Superman. Batman. Iron Man. Of the three, the DC characters have historically been far more recognisable.

There’s no denying that Marvel comics has had a stellar recent run at the movies, but step back to 2005 and you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone outside the bubble of comic-book fandom who knew or cared about Tony Stark’s armoured alter-ego.

So how has Marvel Entertainment managed to propel its lesser-known characters to success, while the far more recognisable properties owned by rival DC Comics have often languished in development hell?

It’s all about brand continuity…

Building worlds with content

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Brand identity has to be baked in to everything you produce. All your comms, all your language. Whether it’s in email, tweets, DMs or a $180M+ blockbuster. brand identity should be about world building.

It’s about more than just showing your ‘company values’, it’s about creating a persona, a face that users can relate to, and small discrepancies can undermine your hard work.

While Marvel has recognisable characters, the ones popping up on the big screen were initially only loosely related to those appearing in print.

Sure Thor is still Thor, but the guy in the comic books comes with five decades of back story and supporting characters, not something easily distilled into a two-hour film, and likely to put off anyone picking up a magazine off the back of the film.

As with any new product, it needs a sense of continuity, and should support older products. Likewise, your existing lines and messaging should return the favour: the nature of branding needs to be circular

A strategic approach to branding

Marvel’s approach to this has been at a strategic level, aligning the architecture of existing lines so as not to disrupt ‘user experience’. As a case in point, let’s take a look at the ‘movie Avengers’ boss: Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D.

Here’s how Nick looks in the recent film series, played by the ever-compelling Samuel L. Jackson: 

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Now, here’s Nick in the comic books:

 

And here’s how he looked in those same comic books until a couple of years ago: 

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So how (and why) does someone who previously resembled the bastard offspring of James Bond and David Hasselhoff suddenly undergo a radical change of look, race and possibly character? 

Marvel has played a long game in its approach to the world of film. As far back as the late 90s, it realised that one of its biggest strengths – the depth and continuity of the world its properties inhabit  -was also a weakness, turning new readers away.

This trend had seen the average age of their market rise tremendously. Few children were interested in seeing Spider-Man resolve issues with his marriage or worry about his mortgage. 

In response, the company launched its ‘Ultimate’ line of publications, taking familiar characters and returning them to their roots. Spider-Man was 15 years old again, while The Avengers became ‘The Ultimates’, a series given a widescreen blockbuster revamp by writer and artist team Mark Millar (also responsible for Kick Ass) and Brian Hitch.

Taking an action-movie approach, Marvel ramped up the fun (and explosions). Captain America became a jingoistic super soldier, Iron Man was an arrogant playboy in (slightly) more realistic armour, and Hawkeye and Black Widow moved from support characters to deadly special ops superspies, and heading this up? Nick Fury, with a redesign based on… Samuel L. Jackson. 

Here’s an astoundingly meta scene from one of the early issues: 

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‘The Ultimates’ paved the way for Marvel’s movie outings, which toned down the violence a touch and added in a few dashes from older stories, creating a new architecture and building a more cohesive filmic world than we’ve seen before across separate film properties (For a deeper look at how this was accomplished, check out this excellent interview with Marvel’s Kevin Feige)

In the core comic books, Nick is of course, a super-spy, so it makes in-world sense that he might spend some time in an incredibly realistic disguise (remember, we’re talking about a world where a man with a tuning fork stuck to his head regularly turns up and threatens to destroy the Earth, so realistic prosthetics are hardly a stretch of the imagination), and more importantly, anyone who has seen a huge movie and decides to read more isn’t left scratching their head about why Fury is a middle-aged white dude and not Sam Jackson. 

Over at DC meanwhile, Batman may well be the most marketable superhero in the world, but despite the success of both The Dark Knight series and Man of Steel, DC has continuously failed to bring characters like Wonder Woman and The Flash to the screen, hedging its bets with a Superman/Batman film, rather than betting on its heavy-hitting Justice League to pull in viewers.

The reason behind this is fairly simple. At DC, continuity has only ever been enforced at a relatively high level.

Batman should probably be Bruce Wayne, he should usually have a Batmobile, but just because he’s solving a crime in India doesn’t mean he can’t also be battling The Joker in Gotham in a different comic, even if they technically take place at the same time.

Marvel, meanwhile, has always taken the opposite route, even going so far as to have a senior member of staff keep an eye on all this. If the Fantastic Four are off adventuring in the future, they can’t be in the East Village at the same time, so whoever is writing Spider-Man needs to find a different character to cameo this week.

This approach means that however and wherever you approach one of the properties, there’s no disruption for the customer.

It’s the ultimate multichannel strategy, allowing a smooth user journey, while also enabling Marvel to up the customer recognition of lesser properties.

Just check out the pre-buzz for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, a group previously inhabiting the most obscure corner of the Marvel U possible, but currently appearing in a major new title after two years of slow build-up and crossover appearances.

Mentioning them also gives me a chance to post this Rocket Raccoon gif: 

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Content should reflect long-term goals

With actual characters this is easier, but it’s an approach that can pay dividends for any brand, and any product.

One of our own historical struggles has been that many users are unfamiliar with the full range of services and products we have available, so when there’s no elevator pitch it makes sense to cross-sell by cross-referencing, with content that refers to blog posts and training feedback, while events are built around data usage and community discussions, and everything revolves around research. 

When it comes to content marketing, many businesses are still guilty of producing a piece of content with a single goal in mind (Sign up here to get our free white paper), but this type of content fails to address the big-picture, long-term stuff.

All content should have a strategic element, a link to other campaigns and business goals, whether they are occuring now or in five year’s time.

It fails to show why the customer should be interested in an ongoing relationship with your business.  

Marvel is a master of content marketing, be it in print or at the movies, and despite an obvious willingness to experiment with technology –see the innovative use of AR and approach to digital publishing models for evidence – it is never at the expense of the brand, because everything they do is about creating a unified brand experience. 

Excelsior! (Sorry, I’ve always wanted to finish a blog post off that way).

 All images copyright Marvel Entertainment, LLC