Using Superheroes to Sell, This Time to Adults

As of this Halloween weekend, customers can walk into any of The Vitamin Shoppe’s 700 locations across the country and buy a product that promises to bring them closer to becoming a superhero.

Want the body mass of Batman? Try the Batman Gotham City Grape BodyTech Elite micronized creatine monohydrate. How about the energy of Flash? The Flash Lightning Lemonade BodyTech Flash Point pre-workout product says it will take care of that. The employees peddling the products will be dressed as superheroes, and the retailer’s social media feeds will be filled with pictures of the characters.

There have long been superhero products aimed at children. An Avengers Band-Aid, for example, makes any cut feel better. But the products at The Vitamin Shoppe — part of a partnership with Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics — are aimed at adults, including those who don’t normally buy from the store.

By attaching superheroes to, say, a performance supplement like nitrulline powder, the Vitamin Shoppe hopes it will be broadening the product’s appeal.

“We are hoping that if customers can relate to the superhero on the label, it will help demonstrate what the product can do for them,” said Sharon Leite, the chief executive of The Vitamin Shoppe. “We don’t know yet if it works because the product is being released this weekend, but what I do think will happen is somebody who might not otherwise look at it will look.”

The Vitamin Shoppe is one of the latest companies to market superhero-themed products to adults. Uniqlo recently released a clothing collection for adults to mark the 60th anniversary of Spiderman. Saks Fifth Avenue carries a line of workout clothes by Heroine Sport, a company that makes sparkly and shiny gear that resembles what Wonder Woman might wear. Fitness companies such as Superhero Jacked are creating superhero themed workouts.

Breweries like Unsung Brewing Co. in Anaheim, Calif., and Kings County Brewers Collective in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, are putting superheroes on their cans.

Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said he was not surprised.

“Superheroes are culturally ubiquitous in 2022,” he said. “For the past decade-plus the biggest films have revolved around two very large superhero franchises — DC and Marvel — so any brand that allies itself with superheroes is riding the coattails of that success.”

That includes the current hit “Black Adam,” a DC Comics superhero movie starring Dwayne Johnson, which topped the box office in its opening weekend, bringing in $67 million across the country.

But Mr. Alter also said the semi-infantilizing marketing trend could backfire.

“As with any association, the brand hopes you’ll think of superheroes one way, but you may think of them another way,” he said. “These brands hope you’ll see superheroes as virtuous and strong, but you might see superheroes as passé or overdone or silly or in any one of a number of ways that undermine the intended association.”

Still, company owners are willing to take that risk, hoping their superheroes evoke nostalgia and positive feelings.

“A lot of us who are in our 40s look at the world and think being an adult kind of stinks,” said Zack Kinney, a co-founder of the Kings County Brewers Collective. “Superheroes are throwbacks, it’s escapist, it’s fantasy. There is definitely an appetite and a yearning for the superheroes of the world to save us from some impending disasters.”

He added, “I think customers are really eager to gravitate towards brands who make them feel good.”

Mr. Alter agrees that superheroes, especially now, are associated with upbeat feelings.

“We’ve had a tough few years, between the pandemic and political upheaval, and superheroes are escapist,” he said. “They allow us to leave the real world behind temporarily, and there’s much to like about brands that license us to depart from reality during tough times.

Instead of dealing with complicated licensing agreements, Mr. Kinney hired an illustrator to create original superhero illustrations for his beer cans. The company releases new cans, each with a different story about these fictional characters, every few weeks.

“We have a series called ‘Penguins in Space,’ and they are hazy pale ales or West Coast pale ales, and they go on different adventures, to space, to California, to battle hipsters in Brooklyn,” Mr. Kinney said. “We try to keep it fun and the narrative evolving.”

He is considering a line of comic books and figurines to sell alongside the beer, as a way to keep people engaged.

“It’s the prize in the cereal box or the adult happy meal toy,” Mr. Kinney said. “The craft beer market is so competitive in New York City, and every time we can find a slightly different angle to create a deeper and richer experience for our brand, the better off we will be financially.

“We have to keep millennials from bouncing around and choosing a different brand,” he added.

While many companies are banking on the way superheroes make consumers feel, others are tapping into something more literal. They are saying, if you use our product, you will be that much closer to becoming your favorite character.

Mike Romaine, owner of Superhero Jacked, a fitness company based in Auburndale, Fla., publishes superhero-themed workout plans. You can do the “Hulk inspired jump rope workout” or follow the “Captain America diet plan.”

He saw his business skyrocket during the pandemic.

“I was making 30k per year,” he said. “Since Covid, I haven’t been under 150k.”

Nostalgia plays a role in his success, Mr. Romaine said, but also people’s desire right now to have fun.

“You are training like the heroes you knew growing up, so it is fun and it gives you more motivation,” he said. “At the end of the day, everybody is just trying to unleash their own inner hero.”