What Marvel Movies Can Teach Us About Branding
Marvel is a titan of the entertainment business. The company, founded in 1939, boasts a repertoire of incredibly popular characters who, despite being created between 40 and 60 years ago, are more current than ever. Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and many other superheroes have millions of fans around the world.
Marvel’s story, however, was not always one of massive success. In fact, just 25 years ago, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. How did Marvel executives reverse the situation? The journey was long, complex and included internal restructuring processes, acquisitions, IP licensing agreements, and many other things that we will not cover in this article. Our focus will be on one of the key pieces of the resurgence: the branding strategy adopted for its films.
Marvel’s movies were a central piece of the resurgence of the company.
In this article we will exhibit some of the most important elements of this strategy and derive a few key lessons for anyone looking to build a strong brand identity.
Recently, Martin Scorsese, one of the most recognized film directors of all time, said that Marvel movies are “not cinema”, that “they are sequels in name but remakes in spirit”, and that they are “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, re-vetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption”.
As our expertise is not cinema, we will not add fuel to this dispute that has already generated many sparks between advocates and detractors. However, there is something we agree with Scorsese about: Marvel movies are similar to each other, and in many ways, they seem to answer to market dynamics, just as brands do. Far from being a weakness, this allows Marvel to generate synergies between its films and provide a solid identity to the mother brand.
The movies produced by Marvel are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Basically, this means that the plots of the 23 movies of the MCU are intertwined. As a result, a colossal synergy is generated since the fictional universe is very rich in detail, and therefore motivates millions of fans to watch each of the 23 films to have all the pieces of the puzzle.
From the point of view of branding, we can understand the MCU movies as a set of sub-brands that interact with each other by means of co-branding agreements, and which have in common a mother brand that endorses them and provides a seal of quality. This architecture of interdependent brands allows the most valuable sub-brands (e.g. Iron Man, Captain America) to transfer their equity to less valuable ones (e.g. Ant-man, Guardians of the Galaxy) through the common denominator provided by the mother brand.
The MCU movies work as sub-brands and all have the endorsement of the mother brand, Marvel.
The sub-brands have transversal elements that provide them with a shared brand identity. In other words, they all have the “Marvel touch.” This way, the narrative tone of the movies—characterized by high-voltage action and a humor that strips them away from their solemnity—is reflected in the visual style of their promotional posters, which are composed by explosions of vibrant colors and high saturation. This common element not only contributes to the aforementioned synergy, but also facilitates brand recognition by the public, and provides Marvel with a proprietary voice strongly differentiated from that of other movie franchises.
The posters of seven of Marvel’s latest movies are characterized by vibrant colors and high saturation.
Finally, unlike what happens with Scorsese or Tarantino movies, Marvel’s intellectual property greatly transcends the big screen. Characters like Iron Man, Thor and Hulk make appearances in video games, theme parks, fast food menus, and much more. When Marvel lends its intellectual properties in such ways, it ensures that a strict set of rules expressed in its brand manual is followed. From the personality of each hero and their alliances and rivalries, to their values, verbal tones, dress codes, and a series of “dos and don´ts”, the brand manual is the guardian of superheroes, in the same way that it is of a fast food brand.
Marvel introduces its brands in other environments, such as Lego’s video games and McDonald’s meals.
An architecture with a high interaction between sub-brands and a brand identity with transversal elements can go far. Thanks to the branding strategy adopted for its superheroes, Marvel is currently one of the most recognized brands in the world. Scorsese may be right: Marvel, with its brand manuals and co-branding agreements, is not cinema. It’s much more than that.