How Marvel Became the 'Gold Standard' Super Brand
MARVEL'S NEXT PHASE
This story is part of a nine-part series considering the business future of Disney’s crown jewel, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the most lucrative properties in the history of entertainment, the MCU is suddenly threatened from multiple fronts: Several of its beloved heroes have been retired, the theatrical model is in peril and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated massive shifts in the media consumption habits of superhero fans. Marvel’s future success is not necessarily guaranteed. In order to continue its dominance of global culture over the course of its next phase, the Disney-owned brand will have to adapt.
45% of Americans said they’re interested in products depicting superheroes in general.
47% said an actor from a franchise promoting a product would spark their interest in purchasing it; 53% said the same of a product that features franchise characters.
"I thought you were Build-A-Bear," Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, snarks to the genetically enhanced raccoon, Rocket, in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” That line reached millions of ears during the film’s opening weekend alone, and the brand name drop was not simply a coincidence.
Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. already had a line of successful Marvel-themed toys, sales of which were “further enhanced by Marvel's generous and welcome nod to Build-A-Bear in the movie's first 10 minutes,” the company’s CEO, Sharon Price John, said on an earnings call shortly after the movie’s release.
“Endgame,” the second-highest grossing film of all time, came with a litany of other opportunities for brands: Official partners for the film included Geico, Alphabet Inc.’s Google Pixel 3, Hertz Corp., Synchrony Financial, Ulta Beauty Inc. and Audi AG, Stark’s carmaker of choice since the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008’s “Iron Man” (still one of the most beloved films of the franchise).
Kids have little use for these brand partnerships, and that’s because Marvel products are not just for children — and never have been. Millennials, a generation full of parents to Gen Alpha children, are the driving force behind the lucrative Marvel fandom, and new data from Morning Consult points to strong brand interest and favorability for the franchise that has applications well beyond marketing to kids.
According to the latest Morning Consult survey, 44 percent of Americans said they’re interested in products depicting characters from Marvel movies and TV shows, a number that speaks to the immense power of the brand, according to several marketing experts who spoke with Morning Consult about Marvel’s very own superpower: its unique brand-building ability.
Nearly Half of U.S. Adults Express Interest in Superhero-Branded Products
“Disney has been the master of taking valuable IP and branding it in different ways,” said Eunice Shin, a partner at the brand consultancy Prophet and its head of direct-to-consumer businesses in the media and entertainment space, who has worked with clients including Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee.
“But traditionally for Disney, they had what they called ‘the burden of the brand,’” Shin said. “You can only do certain things with characters like Mickey Mouse because of the audience.”
When Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009, it gave itself permission to broaden its licensing options beyond children, families and consumer packaged goods.
“They expanded who they can sell that type of branded content to,” Shin said of the Marvel acquisition. “The power of the MCU for Disney has been phenomenal.”
How Marvel used storytelling to become a “gold standard” brand
The public’s interest in Marvel-branded products is about on par with interest in superhero products in general (45 percent). DC, another massive superhero franchise, lags slightly behind: 41 percent of adults said they’re interested in apparel, household goods and beauty products that depict DC film and TV characters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the demographic makeup of the Marvel fandom, interest in Marvel-branded products is highest among men and millennials. The same can be said for DC-branded products and general superhero merchandise.
“These brands are fully aspirational,” said Jenna Isken, group director of experience at Omnicom Group Inc. strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale. “They’re aspirational, but accessible. That speaks to the power of the brands that these franchises have built, and the fact that they can make people feel like they have access to different experiences through even lower-cost items.”
That much is clear in the net favorability ratings of the Marvel and DC brands, as well as the major corporations that have helped them grow. Disney has the highest net favorability rating of the group at 62 percentage points, followed by Marvel Comics, Warner Media and DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.
Superhero Properties and Their Parent Companies Score High Favorability Ratings
It’s no wonder, then, that consumer-facing brands across industries are consistently lining up for the chance to splash the Marvel brand on their products, from makeup pallets to collectable Coca-Cola cans, jewelry, cookware and much more.
