Lessons from Comic-Con – the world’s biggest pop-up store

Discussion
Photo: Comic-Con International
Jul 25, 2018
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Patricia Vekich Waldron

Comic-Con International is an extravaganza that turns sleepy San Diego into the world’s pop culture capital. It draws hundreds of thousands of costumed fans, industry professionals, Hollywood types, vendors and spectators. It transforms downtown San Diego into a playground for attendees and for onlookers.

Retailers, developers and brands should pay attention to how Comic-Con continues to captivate and delight its fans. After nearly 50 years, Comic-Con has turned in many ways into the ultimate pop-up store.

Seeking the secrets to Comic-Con’s success? Here are three that I’ve observed.

Comic-Con understands fans and delivers on their value proposition. Fans share common interests and values, but are extremely diverse. I observed every age, demographic, heritage and group. Attendees understand the rules and know that not everyone can get a seat in Hall H where the tops stars present and answer questions. Organizers, exhibitors, vendors and attendees know this as well and prepare in advance to make a great experience for everyone. There are tents to keep people cool, apps for pre-registration and engagement, Cosplay for photo-ops and amusement and loads of social activities for everyone to join in.

Lessons from Comic-Con – the world’s biggest pop-up store
Photo: Comic-Con International

Comic-Con changes over time in accordance with fans’ expectations without straying from its original mission. It has morphed from comic books and sci-fi films to interactive technologies, immersive adventures, costumes, games and high-end collectibles. Organizers have embraced new technologies and expanded the scope of activities to further engage avid fans and to grow its base.

Comic-Con is an immersive experience. Everyone wants to learn, explore and purchase. Too many retailers focus on the purchase step, relying on price promotions instead of using new technologies to smooth shopping and differentiate with immersive experiences. While consumer price sensitivity continues to be retailers’ top business challenge, according to RSR Research, sales events will continue to fail if they are solely discount-based. (Check out the RetailWire BrainTrust LIVE discussion on the Build-A-Bear “Pay Your Age” debacle.) I loved seeing the interactive “activations,” social media and SWAG available to fans and the general public. These are much better ways of increasing the fan base than offering discounts.

Lessons from Comic-Con – the world’s biggest pop-up store
Photo: Comic-Con International

Comic-Con’s ardent fans, continual growth and growth are to be admired (and enjoyed). Wouldn’t it be great if more retailers, malls and brands focused on attaining this level of relevance, passion and staying power?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What can retailers, malls and consumer brands learn from the Comic-Con experience? How can they apply this learning to their businesses?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
" Fans rave and crave. They aren’t passive about their passion. They go after it. They make time for it. They spend money on it."
"The rise of such events is driven by the shift in experience becoming the new product."
"Comic-Con does so many things right, but perhaps the most important thing it does is invite you to play. How many retailers do that?"

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17 Comments on "Lessons from Comic-Con – the world’s biggest pop-up store"


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Sunny Kumar
BrainTrust

I think brands can learn a great deal from events such as Comic-Con. The rise of such events is driven by the shift in experience becoming the new product. This is the very thing that is transforming many business sectors.

When considering the holistic customer journey, we know the actual point of purchase now, more often than not, involves numerous different touch points; many brand-owned and many more out of their control.

Each of these touch points is important and creating great experiences that matter around them is now the thing that helps drive awareness, purchase and advocacy.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

It’s a great concept to learn from Comic-Con and its fan relationships, but no retailer has that depth of loyalty. Well … Apple maybe. It has its fanboys. All they need is a new product, not a promotion and their credit cards are out.

What retailers can do is partner with those rarified brands that have deep loyalty, maybe a Tiffany, Titleist, or Lego and create non-discount focused events with exclusive experiences, like expert clinics, or occasion-specific limited edition product, even online community experiences. As the Comic-Con organizers know, people pay for exclusivity and feel good about it.

I agree with Patricia that experience drives profitably more than increasing sales volume via discounts ever can. The part about not competing on discounts is something I’ve been preaching for years, but almost no retailer has the courage to go that route. Apple notwithstanding.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
BrainTrust

Interesting insights, Ken! Seems foolish that a company like Build-A-Bear who actually does offer an immersive experience chose to try to widen it’s fan base by discounting!

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Comic-Con has a cult-like following. The event has created fans, not customers. Brands should be focused on the same things. Fans rave and crave. They aren’t passive about their passion. They go after it. They make time for it. They spend money on it.

Evan Snively
BrainTrust

Well said, Shep.

It’s important for brands to realize that it is actually the relationship consumers are able to foster with each other while experiencing the brand, and not the consumer’s individual relationship with the brand itself that creates a cult-like following.

It’s this shared identity/value-system that enable a consumer’s overall relationship with a brand to be much stickier.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
BrainTrust

You’re right, Shep! It was also really really interesting to me that other than Ralphs, CV and Subway, most of the local retailers and restaurants were filled with the onlookers, as the fans scrimped on everything except the ‘Con-related items. Even the Uber and Lyft drivers had very few conference attendees as passengers – they went on foot to save their money for high-priced collectibles!

