Sheldon Cooper and Brand Deflection

A couple of days ago we were having new carpet laid throughout the house, and at one point during the day I was walking out to my car for a coffee run when the head of the carpet crew looked up and asked me if I liked the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.

The question threw me for a second, not because I don’t like the show – I do. It’s a must watch for my family – but as to why he’d asked in the first place. I must have looked puzzled, because by way of explanation he pointed in my direction and said “Your shirt.”

At the office I may be all dressed up, but the days I’m working from home you are more likely to find me in jeans, sneakers and a superhero logo t-shirt. The thing is I don’t own any Big Bang Theory shirts. Not a single “Bazinga !” adorns my closet space.

I looked down and realized I was wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt. Just like this one.

sheldonshirtThe one that Sheldon Cooper often wears on The Big Bang Theory. – Mystery solved.

On my drive to grab my drink I started to think about what had just happened. In my Content Marketing role at Caterpillar a major consideration is how we build and develop messaging and content that supports the brand message and the brand story. Ideally every interaction with the brand (and that includes the logo – perhaps the most frequent brand encounter) should reinforce the brand’s promise.

Yet my carpet guy had seen the Green Lantern logo, a brand owned by DC Comics and by association, its parent company, Warner Bros., but associated it with a completely different property and message. In this case one owned by CBS.

The more I thought about DC Comics brand placement on The Big Bang Theory the more I realized that as much as it’s cool for me as a comics geek to play spot the reference, I’m not sure Warner Bros. is getting the business value it wants from that relationship.

comic_book_storeThe comic book store featured in the show seems to stock only DC Comics related titles and merchandise (Click on picture above to get a good look at the stock); but whenever comics, or comics characters are mentioned on the show in dialog it is usually a conversation about Marvel characters. Characters and brands owned by the directly competitive comics publisher, who are now owned by Disney.

In a recent episode the girls on the show ventured into the comic book store to see what it was that was so important to their boy-friends/husband; and then spent half the show discussing the physics of Thor’s hammer. Thor being yet another Marvel character.

So what are DC Comics and Warner Bros paying for with this brand and product placement? Is it brand awareness? To me it seems more like brand deflection.

How is your brand message being used and communicated. What channels are you using to spread your brand’s story.?

Is your value message getting through, or is it being deflected?




Comics in Corporate Communications

Is there a place for comics in corporate communications? I certainly think so, and have long been a vocal proponent of using comics graphic and story telling techniques in the business world.

Recently Scott Abel, industry leading consultant and blogger, offered me the opportunity to write about the subject on his CONTENT WRANGLER blog.

My two page article Comics Can Make You A Better Communicator is now up, and you can check it out simply by clicking HERE.

STC Proposals #3 – What Tech Doc Can Learn From The Comics

Proposal for a paper to be presented at the 2009 STC Summit in Atlanta, GA

#3 – What Tech Doc Can Learn From The Comics

The recent Google Chrome comic caused a lot of buzz. But it’s far from being the first “technical” comic. Find out how comics can help you produce better tech docs.

There is a long tradition of connections between the worlds of comic books and technical documentation, but it is one that is often overlooked. (For example the US army has used technical comics for over 50 years)

This presentation will present examples of technical documentation done using comic book techniques from over the years to the present day.

It will also show how by studying the story telling and artistic techniques used in comics we can improve the readability and quality of technical documentation.

Instructional Comics – Google Weren’t The First

As part of the on-going online discussion about the impact and usability of the Google Chrome comic, fellow blogger Tom Johnson asked me if I had more samples and references for comic book style documentation.

As I mentioned before the “technical comics” I’ve done to date have been more like illustrated white papers than “how to” instruction manuals, but over the years I have come across a few examples of instructional comics.

Perhaps the best known among the comics creative community is the work done by pioneering graphic novelist Will Eisner for the US Army. Between 1951 and 1972 Eisner produced the P.S. Magazine – The Preventative Maintenance Monthly for the army, which combined comics, instructions and some great artwork covering a whole range of army equipment and procedures.

(The Virginia Commonwealth University has a complete digital library of PSM available online.) He also wrote and illustrated an document known to the US army as “DA-Pam 750-30 – The M16A1 Rifle – Operation and Preventive Maintenance” – but generally referred to as “Treat Your Rifle Like A Lady.”

Other examples I’ve come across include:
Emergency Roofing
Playing the accordion.

And there are things like aircraft safety instruction cards (the ones in the seat backs) and numerous instructional notices (like this one about using your cell phone on the subway) that use comics iconography and techniques.

The Google Chrome comic – why it didn’t work.

Yesterday I spent a fair amount of time talking with a prospective client about a project involving the use of sequential art to convey some very technical information.

In short, he wants to use the medium of comics to tell prospective engineers why it would be cool to work on the projects his organization is responsible for. (And having heard what projects they are – I can confirm it would be VERY COOL to be involved in almost any capacity).

I walked him through the process I use to develop and produce promotional comics and various options for delivery etc. based on budgets, audience and so on.

During the conversation the “technical comic” produced by comics guru Scott McCloud in support of the launch of the new Google Chrome browser was discussed.

My client had loved the idea, checked out the links, started out to read the McCloud comic and after about six pages he had glazed over, skim read a few more pages and not actually finished it.

His concern was that he was not alone in this reaction, and because of this was wary of citing the Google comic to his budget holders as a way to justify his own project.

Even with the added incentive of professional interest, I must also admit that I found the Google Chrome comic difficult to finish. No one else I have spoken to since has actually read it the whole way through.

Why? Because despite the “novelty” of the method of presentation, they didn’t stay engaged in the subject matter.

Today I came across the following quote from Scott McCloud in an FAQ.

Who wrote the script?
The engineers, for the most part! I helped conduct interviews with about 20 engineers who worked on the project, then adapted what they said into comics form. Some paraphrasing, lots of condensation, and one or two late drop ins, but basically it was a very organic adaptation and I had a lot of latitude.

And perhaps there lies the problem.

There is no single voice and no narrative.

Let me say that I greatly admire McCloud. He knows more about comics storytelling and structure than I ever will. I constantly reference his classic work “Understanding Comics” in producing my own work, and in various papers I write, or presentations I give, on communicating.

But I’m amazed with the Google project, because the lack of narrative seems like a basic omission from such a high profile project.

Whenever I produce a promotional comic I always try and include a central character that the reader can empathize with, along with a story (more often than not something light and fun to off set the heavy technical jargon) to guide the reader through the points being made.

As I’ve often said before, all communication is a story and technical communication needs it just as much as fiction.

I’m not sure what audience the Google Chrome comic was aimed at. While it was great to see comics used in such a high profile way, did anyone consider the implications and impact of the fact that the very use of the comics medium would expose it to a wider audience than first intended?