San Diego Comic-Con: An Experience Driven by Pure Passion

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Katherine Zimoulis
Katherine Zimoulis

VP, Content Marketing

How brands bring comics, movies, TV, and more to life for devoted fans

Can an experience be simple, yet intense at the same time? Can an event cater to a loyal, perennial audience, yet at the same time wholeheartedly welcome and embrace newcomers?

These ideas seem to be contradictory, a paradox of brand experience. Yet, it all comes together at Comic-Con International: San Diego, the four-day mega-event that attracts over 130,000+ nerds, geeks, and fanboys (and girls) from around the world. Each year, America’s Finest City transforms from the home of great beaches, the largest number of craft breweries, and a totally laid-back vibe to that of a city overflowing with passionate, costume-clad fans of all ages, pulsing with excitement as they experience their Mecca: San Diego Comic-Con.

It’s a safe place to vibe with your tribe

One of the most incredible things about Comic-Con is the expanse of audiences it attracts. Every generation of geek is represented here, from Boomer to Gen Z — and even the little ones who are so young they don’t even have a generational title yet. In fact, bringing along the tiny tots is a growing trend among millennials who want to indoctrinate their kids into the culture of the con (and perhaps don’t want to hire a babysitter). This is embraced through panel sessions like Raising FanKids: Teaching Young Geeks to Be S-Confident and Successful, attended by families in matching cosplay from mom, dad, and kid to the bambino in the stroller.

Attendees are encouraged to be who they are in the comfort of their like-minded tribe. Fandom representation and cosplay range from graphic tees, superhero garb, and steampunk attire to those scantily clad with body paint… even an avocado costume! Cosplayers collect selfies with one another (being asked is an honor and sign of respect) the way attendees at a business event collect business cards.  

Of course, the audience that attends SDCC has expanded over the years, with the event growing beyond its comic book roots to include everything in what organizers call the popular arts: movies, TV, and beyond. Its close proximity to Hollywood makes it easy to pull together star-studded panel sessions and celeb autograph opportunities.

And one of the coolest things for fans is the chance to rub elbows with the A-listers. Panels, afterparties, and signings are hot opportunities for devoted fans to interact with their favorite stars. And they might be staying at the same hotel as you, giving you the opportunity to snap a selfie with them in the elevator bank! But even as the big brands, networks, and stars join in the fun, Comic-Con organizers make sure the event remains a safe space to connect with the creators of the comics fans love, with fan-favorite features like Artist’s Alley, portfolio review, and the Autograph Area.

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Experiences — and fans — are everywhere

With so many geeks descending upon SDCC each year, managing the crowd is a considerable task. Lines queue as early as 6 or 7 AM, hours before the doors open, and they come from all different angles for each of the entrances. Fans can wait for hours to get a chance at an autograph from their favorite celebrity, secure their spot in a can’t-miss panel session, or try to get their hands on the hottest swag. They even wait in line for a ticket that will give them the opportunity to score a con-only collectible from their favorite brand.

The organizers are keenly aware of the lines and the crowds, working with the brands to truncate lines indoors and maximize traffic flow while allowing the line to continue outdoors in the California sunshine (with some opportunist marketers handing out branded umbrellas to protect those in queue from the sun).

Many attendees arrive with duffle bags in tow (sometimes multiple) to tackle the serious retail opportunity that is the expansive show floor. Exhibitors both big and small have their wares for sale, and brands often offer SDCC exclusive merch that can either complete a collection or provide serious ROI when they go up for sale the next day on eBay.

Of course, there are a ton of sneak peeks of media to come, digital and experiential experiences to be had, and plenty of photo ops across the show floor — whether that’s the opportunity to ride one of the Game of Thrones dragons at the Xbox booth, go inside SpongeBob’s pineapple at Nickelodeon, or run away from The Walking Dead.

Brands create a real city-wide experience

But it’s not just the convention center that welcomes the con crowd, as San Diego experiences a total town takeover. Limited on space, brands get crafty with advertising on the sides of hotels or on the hotel key cards. The beautiful San Diego weather allows for perfect outdoor experiences nearby, like the Nintendo Gaming Lounge, the Kong: Skull Island experience, the largest lightsaber battle in the country at Balboa Park, and the Heroes Brew Festival, among many others. Brands are even bringing a little bit of the south of France to southern California, as the IMDb Boat was docked just outside the back of the convention center for a true Cannes experience.

San Diego Comic-Con is the kind of event that truly has something for everyone, from the casual fan to the lifelong devotee of all things pop culture. There’s a reason it sells out year after year, and that’s because of the amazing connections and experiences that happen when geeks of all stripes get together, along with the brands they love, face to face.

Learn about the value of brand experience and how this strategy builds connections on and off the show floor.


What you need to know to stay ahead of the ever-changing experiential marketing curve.

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