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Great perspective, Patricia! This is all about the loyal (AKA “cult”) following that drives passion for the brand(s)/entities at the event. At least one retailer in the comments has been mentioned, however even that brand lacks the maniacal following of Comic-Con entities. If retailers can capture this brand intensity via their own entity related to their brand, developed around a popular trend like superheroes, that may prove to be a path to potential success as demonstrated by Comic-Con.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Having been to a few local comic conventions, the experience for the fans is what they all strive for and they know the purchases will come. Celebrity appearances and photo ops (compensated of course), vendors, cosplayers and fans create the environment which you want to attend and don’t mind spending a few dollars once you are there. Obviously it took a long time for the organization to build the loyal fan base which other than Apple or Disney, few can emulate. The emphasis on experience first, transaction second is what mall operators can learn. Rather than asking “how do I get the customers to spend more?” ask the question “How do I get the customers to WANT to come visit often?”

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

It’s about the experience — and the community that forms around it. Comic-Con has built this brilliantly and there’s not a retailer out there that couldn’t get something from them. I imagine the employees are having some fun with it as well, which turns the whole thing into a virtuous circle creating value.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Comic-Con really is the ultimate immersive experience. Retailers talk, talk, TALK about the in-store experience but somehow the conversation always comes back to having nice people. That’s just a small part of the customer experience.

Comic-Con does so many things right, but perhaps the most important thing it does is invite you to play. How many retailers do that?

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

There is an encyclopedia of ideas to take away from Comic-Con. But the retailer has to want to change, in essence, change their idea of experience. Comic-Con proves that being part of the experience and developing an emotional attachment to it are the key factors. Stores that develop those ingredients can easily describe their customers as members of the tribe. They have become involved with the retailer, as in not just watching the fashion show in the store, they’re participants — in a craft store making gifts for needy children, or sitting on a fashion panel for the store, and the possibility list goes on and on. Those retailers that get it, build Top of the Mind Awareness, and tribe members. It’s all based on experience, involvement and emotion. Still don’t think so? Just go to Les Schwab Tire, and watch what they do. They put emotion and excitement in every transaction — they get it. Comic-Con really gets it!

David Naumann
BrainTrust

It is challenging for retailers and malls to inspire consumers to visit their locations and promoting products or discounts are not the answer. Leveraging the benefits of a physical store that can’t be replicated online points to experiences and events that create fun and memorable experiences. This is the key to turning average customers into brand enthusiasts. It is time to make the store relevant again.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

Comic-Con is certainly a great example of experience in action. Obviously it’s at a scale most retailers might struggle to emulate, but shopping malls could certainly learn some lessons. Let’s also not forget that these events often sell limited-edition items which are another draw for customers.

I think the point about visitors being fans, not customers is an important one. Retailers could learn a lot from thinking about how customers become fans of a series or product — how can they incorporate some of this into their businesses? The more you can draw someone into your world, the more loyal they are going to be to it.

Samantha Alston
Guest

I appreciate this idea that Kenneth points to: “the experience for the fans is what they all strive for and they know the purchases will come.” This is about how retailers measure performance and how it drives strategy.

Part of the challenge for retail at large is our orientation around traditional and transactional KPIs. What if we were to replace measurements like sales per square foot or daily transactions with the degree to which our customers become evangelists? From that perspective, revenue is a consequence of service, margin a consequence of experience, and customers a consequence of community.

I would be curious to understand exactly how Comic-Con thinks about performance or defines engagement, and how the organization’s goals or “report card” evolve with each event in order to continually delight its customer base.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
10 months 24 days ago

Let me make a surprise prediction: Comic-Con is on the edge of waning. Why? The advertising that has built Comic-Con into what it has become are movies — especially Marvel, Star Wars and DC Comics.

Given recent box offices, this is the early cusp of those movies ebbing. As soon as they ebb, Comic-Con will lose attendance — because the advertising which drives attendance will be gone.

Of course it will continue and there will continue to be enthusiasts for characters and ideas.

What does this have to do with retail? There’s little for retailers to copy here and, I believe, few learnings we can take from Comic-Con. When you’re selling toilet paper, it’s hard to compete with Iron Man and Mark Hamill.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

I love the headline for this discussion! Comic-Con is first and foremost a haven for fan expression. The celebrity appearances and exhibits are the draw, but the costumed attendees and atmosphere of “play” are the magic.

Jennifer McDermott
Guest

Comic-Con’s continued success over the years is in large part due to its understanding of attendees’ expectations. Fans come to Comic-Con for the unique experience it provides and organizers, exhibitors and vendors have a firm understanding of what that experience should look like for everyone.

Brands should take note of how Comic-Con adjusts to captivate its audience year after year while staying aligned with its original mission.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
" Fans rave and crave. They aren’t passive about their passion. They go after it. They make time for it. They spend money on it."
"The rise of such events is driven by the shift in experience becoming the new product."
"Comic-Con does so many things right, but perhaps the most important thing it does is invite you to play. How many retailers do that?"

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