Market Like a Superhero: What Content Marketers Can Learn from Marvel Comics

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Marvel Comics has, for much of its history, been synonymous with innovative marketing. Stan Lee’s famously bombastic promotional voice helped build the company into the media powerhouse it is today.

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier releasing in less than a month and promotion for this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy escalating, now seems like a good time to look at what we can learn from how Marvel has marketed its wildly successful Cinematic Universe movies: The Avengers and the films (Thor, Iron Man, etc.) that orbit around it.

While few companies have billions of dollars to throw around the way Marvel does, anyone pursuing a content marketing campaign can take valuable lessons from the Disney-owned media giant’s approach.

THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE (MCU)

With eight films to date, four set to release by 2015 and many more planned, a network TV show airing on ABC, and five Netflix series in the pipeline, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most ambitious media projects ever attempted, a risky attempt to bring a comic book–style shared universe to the big screen.

That risk has, without question, paid off. The movies alone to date have grossed nearly $5.7 billion worldwide at the box office to a budget of $1.37 billion. That’s insane.

Let’s acknowledge from the start that Marvel has some inherent advantages over your average marketer trying to sell socket wrenches or whatever. In no particular order, they include: money, an existing and vocal fan/customer base, money, brand recognition, money, 75 years of storytelling content to draw from, money, and Robert Downey, Jr.

(Paramount/Marvel)

But one additional factor in the franchise’s success has been a creative approach to content marketing. Marvel has utilized apps, video games, and countless other avenues to reach consumers, but for the purposes of this article, I want to focus specifically on video, and on the things without which there would be no movies at all: the comics themselves.

VIDEO

Marvel has been creative in finding ways to deliver compelling video content to the audiences it’s trying to reach. Outside of traditional teasers and trailers, it’s made great use of the movies themselves as a vehicle for teasing other movies in the franchise. It’s also strategically released footage at large comic conventions as a way to directly reach its core fans and drive conversation.

Post-Credits Sequences

Every movie in the MCU, beginning with Iron Man, contains at least one scene after the credits roll. Post-credit sequences are nothing new, but Marvel’s deployed them with unusual consistency and focus.

Case in point is Iron Man’s post-credits sequence, in which Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) meets with Tony Stark to discuss joining the Avengers. The scene accomplishes a number of things in a very short time:

-It introduces the concept of Marvel’s shared movie universe to the film’s target audience

-It builds anticipation for subsequent films in the franchise

-It fosters a feeling of exclusivity among viewers who a) saw the movie in theaters and b) sat through the credits, helping to strengthen their personal connection to the movies (and to Marvel)

-It works as a nod to comics readers who recognize that Nick Fury’s appearance in Marvel’s Ultimates continuity (confusing, I know) is modeled on Jackson, further strengthening their own connection to Marvel

-It helps define the franchise’s brand; viewers have come to expect a post-credits sequence whenever they watch a Marvel film, an expectation The Avengers played around with creatively by having multiple post-credits scenes

-It impacts natural content on the Web by sending people who missed the scene onto the Internet to read about it, while also driving speculation about the upcoming movies

Every post-credits sequence does these things to some degree. Some of them are used to market specific movies: Iron Man 2, for instance, used a scene from the upcoming Thor. But, uniformly, they promote the franchise and help strengthen Marvel’s brand. And while each movie is self-contained, they leave viewers thinking about the next movie in the series, even when it’s not a direct sequel.

Conventions

(flickr / Doug Kline)

Companies have a long tradition of previewing footage at the San Diego Comic Con and other major industry conventions, often in conjunction with panel discussions and appearances from the actors. Cons offer an easy way to reach hard-core fans, and, like the post-credits sequences, foster feelings of exclusivity (since Marvel waits for some time before releasing that footage to the public). Cons also, perhaps most importantly, allow companies to reach industry media, ensuring that a small piece of content naturally drives conversation for some time, from the initial release at the con to the eventual release to the general public.

In other words: convention previews allow them to reach brand evangelists (their core fanbase) and influencers (the media). Of course, they still have to stand out from all the other publishers, movie studios, game studios, and other media companies at the convention competing for the eyes, ears, and voices of those people. This is where the strength and quality of the content—as well as strength and general visibility of the brand—begins to come into play.

COMICS

Oh, right. The House of Ideas is a comics company, not just a house of movie ideas.

Marvel comics

(Marvel)

It’s not exactly delivering free content (the way content marketing typically works), but Marvel has done a good job of making its comics serve its movies and vice versa. A good example of this is its ongoing Hawkeye series. Hawkeye’s last solo comic series had concluded in 2004. But The Avengers, which featured Hawkeye in a prominent role played by action-star-of-the-moment Jeremy Renner, gave the company a unique opportunity.

Marvel launched Volume 4 of Hawkeye in August 2012, behind a high-profile creative team (Matt Fraction and David Aja); not coincidentally, The Avengers was released on home media the following month. Marvel might have seen the comic series as a way of capitalizing on the character’s appearance in the movie (comics do sell for money, after all, though it’s not clear that movie tie-ins actually help drive comic sales), but it also serves the broader effort of marketing the movies by keeping Hawkeye in the public eye. It also doesn’t hurt that Hawkeye is widely regarded as one of the best, most innovative superhero comics on the stands right now.

