Marvel’s approach to marketing: Then and now
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The Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, was created over 80 years ago.
Marvel's journey started as a comic book series back in 1939. After selling more than 80,000 copies of the first issue, the creators of the comics launched the second edition—setting in motion what would become a massive brand in today's world.
Marvel has come a long way from its origins as a comic book series to become one of the biggest movie franchises in the world. The MCU stretches across 23 films (and counting) and has grossed $22.59 billion (and counting). This article will walk you through all the ups and downs in Marvel's story, but first, here's a look into the series of events that paved the way.
Marvel brand timeline
1939—Martin Goodman's Timely Comics started the first issue of Marvel Comics
1941—Captain America was born with the release of "Captain America Comics #1"
1944—Timely Comics releases Captain America the film, the first-ever on-screen adaptation of a Marvel Comics character
1961—Appointment of Stan Lee as Editor
1963—Marvel's "Silver Age," marking a transition out of Timely Comics into the Marvel Comics name we know today
1973—Martin Goodman officially founded Marvel Entertainment Group
1977—Spider-Man movie aired
1981—Marvel Productions sets up in Los Angeles
1986—Marvel Comics and Marvel Productions were acquired by New World Communications, leading to the Marvel Entertainment Group
1993—A financially strapped Marvel sold the rights to the X-Men to 20th Century Fox. Marvel also sold rights to the Fantastic Four to Fox and Spider-Man to Sony
1993—Marvel acquires 46% stakes in ToyBiz to create action figures, stickers, and memorabilia
1996—Fox acquires New World Communications to take control of Marvel Studios and Marvel Films
1998—Marvel inks a deal with Sony for the rights to create movies with their characters: Spiderman, Venom, Carnage, Black Cat, Vulture, and more
1998—Blade is released, and many credit it with saving superhero movies and paving the way for the MCU we know and love today
2000—Sony pictures releases X-men, based on one of Marvel's most enduring properties, it reshaped the superhero movie landscape
2006—Featured in the first Comic-Con
2007—Appointed Kevin Feige as the President of Marvel Studios leading to the creation and release of Iron Man in the following year
2008—Start of a long partnership with Audi
2009—Disney acquires Marvel for $4 billion
2012—Avengers becomes the highest-grossing movie made from a comic book
2014—Marvel's largest presentation at San Diego Comic-Con
2018—Stan Lee, the creator of essentially all Marvel characters and heralded as the father to all superheroes, passes away
2018—Avengers: Infinity War becomes the brand's highest-grossing movie, generating more than $2B
2019—Disney acquires 20th Century Fox, giving Marvel back the rights to the characters from the X-Men, as well as the Fantastic Four series
2019—Avengers: Endgame breaks Infinity War's record to stack up to $2.7B
2021—WandaVision launches on Disney+ marking the start of Marvels Phase 4 plan
2021—Black widow star Scarlet Johansen sues Disney+ for lost wages due to streaming
2021—Shang-chi, Marvels first Asian superhero to lead a movie, destroys the box office earning over $525 million worldwide
2021—Marvel banks on Eternals being the true kickstart to their Phase 4 plans; early box office numbers don't look good
2022—Many pivotal Phase 4 movies are majorly delayed to 2022-2023, pushing back Phase 4 and Phase 5
The early days of Marvel
Back in the 1940s, when television was a rare sight, Martin Goodman—an American magazine publisher—launched Marvel Comics #1 to entertain the masses. The comics included characters like the Human Torch, the Masked Raider, and Ka-Zar the Great. When the first edition sold over 80,000 copies, he was motivated to bring one issue after the other.
These comics garnered lots of attention based on the simple yet intriguing premise of superheroes fighting the world's biggest threats (which happened to be Hitler back then). But the fandom steadily declined after World War II. People became less interested in seeing a superhero saving the planet after the main villain (Hitler) was defeated in real life.
The decline triggered a rebrand of Marvel to Atlas Comics and a man named Stan Lee as the editor. As the co-creator of Marvel's most iconic characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk, Stan Lee changed the face of the comics and became one of the biggest legends behind Marvel's success. His contribution essentially lies in revamping the superhero genre by portraying them as normal humans gifted with superpowers.
