In December 2009, just in time for the holidays, the extremely obscure web series The Guild produced a series of parody ads entitled “The Guild Sells Out!” The concept simultaneously satirized the kind of over-the-top merchandising familiar to any child of Saturday morning cartoons, as well as the misperception that producing a long-running web series is a lucrative venture.
Doing the “Sell Out” shorts put a comical spin on the concept of merchandising the show — but two years later, it’s become a reality, kind of. Beyond t-shirts manufactured by Jinx and a series of comics published by Dark Horse the following officially licensed Guild-related products are now or will soon be available:
- A limited-edition necklace version of the staff carried by Day’s avatar Codex, by independent jewelry designers Jenny and Jimbob.
- A Codex Halloween costume for adult ladies, by HalloweenCostumes.com.
- Two posters, available for sale on ThinkGeek.
- A line of “animated maquettes” (think small hand-painted statues) of Guild characters, by Quantum Mechanix.
- A set of collectable trading cards, created by Cryptozoic.
- A limited-edition six-pack of soda by Jones Soda.
- A booster pack for the classic card game Munchkin, created by Steve Jackson Games.
What do many of these things have in common? They’re all the kind of merchandise you might run across while attending a gaming convention. And that’s not a coincidence.
When preparing to launch the fifth season of The Guild (which will premiere its season finale this week), both Evey and Day said that they were looking at a much more ambitious concept — instead of shooting largely in apartments, the season would take place largely at a geek conference. “We were on location 90 percent of the time, there were tons of extras — it was more of a movie shoot than any other season,” Day said via phone.
But because, according to Day, the budget for Season 5 was relatively equivalent to Season 4, they needed to look to other means to supplement the production — thankfully, though, the conference setting offered a natural opportunity to integrate product placement. “The question was ‘Can this add to our universe?’ instead of it just being ‘Please give us some money,'” Day said.
This product placement took multiple forms. For example, according to Evey via email, HalloweenCostumes.com PR representative Stephanie Beadell approached The Guild the day after they’d realized they needed multiple conference-appropriate costumes for Tink (Amy Okuda), as well as enough costumes for an auditorium’s worth of background extras.
“HalloweenCostumes.com provided costumes in exchange for advertising and promotion of their company. And because almost all of Tink’s cosplay outfits use their costumes as a base, it’s nice for the fans to know where to go if they want to make one of those outfits to wear to a Con,” she said.
As the show is already sponsored by Microsoft (s MSFT) and Sprint (s S), Day and Evey were careful to run all additional product placement deals by those companies, and were careful to seek out things that would “in no way trample over their brands,” as Day put it.
And from those product placement deals, many of the merchandising opportunities later emerged. For example, the Steve Jackson Games deal followed the prominent placement of Munchkin in the Season 5 premiere, and HalloweenCostumes.com pitched the idea of a well-made officially licensed Codex costume after supplying the production with other costumes. “The things we’ve done have been very carefully picked for the cool value — they added value to how people enjoy the show,” Day said.
The Cryptozoic trading cards are another example of a property approaching The Guild for a potential merchandising opportunity, in this case through Felicia Day’s agent at ICM, George Ruiz. “We’ve all been huge fans of the show since the beginning and thought Guild trading cards would be really cool,” a Cryptozoic press representative said via email. It’s the first deal they’ve made with a web original property, but “I don’t think it will be the last. Web broadcast is really no less impactful than traditional networks. For us and our customers it’s already a well accepted form of content distribution.”
On the surface, a merchandising blitz like this could be seen as “selling out” — except that everything that’s being manufactured has real appeal for the show’s established audience, the core demographic of which is not just passionate about the show, but gaming culture in general.
“I think the origins of the term [“selling out”] probably come from someone not preserving the heart of why people like something in order to make a profit,” Day said. “I’m confident that we’ve taken every consideration to make all our partnerships fit with our show philosophy and our fans and we’ve heard very little feedback to the contrary.”
“Being able to partner with brands with independent cred was very important to to me, because that’s the spirit of the show,” Day added. “We didn’t want to partner with anyone that people wouldn’t think was cool.” According to Day, fans were as excited about the specialty Jones Sodas as they were about actual episodes.
When asked what her favorite piece of merchandise might be, Day’s first response was the Codex Halloween costume, which enables folks of all shapes and sizes to dress up just like her. “I never thought that would happen,” she said.