Other examples:

-The current Marvel NOW! Guardians of the Galaxy series, which launched in early 2013, around the time casting announcements were being made for the film.

-Fear Itself, a 2011 company-wide crossover series that focused on Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. (Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were released not long after the miniseries began.)

Marvel Cinematic Universe comics

Marvel also launched a number of comic series, including adaptations and tie-in books, that exist in continuity with the films rather than in the broader Marvel comic universe. Guardians of the Galaxy: Prelude is set to launch well in advance of the film, ideally helping to stoke interest in the movie. Other miniseries have released after the films they’re related to, drawing attention to the films and helping sustain interest in the franchise as a whole.

THE LESSONS

So what can other brands learn from Marvel, a 75-year-old company owned by Disney with a legendarily loyal and obsessive fan base? While it’s true that most brands aren’t operating with Marvel’s resources, we can take a number of lessons from the way the company’s approached its movies.

1. Utilize your existing assets.

Marvel has turned some of its strengths as a company–making comics, a dedicated fanbase, deep IP–and found creative ways of using them to market its movies. What type of content can your brand offer consumers as part of a content marketing campaign that others can’t? What communities are you already connected with that might be interested in helping spread your message? What collateral do you have already that you might repurpose for a content marketing campaign?

2. Think holistically.

While its approach hasn’t been perfect, it’s clear that Marvel went into things with a comprehensive plan for marketing all of its MCU properties together, rather than promoting them individually.

While the different characters allow different approaches to individual movies (the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier is expected to be a political thriller, for example) every movie, and every piece of marketing, is recognizably part of the same continuum. This helps Marvel establish its identity, which in turn makes it easier for people to connect to it. It also helps each piece of marketing and content work together to promote one another, and establish the Marvel brand and the brands of individual characters.

No piece of a marketing strategy should exist on its own–everything should work together toward a common goal. Blog content should support the message of the brand, social media should amplify the blog content and help establish the brand’s voice, and so on. While individual pieces of content will have their own specific goals (engage a certain community, build anticipation for a product launch, etc.) they should always serve the campaign’s, and the brand’s, broader purpose, too.

3. Understand your audience.

Marvel really has two basic audiences they’re trying to reach: comics readers and non-comics readers. Of the two, the latter is the larger and by far the most important. Plenty of comic book movies have successfully reached a core audience (*COUGH* SCOTT PILGRIM *COUGH*) without having much traction beyond that. With the comic-reading public as small as it is, merely reaching die-hard Marvel fanboys wasn’t going to make back Disney’s multibillion dollar investment.

Marvel has done a good job of marketing to its core fans. But it’s also effectively reached the larger audience it needs to engage in order to be successful. For a marketing campaign to work, brands need to know how to identify communities to reach out to beyond their core customers and determine how to draw their interest.

4. Forge a personal connection.

Marvel built its brand into what it is today in part by being very good at connecting with its readers, and “Marvel fan” is still a specific identity for many comics readers. (“Marvel or DC?” is the classic fan question, though that’s less relevant today as individual creators have a higher profile than ever.) Again, a lot of the credit for this goes to Stan Lee, but the company has seen similar success in its movie marketing efforts.

That feeling of exclusivity, whether it’s because someone stuck around for the post-credits sequence, saw footage at SDCC, or was a fan of the books before the movies came around? That’s a personal connection, and it helps get people invested in a brand. Whether it’s a potential customer you’re marketing to directly or a blogger you’re reaching out to as part of a link building campaign, that connection is what will keep them paying attention and responding the way you hope they will, whether that be talking about you, giving you a backlink, or buying your product.

5. Adjust on the fly.

One thing that Marvel’s doing differently for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film: releasing tie-in comics in advance, rather than after the fact. So this particular series is better positioned to directly build anticipation for the movie than other MCU comics have been. Any marketer should be constantly evaluating its strategies and tactics, and be willing to alter them as necessary.

CONCLUSION

Obviously, a big factor in Marvel’s success has been the fact that its MCU movies are pretty good. There’s a reason why the world saw two Punisher reboots within four years, why Spawn never, um, spawned a sequel, why nearly a decade passed between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins. The less said about either Ghost Rider, the better.

Still, savvy marketing has played a role in making sure those movies ended up in front of as many eyes as they have. Marvel has capitalized on its strengths as a company and applied smart marketing principles in order to get their core fans as well as new fans invested, naturally drive online conversation, and build anticipation and awareness for future releases.

Again, Marvel has lots of advantages in terms of finances and brand recognition, and the space in which they’re operating is unique given the nature of comics fandom and journalism. But even so, whether you’re building links to drive organic search traffic, seeking to establish a brand identity or engage a particular community, stoking anticipation for a product launch, or any other objective, the lessons learned from their techniques can help ensure your own campaign is a success.

About the Author

Corey Mallonee

Senior Content Strategist

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