Marvel Studios: The Movie-Marketing Powerhouse

Marvel Studios: The Movie-Marketing Powerhouse
Meredith Grimm
September 25, 2014
Meredith with Iron Man mask

I don’t regularly read graphic novels. I do, however, religiously watch superhero movies. I enjoy the phenomenal storylines, superpowers and exotic worlds featured in many of these films. There are a few competing shops around, but my absolute favorite has to be Marvel Comics. From the good guys such as X-Men, Iron Man (Robert  Downey Jr. – say what?!) and Guardians of the Galaxy, to the bad guys (seriously, Loki, aka @twhiddleston, why haven’t you returned my tweets?), I’m always entertained by the Marvel Universe.

One of Marvel’s most recent endeavors has been “The Avengers,” a team of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fighting “the foes no single superhero can withstand.” The 2012 release of “The Avengers,” directed by Joss Whedon, made $207.4 million its opening weekend. It is the highest-grossing comic-book adaptation, the highest-grossing superhero film and the twelfth film overall to earn more than $1 billion in revenue. 

So what’s the formula for “The Avengers’” sweet success?  The answer is Marvel’s well-oiled marketing machine. Here’s my take:

1. An audience dedicated to original content

Marvel’s marketing prowess began with great content – the comics. Fast-forward more than 40 years from the 1960s’ “Marvel Age of Comics,” and you reach an audience of dedicated followers who hold any film adaptation of these stories to a high standard. It’s a battle to win their trust with every new character, but once won, it’s not easily forgotten. Without these legions of comic fans, the audience would have been significantly smaller for the Marvel movies.

2. The branding power of the Marvel Universe

“The Avengers” isn’t just “The Avengers” – it is Marvel’s “The Avengers.” “Iron Man 3” is Marvel’s “Iron Man 3.” There is no question who is making these movies. Marvel has distinguished itself from rival DC Comics by strategically featuring its universe of characters together on screen but also aligning each story as not to disrupt user experience. 

Think of "Guardians of the Galaxy." These outlaws inhabit the far corners of the Marvel U, but have been appearing in major Marvel films in the last two years with a slow build up and cross-over appearances. When we were finally able to see the gang together in action, the movie's global debut grossed $160.4 million. Now that's one brand strategy I can get behind.

3. Interactive promotion at Comic-Con 

Let’s just mention the behemoth that is Comic-Con International: San Diego. This four-day convention allows fans to get close to their favorite comic artists, characters, actors and directors in an interactive forum that any geek would appreciate, myself included. “The Avengers” had been marketed to audiences since “Iron Man” first appeared at Comic-Con in 2007. When that movie became a surprise hit the following year, Marvel Studios quickly unveiled its intention to make four more movies, which would lead to a giant team-up in a cohesive universe. This means that Marvel had five years to prove its worth to existing fans and pick up new ones with each new film before the full culmination, “The Avengers,” hit screens in 2012. 

And can I just mention Tom Hiddleston in character (Loki, duh!) at Comic-Con 2013? Epic. Comic-Con is definitely on my bucket list. 

4. Film teasers spark word-of-mouth promotion

Beyond Comic-Con, Marvel has begun promotion of its new movies in the most brilliant way. Do you recall the notorious extra scenes after the end credits in Marvel’s movies? I can’t speak to whether Marvel was the first to do this, but these after-the-credits scenes plant an inquisitive seed in audiences’ minds by giving only a taste of the next movie, but just enough that each is oddly satisfying. In my eyes, these extra clips feel like a gift – knowing a piece of the story not privy to everyone (because only real fans stay through the credits to see what is next, obviously). 

These scenes often spark engagement on Twitter, which is the kind of organic word-of-mouth promotion all brands dream of earning.  Marvel’s social media manager, Adri Cowan, says the bulk of the company’s social media comes from whatever film is currently out as well as the one on deck.

“That goes for any other properties supporting it – so for ‘Captain America,’ it would be Cap-themed products, comic books and lots of film promotion. Same goes for comic books; it's all about what's out currently and what's next.”

5. Social media buzz means constant engagement

This earned buzz is no chance occurrence, but rather a piece of Marvel’s robust social media strategy in the new media arena. The main piece of the plan: constant engagement. While many brands may guffaw at the idea of constantly having to interact with consumers, Marvel’s digital team is prepared to the fullest in sharing new info and responding to queries. The difference is each member of the team is a brand advocate for not only Marvel but its stories and characters, too. 

Marvel has official Twitter accounts for the brand, as well as a few characters such as Tony Stark @Iron_Man, and the team is committed to handling questions and staying up-to-date on all things Marvel, from production tidbits to trends in comic conversation. The tone is always uniquely Marvel, with “a sense of humanity and humor in everything.” This deep fan interaction on all social accounts actually helps determine new direction for some of Marvel’s resources. 

Take-away or leave-behind: Your choice

It’s clear Marvel has this down to a science, stitching its narrative together and building hype and promotion for the next piece of the puzzle as soon as the end credits are over. This overarching strategy needs strong leadership, vision and a team committed to the brand and its outcomes. Who says this kind of prowess can’t be seen in other areas of promotion. 

Was that a challenge? You bet it was. “Marketers…assemble!"