As my friends and colleagues know, I am fascinated by superheroes. In the past, I’ve shared thoughts on how research specialists are a bit like superheroes, and thus how multidisciplinary research firms are a bit like The Avengers or The Justice League. (I’ve also come to work in a Robin costume and in a Mrs. Incredible costume, but that’s a topic best explored in a separate blog post.) I’m also fascinated by out-of-the-ordinary brand stories (as evidenced here and here). Given these interests, I thought it’d be fun and informative to take an analytical look at some superhero brands to see what stories are revealed. Specifically, I will explore two huge comics and superhero brands (DC Comics and Marvel Comics), what we can learn about each brand’s relative popularity using publicly-available data—comparing search volumes via Google Trends—and, ultimately, how the Batman brand’s ebbs and flows impact the greater superhero brand dynamics.
Overall brand popularity: DC vs. Marvel
Let’s start with how relatively popular each parent brand is, and how that has shifted over time. When looking at search volumes related to the publishing companies, Marvel leads DC Comics, as it has for the last 10 years, and the lead has been widening since 2013. DC’s search volumes were closest to Marvel’s in 2012, when both Marvel and DC had summer blockbuster movies.
When focusing in on those 2012 movies specifically, Marvel’s The Avengers shows higher search activity than DC’s The Dark Knight Rises—the final film in “The Dark Knight” trilogy focused on Batman and directed by Christopher Nolan—over that summer; The Avengers’ popularity seems to have buoyed the parent brand during the early summer of ’12 (along with The Amazing Spiderman, which also ran that summer, but whose search volumes are notably lower during the period). The Dark Knight Rises peaked a bit later, with Batman’s on-screen popularity helping to boost DC’s results during the late summer/early fall.
Superhero character popularity: DC’s Batman vs. others
All that said, since the last Batman film left theaters that summer, DC’s popularity has waned as compared to Marvel’s (at least as measured by Google search popularity). This begs the question: how important is Batman as a superhero character brand? Let’s compare four specific character brands including two from DC—Batman and Superman—and two from Marvel—Spider-Man and Iron Man. All four have been comic book favorites for many decades; all four lead feature-length film series.
When looking at Google search volumes, we see that one character brand from each parent brand—Batman and Spider-Man—consistently have higher search volumes than the other two. And both brands spiked notably in the summer of 2012, when movies starring their characters were in the theaters. Comparatively, Iron Man’s search volumes are meager, though he, too, was a summer ’12 box office star. One difference is that he was part of a superhero ensemble, while both Batman and Spider-Man generally work alone (and live or die by their own character brand strength). Iron Man’s results spiked one year later in 2013 when he fronted his own movie Iron Man 3.
Holy plot twist, Batman!
But wait! There is a new Batman movie in the works. One in which he fights Superman! Will Batman’s social stock rise (and buoy DC’s popularity along with it)? Let’s look at the early buzz of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and see how it compares to the hotly-anticipated Marvel project in the works: The Avengers: Age of Ultron. As shown here, searches for both projects are growing over time, garnering similar search volumes (with the notable exception of the week of October 19, when the official Avengers trailer was released).
In the upcoming Batman v. Superman film, not only is the superhero face-off guaranteed to draw attention, but the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman has drawn huge media reaction and scrutiny. More so than the characters themselves, interest in who plays the characters (particularly publishing companies’ marquee characters) can provide an enormous boost to search activity and movie buzz. Let’s return to the four-character comparison but augment it to include searches related to the character and the actor playing that character.
When we do so, we see a very dramatic spike on August 22, 2013, which happens to be the date when Ben Affleck was cast (somewhat controversially) as Batman in the Batman v. Superman project. We also see a notable spike on May 13, 2014, when the studio released one photo of Affleck in costume with the Batmobile. Comparatively, results related to the other actors inhabiting these roles are rather meager, with only a small blip related to Henry Cavill and Superman in June/July 2013 when “Man of Steel” hit theaters and the Batman v. Superman project was announced. (Boy, Spidey must be a bit embarrassed to see these numbers). Whether Affleck is up to the task of playing Batman, his casting has drawn a good deal of attention—both positive and negative—and should continue to pique fans’ interest in advance of the theatrical release next year.
What will happen next to our Caped Crusader? Tune in tomorrow…
The question remains: Will the Batman reboot provide the needed boost to DC’s brand popularity so that DC begins closing the gap with Marvel? Well, if rumor sites and Reddit are to be taken seriously, Warner Brothers may release the trailer as soon as early March, and we can then take a look at how big of an impact it makes on pre-release buzz. Given what we know about Batman and his enormous draw, I expect to see the Batman v. Superman brand buzz continue to grow, which should positively impact buzz for DC Comics as a whole over the 18 months. By including two of their marquee characters in one film, DC is gambling big with this future release. Will the gamble pay off? Loyal citizens of Gotham must now wait to see if Batman will indeed rise again (pun definitely intended).
 During the blockbuster “superhero” summer of 2012, Marvel had The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers in theaters, and DC had The Dark Knight Rises (Batman), all of which earned over US$1B during their worldwide theatrical runs.