Better Latte Than Never

Seemingly lost amid the clamor of Man of Steel marketing tie-ins ranging from a Gillette-propelled debate over how Superman might shave to Sears overtly promoting itself as “starring” in the movie (and, if you’ve seen the film, they do have a point), is a strategic gem of a promotion orchestrated by DC Entertainment and Starbucks.

From now until June 17th, Starbucks customers across the US, already used to getting codes for a free music, game, e-book or app download via the coffee purveyor’s “Pick of the Week” program, can now get a free digital copy of Action Comics #1, the New 52 title that introduced a reimagined Superman as part of a redesigned DC universe.  This marks the first time a digital comic book has been so selected and the fact that it surrounds the release of WB’s Man of Steel is no coincidence.

We at Team Bonfire discovered the promotion in a Starbucks on the New Jersey Turnpike while on a road trip to and from Baltimore earlier this week and we couldn’t have been more excited.

It was a little over four years ago when, as Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for DC Comics, I made one in a series of attempts to reach out beyond the insular marketing environment in which DC then operated (I would often refer to it as “the bottled city of Kandor”), flying out to Seattle for a sit-down with my counterpart at Starbucks, a meeting that was actually arranged for me by my eventual Bonfire Agency partner, Ed Catto.

At the time, Starbucks’ “Discoveries” initiative was in full swing, having played a major role in the successful launch of a number of best-sellers including Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Isabel Gillies’ Happens Every Day.  If any brand could recognize the potential of graphic novels to connect to new audiences and, at the same time, help DC broaden engagement beyond comic shops and bookstores, I thought, it’d be Starbucks.

As first meetings go, it was a productive one. We quickly narrowed its focus to a discussion of upcoming titles from our “literary” imprint, Vertigo, as it was felt that “capes and tights” wouldn’t have as broad an appeal to the Starbucks consumer (yes, the world was indeed very different four years ago).  Greendale, by Josh Dysart and Cliff Chiang, and based on Neil Young’s album of the same name, looked the most promising.

But it would never happen.

The e-book revolution was well under way and Starbucks was already in the midst of plans to leverage it to what surely would be referred to by today’s standards as “Starbuckian” extremes.  The launch of an in-store online digital information and entertainment network was not too far off.  Digital comics would be part of that launch – but, as DC had no plans to venture into digital comics (nor would they until after the company was restructured), those comics would be Marvel comics.

My how things have changed.

Yet while DC and Starbucks deserve nothing but caramel Frappuccinos all around, it’s Apple that’s the big winner here.  Like all Starbucks “picks,” the comic book is available as a free digital download only through Apple’s iBookstore.  In a quick survey of members of our proprietary FanPan Pop Culture Input Panel, of those panelists who were aware of the offering (all of whom first learned about it from the “Pick of the Week” cards on display in store), almost two-thirds had never downloaded anything from the iBookstore before.  Most of those weren’t even aware that an iBooks app had been sitting untouched on their smartphone until now.  While it is unlikely that a majority of Starbucks customers will become regular consumers of comics through this one promotion or that many comics fans not already buying their coffee from Starbucks will suddenly queue up for mocha cappuccinos on a regular basis, what is certain is that iBooks will dramatically increase its user base and open new lines of communication – and marketing – among members of both constituencies and those in their respective spheres of social influence.

Now that’s worth raising a cuppa coffee to.