Superhero branding, Isken said, is so attractive because it provides “extra intangibles that might not even cross people’s minds when they’re making a purchase otherwise.” For instance, “I’m not just buying a Wonder Woman figurine, I’m buying into an element of female empowerment,” she said.
That example comes from the DC universe, but it’s the Marvel ecosystem that’s more appealing to consumers, according to the Morning Consult data. Shin and Isken both described Marvel and its parent company, Disney, as a “gold standard” for other brands, especially when it comes to storytelling, perhaps the most essential skill for brand building.
Isken described Marvel’s storytelling technique as “the Steve Jobs approach,” in which the franchise assumes it knows what its audience wants better than they do themselves, so it surprises and delights consumers by offering up stories that are bigger and better than anyone thought possible.
But Marvel also values its community, she said, and often incorporates fan feedback into its experiences, making its audience feel highly connected to the brand.
DC, on the other hand, has created a world that’s a bit more closed off to fans, with the focus often instead on directors more than audience or characters. Look no further than 2021’s “Zack Snyder's Justice League” for evidence: DC released the four-hour "Snyder Cut" of 2017’s “Justice League” on HBO after the director stepped away from the original production in the wake of a family tragedy.
DC has lower online engagement than Marvel, too, according to Kieran Fitzpatrick, founder and chief executive of Spiketrap, a company that uses its AI-powered audience intelligence platform to contextualize online conversations for clients including Sony Corp., Amazon.com Inc.’s Twitch, Verizon Communications Inc. and Warner Bros Games. Conversations around DC are also “more toxic” than conversations around Marvel, according to Spiketrap.
Marvel isn’t just driving value for Disney. The Disney brand is also giving back to Marvel, Fitzpatrick said. A search for Marvel in Spiketrap’s affinity tool reveals that Disney is the term associated with the brand that ranks highest on the affinity index, a measure of how well a given entity is positively correlated to another, calculated based on several factors including frequency and sentiment of related mentions.
And when evaluating the peerless success of the Marvel brand, its visual design prowess should not be overlooked, said Caroline Jerome, partner and chief creative officer at the branding and marketing firm TBGA.
“Brands with excellence offline and online have design as a bridge between those things,” Jerome said. “It’s really important to consider that Marvel originated in a visual form of storytelling, and that’s what’s being leveraged still. That’s what’s resonating with people. That’s what’s building the brand trust.”
The fictional influencer: “A superhero is just another celebrity endorser”
At the heart of the Marvel brand, of course, are its beloved characters, who have served as the inspiration for consumer products as far back as Spider-Man in the early 1960s. And Madison Avenue, recognizing the power of a superhero spokesperson, has been creating its own fictional heroes for branding purposes for more than a century, from the Michelin Man to the Jolly Green Giant to Tony the Tiger.
“A superhero is just another celebrity endorser,” said Jim Spaeth, a co-founder and partner at the brand and media measurement firm Sequent Partners, and a former president of the Advertising Research Foundation. “From a management perspective, fictional characters are less risky than celebrities. They’re not going to be found to be in a scandal. They don’t do anything wrong. They don’t try to renegotiate their contracts.”
Marvel’s roster of superhero endorsers has a proven track record of success at the box office and beyond, which also makes it an ideal partnership for any other brand looking to benefit from its good reputation. Those “Endgame” partner brands likely had no concerns that the movie would flop. Brands that partner with nonfranchise movies, on the other hand, may pay less for the licensing rights but they are also taking bigger risks with their investments. Nothing is as certain as a Marvel hero, and there are more and more of them every year.
“The house is big enough,” as Alice Sylvester, another partner at Sequent Partners and a former chair of the board of the ARF, put it. “There are so many superheroes, and everyone is integrated with one another in some way. Everyone is under this bigger house, so one character’s success begets success for everyone.”
