Marketing Superheroes: Marketing Strategy Lessons from the Marvel v. DC Rivalry

With nearly $11 billion in worldwide box office sales, Marvel is the most successful cinematic franchise of all time.

Marvel’s successful results, however, have not come exclusively from their big-name characters. Marvel’s “Ant-Man,” a hero most people have probably never heard of, earned $150 million more than the first Captain America movie.

This success is sharply contrasted by the stumbling efforts of their primary competitor. Despite being home to famed characters such as Batman and Superman, the DC Cinematic Universe has not enjoyed the same number of blockbuster hits as Marvel.

In addition, Marvel’s dominance over DC on the cinematic stage comes in the face of serious challenges, including the licensing of their most popular characters.

Marvel overcame these challenges by gradually building an unshakeable brand, strategically deploying their assets to create astronomical ROI.

Marketing pros often discuss the relationship between strategy and tactics, but the difference between strategic and tactical approaches is rarely shown as clearly as in the Marvel vs. DC cinematic war.

DC has thrown tactic after tactic at the wall in the hopes that something will stick. Marvel, through a plan laid out in strategic phases, has created a consistent moviegoing experience that engages their audience and ultimately improves their bottom line.

Before Phase 1

Marvel was in trouble.

In 1999, they needed cash and thought superhero movies were a tired trope, so the sale of the movie rights to their most recognizable hero seemed reasonable. Spiderman went to Sony Pictures for $7 million, shortly after a similar sale of the X-Men to 20th Century Fox.

The X-Men and Spiderman movies would go on to revitalize the superhero movie industry, becoming the 7th and 8th highest grossing series of all time.

Marvel’s predictions for superhero movies were proved dramatically incorrect. As the X-Men and Spiderman movies took off, Marvel needed to break onto the big screen—without using their most popular characters.

Characters such as Wolverine, Professor X, Cyclops, Magneto, and Spiderman are all near the top of the list of popular Marvel characters. Thanks to the deals with Sony and Fox, all of these characters were off-limits.

Aside from this self-inflicted problem, competitor DC boasted some of the most iconic superheroes ever created. Batman and Superman are household names that should have been difficult to compete with. Include other well-known characters like Wonder Woman and the Flash and Marvel was facing an uphill battle.

Phase 1: Avengers Assemble, and Building the Brand

If Marvel was going to compete with the likes of Superman and Batman, it needed to be smart. In a head-to-head battle based on straight popularity, its characters would probably lose at the box office.

So Marvel avoided a head-to-head, instead opting to build its overall brand. With a strong brand behind them, relatively unknown characters could be made more visible and compelling —not to mention profitable.

Implementing a long-term strategy often comes with its own challenges. This example is no exception, and in fact tells the story of a common, tough decision: fast money now or the possibility of more money later?

It would have been easy for Marvel to throw all of their remaining characters into The Avengers and make a quick buck; their characters may not have had the star-power of Batman and Superman, but audiences would likely still be excited to watch a hodgepodge of heroes on the big screen.

Instead, Marvel opted to gradually build the profile of individual heroes while teasing plotlines and pictures to come. Marvel has its movies mapped out until 2028, and that foresight is what makes their success possible.

Phase 1 of Marvel’s strategy was to create movies for individual heroes: Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America (the four Avengers). Creating a buzz around each hero individually allowed The Avengers to attract a much larger audience.

A “gang’s all together” movie like The Avengers or Batman v. Superman gets an easy “heck yeah” from its audience. If you asked a comic book fan whether they wanted to see Batman and Superman duke it out, you can bet that would be the response.

What Marvel understood, and DC missed, is that the size of that “heck yeah” is important.

Batman v. Superman came without an independent feature for either Batman or Wonder Woman. Suicide Squad, another DC movie, has one of the best villains of all time in the Joker, but made the mistake of introducing an entire squad of characters in a single movie. The upcoming Justice League movie shows that DC has yet to learn from its mistake.

Individual movies allow more time to build a character’s backstory and personal connection with the audience. As a result, fans were already sold on each character by the time The Avengers hit theaters.

Marvel laid the groundwork first, and The Avengers brought in $1.5 billion in box office sales to become the fifth highest grossing film of all time.

Where’s the marketing?

At a tactical level, Marvel reminds us of the importance of tapping into multiple channels.

The Avengers grabbed the attention of fans from the first five Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, and marketers can use the same principle to create and promote content.

An expert roundup, series of interviews, guest post, or PR placement taps into an existing fan base to raise your profile. In a sense, an expert roundup is the “Avengers” of content marketing.

On a strategic level, Marvel didn’t push for the big sale right away. The movies leading up to The Avengers were designed to make money, of course, but they were also designed to make the impact of The Avengers that much larger.

The effect of this brand building compounds; the massive popularity of The Avengers certainly further raised Marvel’s overall brand awareness, leading to increased box office sales for later movies and more revenue from merchandising of all characters.

In other words, nurture your audience before you push for the big sale.

