With Marvel Studios’ latest Avengers: Age of Ultron on its way to reaching $1 billion it’s a great time to reflect on the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The MCU films have grossed over $8 billion at the global box office. Add to that two network TV shows on ABC, one Netflix show with four more in the pipeline and at least 11 more movies in development. It’s currently the highest grossing film franchise of all time.
There are five big lessons Marvel teaches when it comes to managing your brand. Good news: these apply no matter if you’re managing a brand for a Fortune 100, a small business or even your own personal brand. You don’t even need Marvel’s (or Disney’s) budget to make these happen.
- Be different – when others zig, you zag.
While DC was focusing on just its top properties – Superman and Batman – Marvel chose to be different. At the start of the MCU Marvel focused on lesser-known characters (at that time most weren’t on Spiderman’s level with the public). This approach worked right out of the gate. Later, Marvel figured if their lesser-known properties can generate half a billion dollars each, why not invest in an ensemble where one of the main heroes is a talking raccoon (seems legit). That one grossed over $700 million world-wide. Meanwhile, DC drug its feet on developing a Wonder Woman movie. If you want to stand out from the crowd you have to be different from everyone else.
- Your brand has a history – leverage it.
Are you just starting out or have you been going at this for a number of years? Doesn’t matter. Every one of us has a history and a story of where we came from. Use it. Marvel gets it – they’ve dug in to over 50 years of history and brought the best of their stories into their films. Even better, they’ve done this in a way that brings nostalgia to long-term fans while not alienating new fans who are curious. Marvel has a lot of brand equity in its history. Your history either has equity or allows you to build equity once you open it up to your customers.
- Create a long-term plan. Stick to it, but stay flexible.
When asked how to make a successful universe like the MCU Kevin Feige says, “have a plan”. It doesn’t have to be set in stone – really, it shouldn’t. Feige estimates that Marvel movies have been 75% plan and 25% “bob-and-weave.” Without giving anything away, Feige has also shared that they have their movies planned out (along with how they’re connected) through 2028. With each movie as part of a decades plus story, moviegoers are more inclined to be invested for the long haul. This lesson’s difficult, but oh so important. Your brand should focus on keeping customers for the long-haul instead of just having them engage with one promotion to the next one.
- Everything you do should connect.
It would have been much easier for Marvel to simply focus on their movies and TV shows as stand-alone products. Instead they chose to connect EVERYTHING. What happens in one movie affects everything else. When S.H.I.E.L.D. fell apart in Captain America: The Winter Soldier fans wondered what would happen to the TV show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Guess what? It was already planned out, and it was all connected. With different, directors, visions and themes each film can stand alone, but they’re still connected under one cohesive universe. You can do the same and build your “universe” for all of your work. While individual pieces of your work may have specific goals (a social post may be different from a brochure and from legal terms and conditions) they should always move towards your brand’s broader goal too. You don’t have to keep it 100% consistent – just keep it connected.
- Reward your loyal fans.
Every MCU movie consistently has at least one additional scene either during (or after the credits). They introduce newer movies and build anticipation for them. Sometimes they just offer up an extra treat for those faithful fans willing to stay after the movie. While each movie can be self-contained, these scenes lead movie goers to the next ones in the series. MCU also rewards the faithful with “Easter Eggs” sprinkled throughout the movies. Easter Eggs don’t make or break a film for the average viewer, but a fanboy can have his mind blown just from hearing the name “Stephen Strange” referenced in a database. What’s great is that these aren’t some magical tricks that only Marvel can do. Every one of us has the ability to “surprise and delight” our loyal fans.
If you want to successfully manage your business’ brand or your personal brand you need to follow those who are doing it right. And those who are doing it right may not always be in the first place you think to look.
Question: Where have you found inspiration for building your brand?
Want something fun?
Take a look back at the movies leading up to Avengers: Age of Ultron.