For many of us, it is hard to imagine a time when superhero movies did not dominate the popular culture. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel movies and the cinematic universe have become an entertainment juggernaut and their movies rank highly amongst the highest grossing movies of all time. They have a cross-cultural appeal, which extends beyond the traditional audience of comic book readers.
This, however, has not always been the case. In fact, there was a time when Marvel Studios was in such dire straits that it sold the rights of many of its big characters to Sony, who proceeded to turn X-Men into a successful movie franchise in its own right.
But this changed and it changed because in 2008, around the same time as Iron Mans’s release, Marvel invested heavily in viral marketing with the release of a giant crossover event called Secret Invasion which revolved around the idea that aliens called Skrulls have infiltrated the ranks of Marvel superheroes.
Traditionally, comic books have been a very niche market, but their previous crossover event, Civil War, which has since been turned into a film, garnered a lot of mainstream press. Aiming to replicate this success, the pitched their traditionally niche product to mainstream media outlets such as Entertainment Weekly. But they also made use of the main social media outlets of the time in an attempt to widen the audience they were able to reach.
By creating a fake profile of a young girl on Myspace, Marvel posted stories on her blog. They started out as standard teenage blog content but slowly they started to describe the odd behavior of her brother who in the end, turned out to be an alien impostor. By creating this campaign, they were able to generate interest in their product from people who did not buy comic books. They also found that more women were interested, which is exciting because the female market is one that comic books often struggle to appeal to.
On top of their social media campaigning, they invested in consumer-driven content. They realised that in order to go viral, world-of-mouth and consumer-to-consumer content creation is important for generating engagement and interest. They handed out Skrull masks and encouraged their customers to take pictures wearing them. When people posted selfies online, they created content which other people could engage with.
Consumer-created content is often more effective in generating engagement and by generating lots of engagement, the campaign was able to go viral and appeal to a wider audience.
This strategy, to cross over into popular culture, was part of the Marvel marketing strategy and in doing so the company dramatically transformed its fortunes.