The Marvel Universe as we know it was not always so. December 27th is the 22nd anniversary of the day Marvel filed for bankruptcy, laying off one third of their workforce. Hard to believe their turnaround story, where Disney paid $4.24B in 2009 for the company. As many thoughtful retrospectives continue to make the rounds in light of Stan Lee’s passing last month, I thought it would be a good time to look at the Marvel brand in advance of their joining us at The Gathering in February where they’ll be recognized as a 2019 Cult Brand Honoree.
Though Marvel has not always been a ubiquitous brand, the Marvel characters are a different story. Spider-Man, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk have transcended the comic book pages and become pop culture icons. These characters have resonated with fans for so long because they’re relatable. When Stan Lee first created superheroes and villains, he was gifted at creating characters people could easily identify with. He built characters who felt familiar to readers. Characters who were unlucky at life, troubled, insecure, nerdy.
Their backstories, secret identities and the way they went about using their powers and supernatural abilities created compelling stories. DC characters, such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, differ from Marvel characters mainly in their backstories. Compare Spider-Man’s Peter Parker to Batman’s Bruce Wayne – Bruce, though an orphan, is a wealthy socialite and the top of Gotham’s society. Peter is a teen living with his aunt and just trying to find his way in the world. By making his characters relatable to his core comic book audience in post-WWII America, Stan Lee was able to create an emotional connection between the reader and the character that remains in place today.
Marvel has also showed an instinct that was far ahead of its time. They enabled co-creation between fan and company, customer and brand, well before the invention of the Internet. When Marvel and DC partnered in the mid-90s for a crossover comic book series, fan voting determined who won the battles between heroes from both universes. Votes were mailed in by readers and tabulated by hand.
This co-creation has continued to be a hallmark of Marvel’s playbook, as the growth of fan conventions such as Comic-Con, online forums and social media groups illustrate. Stan himself has always maintained an approachable persona, as fans of Marvel certainly consider him one of them. He has consistently made the Marvel brand and his personal brand as connected to the fans as possible, even appearing in cameos in nearly all the Marvel films.
Marvel’s turnaround story and recent success are not connected to one move, but a number of strategic decisions that has kept the brand one step ahead of a changing marketplace. Marvel pivoted better than most when they realized a weekly Wednesday release of new comic book issues was a shrinking institution. Producing graphic novels and creating partnerships with LEGO, Comic-Con and movies, Marvel deliberately switched from a business of comic books to a business of superheroes and brought the Marvel brand to the forefront of the pop culture space.
They had to think differently and make strategic moves when it came to merchandising and branding. They took many risks, particularly as they aggressively doubled down on movies. Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman was, at the time, insane. But, Jon Favreau thought he “was” Tony Stark and Marvel trusted the creative talent they hired.
They have also shown an almost serendipitous knack for bringing characters and story lines to the forefront in step with societal shifts. Black Panther was a blockbuster film around the time of #blacklivesmatter, while Captain Marvel’s release looks to ride the wave of #metoo activism.
Today, it is tough to truly appreciate the remarkable current success of Marvel’s cinematic endeavors. 2018 closes with 20 total modern Marvel Cinematic Universe films having been made, from Iron Man in 2008 to this summer’s Ant Man and The Wasp. Total global box office – over $17.5 billion — that’s with a “B.”
The box office success itself is remarkable, but couple that with the critical success and the feat is amazing. To accomplish this scale and scope of movie making, they needed the perfect storm of brilliance — in character development, story lines, scripts, special effects, sets, production and timing of releases — to achieve results this remarkable. They have introduced new characters and created story arc momentum at just the right time, so those characters can lead a future movie. They have layered sequels and crossovers in a way that keeps the viewing public across the globe asking for more. Neither DC nor Transformers has been able to achieve this level of success; even fellow Disney property Star Wars is not achieving at Marvel’s level.
There is still time to join us at The Gathering to hear from Mindy Hamilton, SVP of Global Partnerships and Marketing at Marvel along with many other amazing Cult Brand Honorees. Take one of the remaining spots and hear firsthand how these brands became remarkable. Interact and collaborate with other brand leaders and leave Banff with a new understanding of ways you can make your brand a cult brand. As the late Stan Lee often said: “Welcome, true believers!”
Are you interested in hearing more? Register for The Gathering HERE.
– Dan Ribolzi
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