To better manage this fame and continue building its stature, Goodman brought in the legendary Stan Lee to lead the team and Syd Shores, a famous comic book artist, to maintain the comics' evolution over the years. The company underwent a complete rebrand under Stan Lee's leadership. From superheroes to storylines, everything changed.
Beating the competition with new Marvel superheroes (and a human twist)
The year was 1961.
While Marvel (then Atlas) and DC (its biggest competitor) launched multiple editions for different characters, DC came up with Flash of Two Worlds—a revolutionary approach within the space. This issue went deeper into the world of comics. It introduced the concept of a multiverse—a fictional realm that combines multiple universes and storylines—with the genesis of the Justice League of America, DC's team of superheroes.
Faced with the challenge of grabbing this attention and owning their place, Stan Lee worked with artist Jack Kirby to develop the Fantastic Four. They positioned these heroes as humans with extraordinary traits and powers, thus making them more relatable. Soon, this movie became a superhit with fans, and today, it's considered the watershed moment when comics transitioned into mass-appeal for both adults and kids alike.
But Marvel didn't just stop at Fantastic Four's wild success. The brand churned out many new characters leading up to its first-ever feature film, Spider-Man. From there, the 1977 hit powered Marvel to create Dr. Strange the following year as well.
With many new comics and two movies under their brand umbrella, Marvel's popularity only grew. All the success steered them to another rebrand when Atlas Comics finally became Marvel Studios in the early 1960s. They even started the Marvel Production house in Los Angeles as a separate arm of the brand for producing films in 1981.
Five years later, in 1986, New World Communications acquired both Marvel Comics and Marvel Production to give birth to the Marvel Entertainment Group we know today.
The fall of the Marvel empire
After bringing one hit after another like The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, and Infinity Trilogy, Marvel's success seemingly peaked in the early 1990s.
Around this time, Ronald Perelman, a billionaire businessman, acquired the Marvel Entertainment Group. He considered Marvel equivalent to Disney's intellectual property valuation and decided to scale the brand to even greater heights. He held the vision of making Marvel a household name and every character a favorite.
Under Perelman, Marvel also purchased 46% of ToyBiz’s stock in 1993 to create and sell action figures for every character in line with this vision. Along with that, Perelman offered 40% of the company’s shares to the public in the same year.
Moving astray from his vision, he ended up:
- Declaring bankruptcy in 1997
- Merging Marvel with ToyBiz against the stakeholders’ confidence because he wanted to create a single company stronger than two separate ones
- Selling the rights to some iconic characters like Black Panther, Hulk, and Iron Man
All of Perelman’s actions dethroned Marvel from its soaring popularity curve. Shares that were once worth $35.75 in 1993 collapsed to around $2.38 in just three years under his guidance.
While Perelman stuck to his dream of launching Marvel characters on the big screen, the investors brawled among themselves. All these decisions, including declaring bankruptcy, merging Marvel with Toybiz, and selling character rights, collectively left Marvel Entertainment in enormous debt of $250 million by the end of 1996. As reported in a book by Wall Street Journal editor Ben Fritz, Marvel offered to sell Sony the movie rights to Spider-Man plus virtually every other character under its control—Iron Man, Thor, and Black Panther included—for $25 million.
From bankruptcy to billions, the rebirth of Marvel
Nearing bankruptcy—thanks mainly to Sony not wanting to purchase the rights to anyone but Spiderman—Marvel, the company, somehow landed on its feet. It then set out to prove to Sony (and the world) that the characters they didn't think were valuable (Iron Man, Thor, Hulk) would be the characters Marvel would build an empire with. With that drive and desire to prove everyone wrong, Marvel Studios was created. Fox acquired New World Communications in 1996 for $2.48 billion to create Marvel Studios and appointed Stan Lee as the chairman.
Marvel would soon prove, again, that they could make the most out of hand they were dealt.
