Knowledge at Wharton’s technology and media editor, Kendall Whitehouse, recently returned from San Diego Comic-Con, where he took a look at some of the marketing campaigns that take place not only during the annual fan festival, but also in the weeks leading up to it.

Everything about Comic-Con International: San Diego (or, as it’s more commonly known, San Diego Comic-Con or simply SDCC) is big. The crowds, at 130,000 attendees, are enormous. The lines are long. The high-profile celebrities in town for the event are many.

For media companies looking to generate buzz for forthcoming movies, television shows and comic books, San Diego Comic-Con is the big show. And the weeks leading up the event provide the opportunity for marketers to take advantage of the growing excitement over the impending fan festival.

Standing Out Amid the Marketing Mania

There is so much advertising promoting current and forthcoming media properties, it can be challenging for a campaign to rise above the clatter. Companies try various strategies to stand out from the crowd.

Some develop large scale interactive environments in hopes of wowing attendees. (See “Comic-Con Marketing: Experience the ‘Experiences’.”) A number of immersive experiences from last year’s Comic-Con made a return visit this year, including an enhanced version of the Game of Thrones: Experience the Realm virtual reality environment and an updated Assassin’s Creed Experience obstacle course. (For more on these events, see “Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Gets Real.”)

Other companies take a brand saturation approach, blanketing San Diego with ads for a single product. At last year’s Comic-Con, the TNT television network took the crown for saturation marketing with ads for the then upcoming television series Legends on everything from the airport baggage claim carousel to multiple buildings in downtown San Diego.

This year, another Turner Broadcasting outlet, TBS, took over much of the same real estate for its promotion of Conan O’Brien’s Conan program. The marketing for Conan began before visitors to San Diego could pick up their bags at the airport, with ads covering the airport’s staircases and baggage carousels. Arriving in downtown San Diego, Conan ads could been seen wrapping around the upper floors of the Marriott Hotel and covering many of the trains and buses that travel past the Convention Center. Even after the con ended, Conan marketing was still in effect, wishing attendees a safe trip home from commercials inserted onto the CNN news channel playing on the televisions in the airport waiting areas.

High-stakes Marketing

Marketing at Comic-Con is a high-stakes game for the major entertainment outlets, particularly those bringing material to the Comic-Con’s largest venue, Hall H, for which fans camp out for many hours, and in some cases, days, for a good seat.

When Marvel Studios decided not to bring a presentation to Hall H this year, studio president Kevin Feige explained the move to The Hollywood Reporter by stating, “I really have a belief: If you can’t go to Comic-Con and over-deliver, then don’t go.”

At Comic-Con even the non-appearance of a new commercial for a popular forthcoming movie is news. When Entertainment Weekly reported that the Lucasfilm panel would not include a new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it caused a minor disturbance in the Twitterverse:

There’s Little Calm before the Con

One technique to stand out among the onslaught of advertising at Comic-Con — and avoid the pressure of having to wow the demanding fans in Hall H — is to tap into the anticipation before the con begins. While press releases fly furiously leading up to Comic-Con to attract journalistic coverage, other events before the con excite the fans who are anxiously waiting for the main event to kick off. Before the mad rush to wait in line for the panels, autograph signings and exclusive collectible items, social media platforms are abuzz about any hints as to what’s to come at the fan convention.

The official Comic-Con programming schedule isn’t released until two weeks before the start of the event. For many weeks prior, however, fans and pop culture bloggers scour the Internet looking for clues to what will unfold once the con begins. Did a celebrity tweet they’ll be at Comic-Con? What might this mean in terms of which panels are likely to occur in Hall H, Ballroom 20 or the Hilton Hotel’s Indigo Ballroom?

The advertisements that appear surrounding the Convention Center also become the focus of fan attention.

A month before Comic-Con begins, fans await the appearance of the official Comic-Con banners on the lampposts in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. The independent news site the SDCC Unofficial Blog posted a reader poll speculating on which pop culture property would be featured this year. As many fans guessed, Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man appeared on the banners at this year’s Comic-Con, and many fans were thrilled — not merely for Ant-Man per se, but as an indication that the festival is imminent. “The banners, which go up almost a month before Comic-Con, [are a] sign that the event is right around the corner,” says Kerry Dixon, editor-in-chief of the SDCC Unofficial Blog.

Once the banners appear, Twitter users are quick to share the excitement:

“People at Comic-Con aren’t just customers, they’re fans,” notes Jonah Berger, Wharton marketing professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “These shows, movies and comics are not just things fans watch or buy; they’re a part of those fans’ identity. It’s who they are.”

Around the same time the official banners appear, the first Comic-Con related wrap-around ads show up on the trolleys and buses in downtown San Diego, producing another flurry of tweets:

The YouTube channel for the website Parks and Cons, run by Shawn Marshall and Carmelle Marshall, featured video documentation of the trolley ads:

Rapt Attention for Wrapped Buildings

Closer to the start of Comic-Con, the large multi-story building wraps begin to appear on the hotels surrounding the Convention Center, setting off another wave of social media activity among the fans waiting for the con to begin.

It’s news when a building not wrapped the previous year gets a marketing banner this year:

While these banners don’t have the emotional impact of a thrilling sizzle reel or a surprise celebrity appearance in Hall H, they tap into the pent up anticipation for the four-day festival. “If people are pumped up about the event, that may drive them to share anything associated with it, even if what they share isn’t the most exciting,” observes Berger.

And the reports keep coming even after Comic-Con as the building wraps come down:

Warner Bros: Hotel Keys and Bags

Warner Bros. has tapped into the pre-con excitement with a couple of ad deployments the company has run in recent years.

Two weeks before this year’s Comic-Con, Warner Bros. released the details on the images appearing on the nearly 40,000 hotel keycards branded with characters from Warner’s television programs such as Arrow, The Flash and Gotham distributed to guests at participating hotels. Cards with Warner Animation’s Teen Titans Go! included a QR (Quick Response) code that let guests watch a free episode of the series.

A few days later, Warner Bros. released the images on the official Comic-Con bags handed to every participant when they pick up their badge for the event, which generates another wave of fan excitement.

To expedite the distribution of badges along with the branded bags, Comic Con International doesn’t let fans select the bag of their choice. The bags are handed out folded over to not disclose which image is included. This leads to more tweets as fans look to trade the bag they received for another:

Leveraging Anticipation

All of this is, of course, every marketer’s dream: creating ads that fans talk about and post about on social media to all their friends and followers. While many companies try to create the biggest, most buzzworthy interactive event or bring the most high profile stars and compelling sizzle reel video content to Hall H, others follow a tried-and-true path to social media buzz about by releasing a series of branded images that tap into the pent up excitement leading up to Comic-Con. “To us, they’re not just ‘advertisements,’ but also part of the event landscape,” says Dixon, who has attended San Diego Comic-Con every year for the past six years. The banners and other external marketing elements are “so iconic to the event … that there’s a certain level of excitement and anticipation that’s built into them for attendees.”

Berger points out that, as with any event, emotions are highest once the fan festival is underway, yet, “releasing stuff early helps avoid the clutter of the event itself….[Marketers] know people will share almost anything they put together, so thinking about the right way to leverage that to build buzz and demand is key.”