Households in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco were in for a surprise this past week when they opened their newspapers to find a comic book with their favorite superhero hawking men's skin care products.
While the connection between Marvel's Captain America and Kiehl's may not be immediately apparent, the natural skin care and beauty company says all you have to do is look back at the history of the two brands.
Kiehl's Since 1851, the full name of the New York-based company, and comic-book media giant Marvel Entertainment partnered for a promotional comic book released Thursday that features Captain America defending Kiehl's flagship store in New York City's East Village and a possible "super-soldier serum" in its sub-basement.
The comic books were inserted into newspapers for Wall Street Journal subscribers in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco as part of its content-marketing effort to connect with men.
Marvel and Kiehl's did not reveal the terms of their agreement.
As part of the promotion, Kiehl's is spotlighting a new men's anti-aging moisturizer, "Heavy Lifting," and giving out 30,000 copies of the limited-edition, 12-page comic book to customers with a purchase at Kiehl's stores and Kiehls.com through July 1, or while supplies last. Fans can access a digital comic book online and create their own comic strip through Facebook. At Comic-Con in San Diego this summer, Kiehl's will be giving out 5,000 copies.
Marvel is owned by The Walt Disney Co., which also owns ABC News and this website.
Marvel Custom Solutions, a division of Marvel that works with brands for campaigns like Kiehl's, has created 500 customized comic books in the last 10 years.
Marvel Custom Solutions has developed nearly 1,000 projects with companies like Jeep, Audi, Target, the American Cancer Society and the Brooklyn Nets. The company can provide co-branding efforts that include rights to the more than 9,000 Marvel characters.
Bill Roseman, editor of Marvel Custom Solutions at Marvel Entertainment, said he remembers reading a Spider-Man comic promoting Aim toothpaste when he was a child.
"When I saw them done right, I really appreciated it," Roseman said. "Now, that's my goal. I remember there will be another kid out there with this."
Marvel has found success with its "Avengers" film franchise and "Captain America: The First Avenger" in 2011.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" should help build additional fanfare when it is released in 2014.
Roseman said his company doesn't distinguish between artists and writers who work on the customized published comic books with a client and those that work on its mainstream stories.
'We are going to look at our top artists and bring them to these projects," he said.
Asked if fans object to the use of popular Marvel characters essentially to promote products, Roseman said he's sensitive to the issue.
"We're fans, ourselves, and we're always conscious of the Marvel brand. So we're never going to do a story that hurts or jeopardizes the character. We're always going to use them in a respectful way. We work with clients in a way that is organic to the Marvel world and we're always going to maintain the strength of the Marvel characters," he said. "But that doesn't mean we can't feature a client's brand in a fun and smart way."
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Chris Salgardo, president of Kiehl's USA, said the company is "very limited" in its co-branding efforts and works with "top talent" like artist Jeff Koons, actor Adrian Grenier, and actress Julianne Moore.
"There is a comic book collector in all of us," said Salgardo, who said he "grew up on comic books."
"We had no doubt this would talk to men in such a big way," Salgardo said, "and female comic book collectors are coming out in droves."
Roseman said that Kiehl's colorful flagship store, with its vintage collection of motorcycles, is a character in the comic book, which he wanted to be authentic to both Marvel and Kiehl's.
Kiehl's was founded as an apothecary in New York's East Village in 1851. Irving "Doc" Morse, John Kiehl's apprentice, is featured in the comic book in a scene in 1943 with Steve Rogers before he became Captain America.
While Kiehl's has a "very loyal" following among some men for its popular shaving products, Salgardo said the campaign exposes the brand to people who haven't yet heard of the company.
Salgardo said the Kiehl's team met with Marvel and told them their first choice was to work with Captain America because of the superhero's values and Kiehl's deep American roots.
"We've been around before Lincoln was president," Salgardo said.