The rejuvenation of Marvel is a story with the excitement and drama of one its superhero movies, which include Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America. Back in the 90's the company was on the brink of bankruptcy, with a share price falling vertiginously, from $35.75 in 1993 to just $2.38 three years later. Fast forward to 2015 and Marvel Studios is set to become the world's biggest film franchise. Avengers: Age of Ultron, the 11th Marvel movie, is forecast to become the franchise's third billion-dollar movie, pushing it ahead of the $7.7bn made by the eight Potter films, according to this BBC article.
Back in the 90's Marvel was a comic book company. But sales dropped 70% as comic book sales declined. The first step in the rejuvenation was to re-define the market from comic books to "super-hero entertainment". Marvel set about monetising the value of its characters through movies.
2. Re-focus on the core product
Early attempts to licence Marvel movies in the 1990s were unsuccessful and the company was frustrated by a a lack of control over product quality. "When you get into business with a big studio, they are developing a hundred or 500 projects; you get totally lost," said Avi Arad, President of Mavel's film division. Marvel decided create the core movie product themselves, commissioning scripts, hiring directors and negotiating with stars. Then, the whole package was sold to a major studio for shooting and distribution. So, Fox bought the X-Men, Sony Spider-Man and New Line the Blade trilogy.
However, Marvel only got a small profit share; Spider-Man 1 and 2 made $3 billion but Marvel got only $62 million, according to this this article on Slate, via the BBC. The company's re-invention really picked up pace when it became a movie studio in its own right. Arad and COO David Maisel secured funding for an independent studio, making films based on second-tier characters the company hadn't already licensed elsewhere, starting with Iron Man.
Each of the Marvel superheros is a great example of a distinctive brand property, whether it be the green of The Hulk, the high-tech metal suit of Iron Man or the stars and stripes shield of Captain America. But what is really smart about Marvel is the way these properties are built individually and then brought together in The Avengers movies. "This can take disparate franchises and make them part of the same", says Joss Whedon, director of the two Avengers films. "All of the characters bring a unique energy and when you put them together you get is humour and conflict"
Another point of distinctiveness that is consistent across the Marvel movies is the tonality. Character and comedy are given the same weight as visual spectacle, in contrast to the much more serious super heros of DC Comics: Batman and Superman.
4. Have a long term narrative and "chapter plan"
It seems that Marvel uses a similar approach to the one we use in creating "Turbo Marketing Plans", with an over-arching narrative and a series of linked "chapters". The Marvel movies are "planned until 2020. Each inter-cuts with the other, with a narrative arc plotted by a 'brain trust' of Marvel producers," according to the BBC article.
As Robert Downey Jr., who plays Iron Man, says about this long-term plan, "It's kind of like kicking off a concert but you have no idea they want to turn it into Coachella (The hip US music festival). I'm humbled by the kind of folks that can have a masterplan like that."
5. The power of fresh consistency
Zooming in on the Iron Man franchise shows the power of fresh consistency. Look below at the $ box office for Iron Man 1, 2 and 3. By keeping the same set of core characters and properties, but refreshing the plot and supporting characters, Marvel has grown box office revenue with each movie. This is another example of how consumers don't get bored with a brand property as long as it is smartly refreshed over time.
In conclusion, Marvel Studios is an amazing example of brand rejuvenation, creating, amplifying and constantly refreshing distinctive properties, all guided by an over-arching narrative for long term consistency.