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Heroes For Hire: How Brand Marketing Works In The Marvel Universe

Marvel has restructured its global partnerships division, and why that’s good news for both brands and fans.

Heroes For Hire: How Brand Marketing Works In The Marvel Universe

It would be tough to argue against Marvel being one of the strongest, most recognized brand names in the world. And with that strength, comes . . . responsibility? Sure, but also requests from other brands to partner up so they too can warm themselves on your white hot brand halo. Right, Geico?

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OK, movie tie-ins are no surprise, but as native advertising has become a common part of seemingly any and every content venture, it also lives under the same roof that Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, and so many more superheros live. It’s become such a big part of Marvel’s business, that over the last year, the company has completely restructured how it works with brands. Whereas before, movie and TV marketing opportunities lived over here, while publishing’s Marvel Custom Solutions was over there, now all live under the same roof of one division in Global Partnerships. It’s like Avengers tower, but instead of saving the world, they work with brands on making ads that don’t suck.

Mindy Hamilton, Marvel Entertainment’s senior vice-president of global partnerships Mindy Hamilton says the move reflects how Marvel overall has evolved over the last few years.

“If you’re coming in, as a brand, you should not just come in around a big film release, there are many more ways to engage with our fanbase,” she says. “As we head more towards a lifestyle brand, how do we continue to best serve this ever-growing fanbase? And how do we help brands tap into that as well? So over the last nine months we’ve consolidated and reorganized the division to be able to work with any property or platform.”

Come for the Guardians of the Galaxy, stay for a custom comic, or exclusive San Diego Comic-Con event. “Now that we’ve consolidated the teams, the brands can see more clearly that they can work with us on an evergreen basis, making us a full service brand marketing partner,” says Hamilton. “The re-organization was to help us better work with brands, and at the end of the day, grow that side of the business. Over the next six to nine months, fans are going to see an aggressive increase in content, variety, and quality coming from Marvel digital.”

That means anything from new long-form content and series on Marvel.com, to more short-form stuff across social like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. If you want a peek into the future, to what Hamilton says the brand will be doing more of with marketers, look no further than Tony Stark’s fireplace.

Last year, Marvel worked with Coca-Cola on its Super Bowl ad featuring the Hulk and Ant-Man. It got a fans thumbs-up, so Coke came back asking what they could do for the holidays. The result was a series of videos, some more than an hour long, that let fans virtually warm themselves on the yule log in a variety of fun locales, including Stark’s apartment, Thor’s place, the Guardians spaceship, and more. “That was a surprise and delight situation, very different from what people might expect in a brand collaboration,” says Hamilton.

Another is for Ford, the uh, “official” vehicle for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only did this give fans a chance to be drawn by a Marvel artists into a Marvel scene, time-lapsed videos of Marvel work being done, and an app to custom create your own Guardians character from 350 options, then share it with your friends, the sponsorship alone even fuelled plot speculation on the new film. If there’s a car sponsor, they have to be coming to earth, right?

Now, people can be a tad skeptical when it comes to product integration or native advertising (or as John Oliver calls it, “repurposed bovine waste“), and comic book fans are a breed more sensitive than most when it comes to messing with their favorite characters and stories. Just ask Zack Snyder. But Hamilton says Marvel’s entire business hinges on its ability to safeguard those characters and stories.

“Brands understand that, first because we make sure they do, but they know the last thing they want to do is upset such a large, deep pool of fans,” says Hamilton. “We know our fans, we’ve been doing this a long time, so brands can trust us to tell their story in the best possible light. And if we mess up, we’ll pivot and correct it.”

Marvel’s global partnerships team has also taken to integrating fan expectation and behavior into its marketing projects. Audi was a partner on Captain America: Civil War, and created a pretty cool ad around it. Marvel convinced the brand to add a special extended scene, much like the end credits scenes Marvel fans have grown to know and love over the last decade.

As the highly anticipated Phase Three of Marvel’s cinematic universe unfolds over the next couple of years, Hamilton and her team will face their biggest challenge yet in that balancing act between expanding their business and the integrity of its characters and stories that fans are so passionate about in the first place.

“I always tell brands when they’re working with us, that we have a huge, highly engaged fanbase, and they will spend as much time as possible with our brand,” says Hamilton. “As much content we can produce, they will consume it. And we’ve found that the brand integrations have been embraced as an extension as opposed to a separate piece of advertising. Fans will be happy to consume it because it’s one more piece of information about the characters and stories they love, and they’re not afraid to share it. But that integrity is something we need to be vigilant about, probably more so than most.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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