Although San Diego Comic-Con's roots are in comic book fandom, it's been a while since comics were the primary reason people flocked to San Diego in July. The whole world is watching not to see if Bitch Planet is going to take "Best New Series" in the Eisners, but to see what sort of clips from Marvel's Dr. Strange or Warner Bros' Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them surface online, and which big-name stars pop in for an appearance. (Is Brie Larson going to show up in a Captain Marvel costume?)
With great attention, of course, comes great opportunities for brand engagement. But what works at SXSW or the Super Bowl doesn't fly at Comic-Con, where the curious mish-mash of comics, broader pop culture, and celebrities mean that brands need to plant a flag that's both nerdy enough to reach the Comic-Con core and mainstream enough to catch an audience that couldn't tell The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Paper Girls.
One way that brands do this is by tapping into a gold-standard partner with plenty of credibility. MAC Cosmetics announced its partnership with Star Trek—timed to celebrate the iconic sci-fi franchise's 50th anniversary—earlier this year. The team-up includes a 25-piece line of Trek-themed makeup, but their Comic-Con plans are more specific: not only is there an early engagement opportunity to shop the whole collection, but they've built an immersive activation, with the opportunity to take photos in front of a re-creation of the Enterprise's transporter, pose with the exquisitely made-up Borg, Orions, and Vulcans, and get Starfleet pins of their own.
You don't have to love makeup to be interested in MAC's activation, in other words—you just have to love Star Trek.
Car-sharing company Car2Go, meanwhile, went more confrontational with its Comic-Con push. The company offers a fleet of Smart cars for short-term, one-way rentals—pick it up at your hotel, drive to the Convention Center, park, and go—which puts them in direct competition with companies like Lyft and Uber. To highlight that, they ripped a page directly out of Mr. Robot by creating the Surge Order, a fictional version of the show's society (itself a fictional version of Anonymous). The ARG-style campaign purports to strike back at the surge-pricing model favored by Lyft and Uber—which can drive prices pretty high at peak times during Comic-Con—by turning San Diego into a scavenger hunt for rare comic books including Amazing Spider-Man #1, Daredevil #1, and Avengers #1. (Roughly $27,000 worth of comics.) It's kind of a double-whammy approach to appealing to fans—not only does it tap into real public distrust of ride-hailing companies by drawing the underdogs-versus-the-world aesthetic of Mr. Robot (to a brand owned by Daimler!)—but it also offers them free comic books worth a lot of money.
You don't have to love a specific movie franchise or comic book title to be interested in what Schick is doing, meanwhile, but you do have to care about shaving. They've created Robot Razor (a life-sized anthropomorphic, er, superhero razor that they'll have someone cosplaying as it at convention) to appeal to the Comic-Con masses. It's kind of an old-school approach to appealing to a niche audience—"We heard you like superheroes, we're a razor brand, here's a superhero take on that"—but they're also going to be doing some semi-heroic deeds like offering water to people waiting in the famously long lines for Hall H and offering to hold spots so fans can take bathroom breaks. Additionally, Schick has also created the Super Shave Shop, where guests can get shaves that are styled to match their favorite superheroes. Which is weird—aside from Wolverine, most superheroes aren't known for their distinctive facial hair—but it's certainly making an effort. On top of all of that, they've also got Transformers artist Livio Ramondelli and freelance artist Ryan Odagawa illustrating the adventures of Robot Razor on Twitter.
All of this reflects the changing face of Comic-Con. It's gone from a place where properties full of nerd cred go to engage their core audience—say, by putting the Iron Throne on the backs of pedicabs—to a place where brands looking to tap into the 160,000-plus attendees try to engage them on their own terms.