enough for an employee to be passed over for a promotion, for example. For this reason, people used occasions like comic conventions to embody their desired identities, even if only for a few days. For their part, comic conventions encouraged attending fans to celebrate the transgression of aesthetic and behavioral norms. Comic books, after all, are known for featuring complex characters with storied backgrounds; it makes sense for comic conventions to encourage the celebration of secret identities and multiple selves. Today, comic conventions continue to cater to costume play (or “cosplay”) enthusiasts’ desire to not only dress up, but also to show off, by including parades, contests, and sets for staging photos to share on social media.
Since the early days of the internet, comic convention attendees have taken advantage of successive online platforms – from blogs to Vine to vlogs – as mechanisms for flexing their fan identities and nerdy authority. In Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, author Rob Salkowitz notes that hashtags are one of the most accurate ways to predict box office success. Salkowitz observes that this is because the people who first tweet or post about the movies they’re excited to see are also those who tend to have influence over the media consumption of more casual audience members. Having reached the same conclusion, media and entertainment companies use comic conventions as opportunities to generate hype about upcoming releases among their most influential potential customers. The challenge that these companies continue to face, however, is this: How can they generate the most – and the longest lasting – excitement among comic convention attendees?
In today’s entertainment-saturated and fiercely competitive experience economy, companies of all stripes recognize the importance of attracting the right kind of attention to their offerings. That’s why so many organizations – not only media businesses and film studios, but also technology companies – are using events like comic conventions to win the support of their most influential customers: fans. For example, at Comic-Con International 2016 in San Diego, Samsung and Warner Bros. Pictures partnered to offer fans an exclusive experience based on the highly anticipated Suicide Squad film. Fans got to “be” a member of the Squad in a scene from the film, a move that earned both the upcoming film and the Samsung VR extensive coverage on social and mainstream media. Despite its notable lack of critical accolades, Suicide Squad was a massive hit at the box office and beyond, continuing to earn fame and fortune well after its August 2016 release date, including from sales of what Business Insider reported as 2016’s most popular Halloween costume: Squad member Harley Quinn.
So, what can businesses learn from comic conventions about appealing to customers in an age when heightened acceptance of identity fluidity belies the value of traditional segmentation and personification? What do these conventions tell us about attracting the attention of eminent customers who have their own fans and followers to consider?
To start, the success of comic conventions indicates the necessity of keeping pace with people’s changing needs and wants in order to stay relevant with an increasingly dynamic population and attention-driven economy. Appreciating how customers are changing requires a willingness to explore new sites and scenes in order to uncover how and where people express the different sides of themselves.
An anthropological approach – one in which customers’ needs and desires are viewed in the context of the places they live, work, and play – is one way to uncover this understanding.
By talking to customers at places like comic conventions, eSports competitions, YouTuber conventions, tailgate parties, and other industry-relevant venues, we can learn just what it takes to transform an ordinary customer into a lifelong fan in a world where play is a platform for self-expression and self-discovery.