Branding Lessons from Marvel Studios’ Mythology Marketing

Society is in an era of peak geekdom, wherein the plot twists of “Game of Thrones” dominate water cooler conversations, and 11 years of Marvel Studios superhero titles (“the Infinity Saga”) produce four of the top-grossing films of all time.

This Friday, the Infinity Saga culminates with “Avengers: Endgame,” a three-hour epic tying up narrative arcs for core characters—including OG Avengers Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow— that have spanned the first 22 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While “Endgame” braces for the biggest opening weekend of all time, Marvel’s decade-plus narrative feat is celebrated with tributes, theories and recaps across the media landscape. But for communicators, who often champion PR as a feat of exceptional brand storytelling, Marvel’s first 22 films offer less-obvious lessons about how to let the media help tell your story, and why embracing the nerdy and esoteric can pay off big time for SEO.

The obscure and the strange help tell your story

When Disney acquired Marvel studios in 2009, it also acquired a century’s worth of brilliant intellectual property, much of it pertaining to “B-list” or “C-list” characters whose comics were obscure prior to their starring roles. Consider Ant-Man and The Guardians of the Galaxy—two previously lesser-known comics series that Marvel managed to turn into crucial, multi-billion dollar franchises. Ant-Man and Guardians contribute to Marvel’s overarching narrative from a storytelling standpoint. This requires anyone who wants the complete story to embrace new characters, worlds and perspectives to fully understand what’s going on.

What Marvel  has really accomplished is the branding of mythologies—long progressions of stories that traffic in redemptive and socio-political archetypes (like “Iron Man”‘s subtext about the militarization and weaponization of tech or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”‘s subtext about the potential for a silent fascist coup in the U.S.). This branding is then tied to multiple revenue streams in the form of merchandise, theme parks, literature (we can debate whether or not comics are literature another time) and more.

Branding obscure mythologies creates earned media goldmine

Twenty-two films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe can feel tough to catch up with if you haven’t been following since the beginning. And therein lies the genius of Marvel. It has embraced esoteric intellectual property as part of the big picture. For all of Marvel’s massive spend on paid and owned, much of the hype and theorizing around its stories amounts to earned media.

When a new Marvel film arrives, comic and film sites race to upload a recap of all the comic references and easter eggs contained therein. There are explainers written about the gold incubation pod spied at the end of Guardians Vol. 2 (It’s Adam Warlock’s) and theories put forth about the implications of a tiny city spied in the horizon of the Quantum Realm when Ant-Man goes in during Ant-Man & The Wasp.

Point is, Marvel can withhold context and take a “less is more” approach with educating its audience because it has already identified appropriate distinct and overlapping audience segments for each release. Marvel intuitively understands that leaving breadcrumbs of suggestion or promise is enough for hardcore fans to pick up the slack.

Comic culture was already awash in knowledge supremacy and “cred,”— knowing what storylines come from which series and era, and what writers/artists are responsible for best portraying key characters. By letting bloggers and recappers do the dirty work, Marvel has allowed its stars and creative team to stay moot around plot points and fineries. This creates FOMO by withholding information and letting the earned media hype train build momentum on its own with what is ostensibly service journalism.

SEO loves nerd culture

In addition to press conferences, paid, owned and earned media, Marvel’s decision to work with these obscure mythologies is a brilliant coup of inbound marketing. Each franchise has its own unique mythology, generating a ton of specific keywords that those aforementioned explainers pick up. When we talk about the “Thor” series, for example, we’re also talking about a slew of keywords that mean much less outside of “Thor” (or Norse mythology)—Asgard, Mjölnir, the Bifrost, Odin— all of which amount to great search ranking potential for the bloggers who work within the language of the franchise.

From an SEO perspective, embracing such terms also rewards the nerds who are able to make the deepest dives. Keyword ranking is optimized when sites fulfill a specific search or query, and when searchers are looking for explanations to their questions around the Marvel Cinematic Universe, those terms matter.

Follow Justin: @Joffaloff