As brands go, few are as successful as Penny Arcade. Begun in 1998 as a web comic focused on videogame culture as seen through the eyes of the writer and artist, it has grown into a cultural touchstone and an example of how a brand can develop from humble roots into a true powerhouse.
Penny Arcade began as a comic focused on gaming jokes and little else. It made humorous references to the difficulties of console and computer gaming alike, made early commentary on the Mac vs. PC war and generally was just a sort of in-joke for gamers. Gaming culture knew about it, but no one else did, and that was all right.
However, the humor and irony with which they approached their subject matter touched nerves in certain places. Gamers finally felt there was a comic for them. It was humorous and said all the things they had been thinking, so people tuned in.
Now the site handles 2 million unique views a day. Artist Mike Krahulik and writer Jerry Holkins make their income entirely Penny Arcade merchandise and revenue. They are entirely self-sufficient and, by all accounts, are living incredibly comfortable lives on generous income.
And Penny Arcade is a worldwide brand. Even people only on the fringe of the gaming world can reference it. People dress up as Penny Arcade characters at gaming and animation conventions; its merchandise arm is one of the largest on the web and the comic makes forays into greater and greater events every year.
The nature of its success also seems to lie not in conscious efforts to brand, but in the creators adopting a brand based entirely on what they love: ironic, sarcastic humor. More importantly, they have kept this love consistent as the brand moved forward. They love video games and have made these things the focus. They have developed an identity and kept it without compromise – an important lesson for us all. In an age when everyone is rebranding and rebooting and re-reing just about everything, Penny Arcade serves as an example of how a brand can pick and stick with an identity and thrive.
Which is not to say they haven’t adapted or changed with the times.
In 2003, noticing their own growing popularity and understanding the power of leveraging such numbers, Krahulik and Holkins decided to take a positive step with their earnings. They founded an incredible new charity known as Child’s Play. Child’s Play has a simple premise: Kids love video games, and a child being sick is terrible. Thus, they call upon their gamer audiences to donate money that goes toward purchasing games and platforms of all sorts – video games, consoles, board games, card games – for children’s hospitals across the world.
This is a classic example of using a parent brand’s popularity to drive and promote a new brand. Child’s Play would have become a noble failure if Penny Arcade weren’t already a tremendously popular force in the gaming world. Yet it also feeds into the popularity of Penny Arcade itself. Major companies such as Nintendo and Sony now have donated hundreds of consoles and games to the Child’s Play cause.
Consider next the success of the dynamic duo’s additional venture, Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). This is a major fan convention for gamers and social culture adherents. Starting as a relatively modest, regional convention, PAX has expanded to host the original West Coast convention as well as a new East Coast convention. Massive amounts of money change hands at these events, and they have become major promotional events for gaming companies. Again, the popularity of Penny Arcade has allowed a new brand to flourish, while feeding into old brands – the websites for Child’s Play and Penny Arcade receive huge boosts during PAX events.
The most important lesson, as always, is finding a way to let people know that you love what you do and that you do it well. Having a branding campaign is an excellent decision – Holkins and Krahulik have hired business managers who help them make decisions about which advertisements to include on their sites. Yet they focus primarily on talking about games, drawing excellent comics and bringing together a previously maligned group – gamers, who have a reputation as antisocial oddities – to do great things.
They have appealed to their audience’s sense of pride. They reject the concept that gamers can’t do good, holding up Child’s Play as proof. They love what they do, and will not apologize for it. When they succeeded, they did more than simply sit and draw upon their established success – they used it to create new places they could succeed.
So the second lesson behind the astounding success of the Penny Arcade brand is that while doing what you love is important, it’s equally important to find new challenges and new places to succeed. Rather than simply donate to charities that already existed, they found a niche that hadn’t been filled and created a charity. If you wish your brand to have any measure of success, find a new way your brand can challenge itself.