Joal Ryan described what happened next best (in their CNET article)
Time and again, the biggest events in the MCU were the ones that didn't happen: the New Line Cinema Iron Man movie that might've starred Tom Cruise; the Sony Thor movie that might've starred the wrestler Triple H; and, above all, the Sony deal that might've left the MCU for entirely different people to pull off.
This change brought in motion many significant changes—primarily the launch of new movies.
Blade, the unsung hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Released in 1998, Blade became a blockbuster grossing $70 million, followed by the successes of both the X-Men and Spider-Man movie series.
Blade was the first successful Marvel adaptation, both in critical and audience reception, but more importantly, it was a financial triumph. Earning a worldwide gross of $131,183,530, produced on a budget of $45 million. - Christopher Weston
Blade was the start of Marvels' comeback and proved that you could build an empire on the back of un-popular heroes. Blade had a cult comic following, but it wasn't as recognizable or loved as X-men, DC's Batman and Superman, or the Fantastic Four. Somehow this film managed to captivate audiences and turn everyone into a Blade fan.
"In many ways, [Blade] saved Marvel's cinema prospects entirely, as well as revived the superhero genre," Insider says. "'Blade' was a moral victory for Marvel, finally establishing it as a rising force in Hollywood. Blade demonstrated that audiences could be drawn towards Marvel's C list characters."
And if you don't believe that Blade is the GOAT, watch the unbelievable reaction to Kevin Feige and Mahershala Ali announcing the reboot of this beloved franchise within the MCU.
Expanding the MCU
Despite all these hits, expanding the Marvel universe with more characters still seemed daunting because there was only so much the creators could do with individual characters and their separate storylines.
David Maisel’s entry as Marvel Studios’ Chief Operating Officer turned things around. Maisel is credited with creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe—giving producers the idea to create crossovers between multiple storylines. Having worked with movie and broadway artists before, he had a flair for creativity. After the success of the Iron Man Franchise, Maisel became the primary architect of Marvel’s $4 billion sale to Disney.
Maisel secured a $525,000,000 loan from Merrill Lynch, a financial company, on the condition that Marvel would give up the right to ten characters on the failure to return the money within eight years. The loan, although immensely risky, changed Marvel’s fate forever.
When the group closed a deal with Paramount Pictures in 2005, they received the rights to key characters like Iron Man, Black Widow, and Thor. But one major incident spearheaded the brand’s recovery from their losses—Kevin Feige’s promotion to the President of Marvel Studios.
An era of Marvel’s marketing feats
Growing up with an unwavering love for comics, Kevin Feige previously produced X-Men at the young age of 27. From there, he produced the likes of Hulk, Daredevil, and Spider-Man, only to become the President of the production studio by 2007.
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment under his belt—the one that helped Marvel become a fan favorite again—was the production of Iron Man, which grossed $585 million at the box office. The movie launched Maisel's cinematic universe idea and prepared the groundwork for Marvel's phenomenal success.
The incredible reception of Iron Man was topped by Disney’s acquisition of Marvel for a whopping $4.3 billion in 2009.
The brand's trajectory since the acquisition only climbed higher, but the brand still worked harder than ever to sustain this popularity. Following the success of Iron Man and the failure of the Incredible Hulk, they created Iron Man 2 instead of experimenting with another superhero. The first phase witnessed the release of Captain America and Thor as well.
After producing multiple big hits, the cinematic universe assembled all the avengers for the first time and turned into the third highest-grossing movie of all time. Many hit movies flooded Marvel's banks, from Iron Man 3 to Guardians of the Galaxy, as the fandom became bigger and stronger. The studio then continued to progress in phases—experimenting and learning from these experiments.
In essence, all this great fortune not only turned Marvel's massive debt on its head but also established a multi-billion-dollar empire for the brand.
Marvel phase 4 and beyond
With an impressive average of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes and an unbelievable revenue of $17 billion across 22 movies, Marvel is synonymous with superheroes and comics today.
Marvel’s mantra for success lies in its magical world that brings people back for more. The virtual universe has attracted legions of fans over the years and continues to inspire the younger generations.
