Observations by Claire Irving

The staff at the Mount Kisco branch of Dunkin’ Donuts could have done with a company sponsoring earplugs rather than promoting superhero donuts during a visit with my three boys. They couldn’t hide their ecstasy as they saw Captain America in Dunkin’s window. I’m not sure what was more exhilarating - the impression Captain America visits Dunkin’, he makes his own donuts or the anticipation of frosted sprinkles. To my embarrassment, full throttle, glass shattering screaming continued whilst in line – “Captain America, Captain America” - the shouting got shriller and shriller. It seems 2011 is the summer for superheroes as the Marvel series gains new cinematic life through the likes of Thor and Captain America.

Today superheroes, like other brands, have evolved beyond being characters defined by generic category attributes of goodness over evil to carefully positioned portfolios with each character representing a distinct brand of superheroism. The Marvel Series trailer ably demonstrated how to advertise an endorsed brand strategy. Each superhero with its’ unique brand identity is tightly controlled and stretched across seemingly infinite product categories. Characters greet us in everything from tableware to shams, from candy to shoes, from dress up outfits, from masks to room accessories and personal care. Advances in cinematic technology have potential to bring to life product placements in new ways and facilitate further brand stretch opportunities. If the forthcoming aroma cinema was in time for Captain America one can imagine branded aftershave to appeal to those with greater purchasing power. Product placements in Captain America and Thor also point to these brands developing their reach as they seek partners who speak to mom and dads. Take the ring of Acuras that help symbolise Captain America’s entry to the present day.

Although the aspirational qualities embodied by superhero brands are compelling to kids their ubiquity can be frustrating for parents. A quick visit to Party City requires meticulous planning to by-pass aisles with the Captain America themed ware, the temptation to avoid a tantrum and buy is overwhelming yet sometimes totally unnecessary given the plethora of redundant licensed merchandise occupying cabinets across the land as kids change their fancy on a whim. On the flip side whilst kitted out as Captain America complete with mask and “shiny shield”, my four-year-old bravely lets me apply suntan cream without the usual tantrum, “because Captain America doesn’t make a fuss”.

As these superhero brands find new ways into our lives and become more influential in defining our kids’ universes and mindsets, the acid test will be if they can consistently evolve in credible ways and not over stretch themselves to the point of losing their core attraction. If brands like Captain America can harness the values most intrinsic to his power we may see the first hero gaining super-brand status. I hope he gets a place next to BMW. That would be interesting!