Where does this translate to science and healthcare? Sales cycles in the life sciences are often long; your customers need to trust you and be absolutely convinced that they are going to have a good experience buying from your company.

A five-minute video demonstration isn’t going to sell a multi-thousand-dollar piece of equipment—unless it’s backed by an infallible brand. A prospect that has been nurtured before ever seeing that video is much more likely to buy.

Phase 2: Building the Universe

With their brand more prominent than ever, Marvel knew that the moments after The Avengers had enormous potential. This was the time to capitalize on their groundwork, keep building existing characters, and introduce lesser known characters to other media channels.

On the big screen, each Avenger got another individual movie to further build their characters and capitalize on their popularity.

At the same time, a lesser known hero, Ant-Man, slipped into box offices for $519 million worldwide. Ant-Man is a long way down the list of famous superheroes, but the strength of Marvel’s brand propelled his movie to box office success.

Viewers didn’t need to know who Ant-Man was to be attracted to a Marvel movie.

The strength of the brand propelled Ant-Man forward, and the movie out-grossed the first Captain America movie and rivaled the revenue of the first Iron Man movie.

Outside of theaters, Marvel branched out into television. Beginning with shows like Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, The Inhumans, and Damage Control, Marvel fleshed out the Avengers’ story by highlighting minor characters.

They also expanded to Netflix with another hit hero: Daredevil.

The wild success of Daredevil spawned “The Defenders” series of shows on Netflix, a collection focused on smaller heroes of the MCU. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage have all received strong reviews, and The Punisher and Iron Fist are set to get their own shows as well.

Similar to the build-up around the Avengers, the Netflix heroes will come together in The Defenders, an eight episode show planned for 2017.  

The success of each of these shows drives more and more trust in Marvel’s brand. Yet again, it’s entirely possible that fans have never heard of these minor heroes. It’s enough to know that Marvel produces highly entertaining stories.

Throughout these expansions, Marvel makes it abundantly clear that the universe is the same. Captain America appears briefly in Ant-Man, Nick Fury is in several films, and the captain’s shield makes a cameo in Iron Man 2, before The Avengers was even released.

The Netflix shows reference “the incident” that occurred in the movies, as well as each other. Although they are largely independent, they contain references to each other that set the stage for The Defenders.

By making references to each other, the movies and shows can stand alone while still providing exciting easter eggs for long-term fans. As Nick Cannata-Bowman says on TV CheatSheet:

“The way the MCU functions, it’s not really about any individual character. Sure, each hero gets their own standalone movie, but even those all serve the main thread we see in the Avengers saga.”

Speaking of references, don’t miss the reference to CRISPR in Marvel’s Luke Cage!

Where’s the marketing?

Again, Marvel’s strategy and brand development pay big dividends.

Heroes like Ant-Man, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage would not have been able to carry shows or movies without the support of the overall MCU. At the same time, the success of those shows feeds back into the MCU as a whole. Each triumph only makes it stronger.

DC, in contrast, has hunted individual, disconnected successes. Each movie is forced to stand entirely on its own, without past development of the characters or notable allusions to the future. DC movies have an average Rotten Tomatoes score of just 36, far below Marvel’s average of 81.

DC television shows don’t fare much better. The Flash and Arrow are set in the same universe, but the Flash from the show is different from the Flash that will appear in the movies. Arrow has received criticism for deviating from the original comics too sharply.

Regardless of any success for individual shows, the DC universe is not integrated. Shows and movies do not build on each other to create a cohesive experience and drive business to other media.

Heroes in the Future

The MCU is poised to continue its rampant success, with plenty of blockbuster hits and Netflix binges in the works.

The DC Cinematic Universe is still young, but the decision to immediately shoot for big hits like Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and Justice League may limit their progress. DC will begin individual character films in 2017, and it remains to be seen whether or not they can right the ship.

In the meantime, Marvel is making moves to get back Spiderman; they haven’t retrieved the rights entirely, but an MCU Spiderman movie is coming in 2017. The return of their most popular hero, supported by today’s strongest superhero brand, can only mean Marvel has a strong hold on their market.

Marketing Lessons from Marvel and DC

Build your brand.

A strong brand makes everything your company does easier. It makes small wins possible and big wins bigger.

There are moments when building your brand means moving slightly slower than is strictly possible. Yes, you can speed up the timelines for a product launch, but will the launch be as effective? You can make a last-minute decision to present at a trade show, but if your presentation is subpar, is it worth it?

It’s true: once in a blue moon a company is propelled into the spotlight and seems to become an overnight success. But how often is that the case, and how much work goes unnoticed behind the scenes?

Building your company’s brand probably does not mean making a multi-million-dollar movie for each of the four Avengers (two for Iron Man) before your first major product launch.

But it may mean taking the time to develop relationships with journalists and industry key opinion leaders. It may mean spending a year or more on content development and thought leadership. It may mean investing in the best partners, rather than the least expensive.

It may mean seeing an immediate return-on-investment, but it may not. Trust us, and Marvel: the brand will pay off in the long run.