But the brand and its marketing strategies have witnessed significant change over the years. In the past, the studio was riding on the popularity of its characters. Today, it focuses more on building a connection with the fans. From comic-cons to social media, Marvel has created a deeper bond between the fans and the creators.
How exactly did this momentous change come into action?
Let’s dive deeper into the factors that helped Marvel become a pioneer of superhero cinema.
Building and growing the Marvel Universe
Marvel witnessed a major facelift with David Maisel’s idea of conceptualizing the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In movie franchises, universe building essentially explains the process of fusing diverse storylines into a single, shared narrative with several parallel events happening simultaneously.
While franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars had already leveraged this concept, Marvel built its way into a universe over an entire decade. The brand took time to connect multiple stories and bring all the characters together gradually.
Through end-credit scenes and some teasers in the middle, Marvel built a coherent connection between various storylines. It built this connection between different films in three phases, ultimately leading to its TV shows.
- Phase 1 witnessed the debuts of every hero and some villains. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. formed the connection between all the diverging stories.
- Phase 2 delved into the backstory of every Avenger and introduced new characters. It set the path leading to the franchise’s conclusion.
- Phase 3 expanded the ensemble with more characters. It led the way to the conclusion with one final battle.
Marvel’s shows present an extended arm of the universe—exploring every character’s story in greater detail in a different format.
Apart from growing the cinematic universe, Marvel leveraged comic books, action figures, digital publications, apparel, and merchandise to expand its fan base further. Now looking at the bigger picture, the company plans the launch of every movie and show alongside its products.
Omnichannel presence for Marvel movies and marketing
Some of the biggest Marvel hits like the Avengers: Endgame managed to earn $858,373,000 and make sweeping headlines worldwide. Many other movies in the MCU have broken box office records.
But the brand doesn’t restrict itself to the big screen. It targets the diverse pool of movie buffs by launching movies on streaming platforms like Netflix and TV channels. Almost all Marvel movies are available on Netflix and Disney+ for binge-watchers. It also airs TV shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to maintain its dominance in the cinema halls and homes.
Beyond the video entertainment sector, Marvel’s active social media presence is another superb aspect of its marketing strategy. It entertains millions of fans on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (among other platforms) with the latest updates, behind-the-scenes, and announcement dates.
Aside from its social media game, Marvel also leverages digital resources for interacting with its fans. One such initiative was its interactive app for readers. The subscription-based app lists down an array of Marvel comics and offers an immersive reading experience.
Marvel also launched a chatbot for fans to converse with their favorite superheroes to deliver a more interactive experience for fans.
In its efforts to advance the goal of impeccable fan experiences, the comic giant has created multiple experiential avenues.
Marvel Theme parks
Marvel theme parks exist across the world, including the famous Avengers Campus at Disneyland.
Marvel Video games
The brand created unique games for characters and movies to let fans recreate their own storylines in a new setting.
The diversity of Marvel characters makes it a popular choice among cosplay enthusiasts, a popular sighting at events like Comic-Con.
From Thor’s hammer to Captain America’s shield, fans can get their hands on an array of merch from the movies.
Exciting Marvel brand partnerships
One of the most significant aspects of Marvel’s marketing strategy has been its stellar partnerships with famous brands. The emphasis on co-branding has strengthened Marvel’s fanbase in multiple demographics.
Marvel and Disney
It all started with Disney’s acquisition in 2009. The stakeholders at Disney then termed the $4 billion acquisition as a great bargain. Once under Disney’s wing, the MCU took many calculated risks and maximized its potential in terms of creativity and fresh ideas. Even less popular characters and movies like Guardians of the Galaxy became major hits.
Disney’s acquisition also meant an expansion of Marvel’s television shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jessica Jones, and Agent Carter. The brand also produced non-MCU shows like Legion.
But the launch of Disney+ ushered in a whole new side of Marvel—with TV series for every famous character. From Wanda Vision to Loki, the brand capitalized on Disney’s OTT platform to expand its universe.
Given the multiple avenues in which Marvel has grown under Disney, it’s no surprise that Disney managed to make over $18 billion in the ten years since its investment.