In addition to being less risky, fictional characters from major franchises are also more likely to drive purchasing interest than the actors who play these characters, according to the Morning Consult survey:
Franchise Characters More Likely to Drive Purchasing Than Actors Who Portray Them
That being said, Marvel’s lineup of actors remains a superpowered branding draw.
“Captain Marvel” lead actor Brie Larson, for instance, has starred in ads for Nissan Motor Co. since March 2020. Around the time of the release of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” in 2017, the MCU’s web-slinger, Tom Holland, appeared in a campaign for Audi. He teamed with the brand again for the release of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in 2019, and this year, ahead of the highly anticipated release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” he’s promoting Hyundai Motor Co.
Hyundai also took an interesting approach earlier this year when it inked a deal with Disney to have Marvel actors such as Anthony Mackie (who plays Sam Wilson, also known as The Falcon) appear in ads in character.
Some of these actors are probably more accessible to consumers as spokespeople than their fictional counterparts are. Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Avengers boss Nick Fury in several MCU films, has promoted Capital One Financial Corp., Adidas AG and Apple Inc., to name a few. Jackson has the highest net favorability rating of all the leading MCU actors:
Longtime MCU Actors Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr. Seen as Most Favorable in the Franchise
“If I’m a marketer, I’m going to be really cautious about risks with actors, especially given cancel culture,” Shin said. “Characters are more brand safe. However, if you’re a celebrity that has massive influence and power, then there’s a big benefit, too.”
The future of the Marvel brand is in Gen Z’s hands
The Marvel brand has found so much success because it’s evolved with the times, according to several marketing experts. Now, like so many other brands, it’s faced with the daunting task of pivoting once more to meet the interests of coveted Gen Z consumers.
With such a strong brand foundation, Marvel and Disney don’t necessarily need to burn down the House of Mouse to please the young generation. They can keep their core tenants but build upon them, Isken said.
“Thor and Captain America might not resonate with Gen Z as much as some of the newer ones like the Eternals and Ms. Marvel,” she said, reflecting a certain level of demand from Gen Zers for more diversity in superhero films.
Off-screen, Marvel has generated some Gen Z interest with memorabilia giveaways, especially Funko Pop toys, which are collectible figurines of characters in pop culture, Spiketrap’s Fitzpatrick said.
“Funko toys crush it in terms of conversation,” he said. “There’s a hyper-positive conversation attached to Funko toys and giveaways and announcements around those things.”
Conversations around Halloween costumes and nonseasonal apparel launches also tend to drive positive online conversations for franchises including Marvel, Fitzpatrick said, which is particularly adept at calendaring its apparel launches to make sure younger consumers are paying attention.
“A lot of what Marvel does well is that it lays out what to expect, and then sticks to it,” he said.
But as the first generation of true digital natives, now with entire universes (or metaverses) at their fingertips, physical products such as a Funko Pop may not cut it for the youngest Marvel fans — unlike their parents or grandparents, many of whom grew up with collectibles like Spider-Man lunchboxes and action figures.
“I don’t know if in-person events and limited releases are going to be special enough for Gen Z, especially if they see these things as an effort to simply make money,” Jerome said.
So perhaps into the metaverse, Marvel will go. Before his death in 2018, Stan Lee was already thinking about how to tell stories in a virtual-reality space, said Shin, reflecting on her time working with him as a client.
But Marvel doesn’t necessarily have to go as far as embracing the metaverse to further test the Gen Z waters, several marketers suggested. Shin mentioned gaming as a potential bridge. Marvel already has several video games on the market but could go one step further by collaborating with esports teams and influencers to get more on Gen Z’s radar, according to Fitzpatrick.
In any event, the Marvel brand is too powerful to fade away anytime soon, thanks in large part to its dedicated fandom, marketers said. But that fandom didn’t come about all on its own. Marvel built it from the ground up through the power of branding.
“Brands with true fandoms understand that it’s not about the ‘what’ — it’s about the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ behind the brand,” Isken said. “Superhero brands are the dream because they have a real understanding of who they are.”