Marvel and Audi
Audi is another significant brand in Marvel’s long list of partnerships. It has been with the comic giant since the start of its universe back in 2008.
After featuring for the first time in Iron Man as Tony Stark’s luxury ride, Audi became the Avengers’ official car sponsor. Audi remained Tony’s go-to car throughout the years. It then showed up in Iron Man 2, Antman, Age of Ultron, and Civil War.
With seven cameos across multiple Marvel movies, Audi has played an instrumental role in the MCU. It also established itself as a key automotive name in pop culture. The brand cemented its partnership with Marvel through various ads and short films promoting its cars and the movies.
50 Marvel brand collaborations
Apart from these key brand partnerships, Marvel has also collaborated with close to 50 brands across its journey of producing 24 movies. Let’s look at some of the most prominent ones:
Marvel and Mastercard
- Marvel decided to offer fans a unique superheroic credit card made in partnership with Mastercard in 2016. With 3% cashback on entertainment spending, the card doubled as memorabilia for fans.
Marvel and Coca-Cola
- Showing the Hulk and Ant-Man with the Coca-Cola Mini cans in their hands in a Super Bowl halftime ad is one of Marvel’s greatest co-branding masterstrokes. It served as an excellent teaser for Ant-Man while promoting Coca-Cola’s latest product. The brand also launched a unique Marvel collection with characters printed on the cans.
Marvel and Ford
- Marvel partnered with Ford to promote Guardians of the Galaxy and became the movie’s official car. This collaboration targeted just the Guardians of the Galaxy series to deliver unique fan experiences.
Riding the wave with user-generated content and actors as brand advocates
The single most crucial part of Marvel’s marketing framework? Its community.
The pop culture brand has managed to rise through the ranks only through the consistently growing support of its fans. As the most successful movie franchise globally, Marvel could establish this stronghold by entertaining and engaging globally with its hoards of fans.
Don't believe us? After the pivotal "on your left" scene in Avengers Endgame, YouTube was flooded with "live audience reaction" videos, some amassing millions of views in mere minutes. Just try and watch this clip without smiling or cheering for the Avengers.
Aside from its comics, “Stan’s Soapbox” is one of the unique ways it catered to the readers’ interests and fostered a strong community. This was a short column in all of Marvel’s comics where Stan Lee answered questions from comic readers.
Moreover, while Marvel’s identity has been attached to visuals since its origins, the brand continues to use such content to its advantage. Its social media presence attests to this brand image.
Beyond the silver screen and TV shows, Marvel has heavily leveraged user-generated content to boost its connection with the fans. Here are some creative ways the brand has nurtured its community of fans through user-generated content:
Marvel pairs up with Twitter and Pinterest
- The brand started promoting user-generated content on Twitter and Pinterest in fan arts, gifs, and memes. It actively reposts fan art on its Instagram page as well. This replicates Stan Lee’s soapbox on the digital medium where he categorically answers the readers’ questions.
Marvel's social campaign for Civil War
- One of the most memorable UGC campaigns was right before the launch of the Civil War. Marvel started a virtual battle, asking fans to pick sides with viral hashtags of #TeamIronMan and #TeamCap. It succeeded in creating a great buzz before the movie release to encourage ticket sales in massive numbers.
Along with user-generated content, the brand has also made the best out of its glittering cast. The MCU stars are some of the biggest names in the industry and multiply the brand’s popularity with their social media activity. Marvel has held some of the biggest comic con events in history because of its actors’ popularity.
Marvel: Beyond the movies
Rising from its darkest hour to become one of the biggest names in pop culture, it has been quite the ride for Marvel. Similar to how it has planned 24 movies in its universe, the brand has also succeeded in strategizing its marketing framework.
Marvel has always been media-agnostic—using multiple channels, both offline and online, to bring its offering to the people. The brand's push to convert its characters and storylines into movies, shows, and real-life experiences is a beautiful testament to that.
With its emphasis on brand partnerships and user-generated content, the brand has creatively marketed its entire ensemble of movies—truly becoming the greatest and the most robust entertainment brand in history.