How to Build a Universe

22 intertwined movies. Dozens of recurring characters. A single vibrant, colorful universe filled with awe-inspiring heroics and wisecracking personalities. As Avengers: Endgame looks ready to break all kinds of box office records, it’s worth taking another look at how we got here – and what lessons can be learned by Marvel’s unparalleled run of success.

Understand your audience

You can’t be everything to everybody. Every business needs to choose its identity carefully, and base its products on what the market needs and wants. Marvel doesn’t aspire to be epic literature, because it doesn’t need to: It sits safely and happily in its own niche of exceptional popcorn entertainment, where it dominates all challengers.

DC Comics has learned this lesson belatedly (see sidebar), putting together an improved slate of films after its earlier misfires. Its recent wins come as a welcome course correction, using Marvel’s success as a model for its own path forward. While it’s never a bad idea to learn from the master, DC will sooner or later need to blaze a new and original trail to truly differentiate itself. Copying from others always leaves you a step behind, because you can only do today what your competitor has already done yesterday.

Pictured: Marvel and DC. We all know which is which.

Reward your loyal fans

One of the main appeals of Avengers: Endgame is that it represents a culmination of all that has come before. In many other action movie franchises, the hero wins, the villain loses, and – no matter how many sequels are churned out – nothing ever really changes, as a new villain will surely rise to imperil the world again tomorrow.

By weaving together an internally consistent universe where events have consequences, Marvel’s approach enables a type of storytelling that has a cumulative impact. Each movie in the series adds texture and layers to the comic book setting. Plot and character arcs span several movies, while tension between characters can build over time before finally coming to a head.

The original Avengers movie, released in 2012, pushed the cinematic envelope by putting six heroic characters onscreen together. Its sequels have upped the ante considerably, giving fans plenty of variety to enjoy. The more Marvel movies you have seen, the more you can appreciate each character’s role in the upcoming epic.

For years, cultural observers have remarked that television has entered a new golden age, attracting top talent for high quality projects. This resurgence was fueled by the realization that characters could become far more nuanced, and stories more complex, given dozens of hours of storytelling time. Marvel’s innovation has been to take this larger canvas, and import it over to cinema, where entire storylines had traditionally been contained within a single film. Speaking of which …

Tell a great story

At bottom, movies are all about storytelling. Stories are the glue that holds everything else together, and the reason why Marvel’s universe is the one that audiences keep going back to again and again. We’ve reviewed the ingredients of a good story elsewhere, but it is worth pointing out the significance of Marvel’s achievement.

The studio has been able to keep building on its successes because its original blueprint was solid and likeable. Beginning with a standard superhero movie eleven years ago, the scope of Marvel’s stories has slowly grown to embrace intergalactic travel, mystical powers, quantum realms, and probably multiverses – all accepted and embraced by a mainstream audience that follows every twist and turn.

No other brand or property had ever done this before. Sequels are typically ‘bigger’ than their predecessors, but the difference usually comes in the form of larger explosions, and a rotating cast of one-off love interests who disappear when the next movie comes out. By making the effort to incorporate an expanding cast of real characters with original backstories and personalities, Marvel lets audiences become more invested in the human side of the spectacle – which is where, at bottom, all good stories should take us.

For any “new” brand to successfully launch so many diverse products, in such a short time frame, is an amazing achievement. Marvel’s triumph here speaks to the brand loyalty that the studio has earned from audiences, by taking itself seriously as a storyteller and crafting each film with care.

Marvel’s final two Avengers movies bring all of its products and characters together into one seamless, on-brand presentation. This is no small feat when considering the difficulty of big-budget moviemaking, as well as the fact that the studio’s triumphant run has come on the grandest of stages. Marvel’s decision to wrap up its major storylines in the new film is also unique, and takes us to the next key lesson from this string of successes.

Differentiate yourself

While other franchises keep producing sequel after sequel until they no longer become profitable (at which point they ‘reboot’ and do it all over again), Marvel recognizes that every story needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. Endgame closes the book on a massive 22-film epic, borrowing yet another trick that TV shows have used to their advantage for decades (the ‘series finale’).

With such a clearly defined finish line, an element of suspense is added because main characters are no longer ‘safe’. Not all endings will be happy, and not everyone will come back to fight another day. As audiences, we have spent so long getting to know this universe, that we simply have to know how things turn out for each of our favorite heroes.

In order to inspire this kind of loyalty, every business needs to learn how to stand out on its own merits. Marvel’s key to success has been its focus on high-quality storytelling, brought to life with fully fleshed-out characters that are given ample space to develop. As a model for on-brand communication, Marvel’s example is hard to beat.

Marvel first tapped into the popular consciousness at a time when new social media platforms allowed the world to come together in real time. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms now occupying a central role in global culture, the rewards are even greater for companies that can capture the imagination of a wide audience.

15 years ago, nobody ever gave Marvel much thought. The brand now sits atop its industry by building a richly detailed universe that we want to keep coming back to, and populating it with characters we’d love to meet in real life.

While every business needs to tell a good story in order to succeed, Marvel is actually in the business of telling good stories. The rules, however, are the same in both cases: Understand your audience, reward your loyal fans, tell a great story, and differentiate yourself. Whichever brands will sit atop their respective industries in the next 15 years, of one thing you may be sure: Their marketing and branding efforts will excel at following that simple formula for public communication.

If you’d like to make your business stand out from the crowd, Lexicon can help. We may not be able to eliminate half of your competitors with one snap of the fingers, but our consistently solid on-brand content will allow you to connect meaningfully with your target audience, helping inspire a relationship that strengthens over time. To find out more about our Digital PR and Storytelling capabilities, contact Lexicon today.

SIDEBAR: The end of the Zack Snyder era at DC

When things are going well for you, it is easy to be likeable and generous. The mark of maturity is the ability to maintain a positive course even when events don’t go your way.

Zack Snyder, director of Batman v Superman and other DC-universe movies, is evidently tired of receiving public criticism about his reinvention of these two titular characters. He recently had this to say in response to DC fans who complained that the Batman character wasn’t supposed to go around killing people:

Someone says to me like, ‘Oh! Batman killed a guy!’ I’m like, ‘Fuck, really?’ I’m like, ‘Wake the fuck up!’ … It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t lie to America. My heroes didn’t embezzle money. My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ I’m like, ‘That’s cool, but you’re living in a fucking dream world.’

This abrasive dismissal of popular opinion can – in very rare cases – be justified. Throughout history, many great advances in art, science, philosophy, and government have been the product of a talented visionary who had the confidence to stubbornly stick to their ideas, even in the face of overwhelming opposition.

But the entire purpose of a movie is to connect with audiences, and a failure to achieve that goal ought to cause its creator to engage in some serious, critical self-reflection. The lack of humility displayed by Mr. Snyder mirrors a similarly tone-deaf approach to the characters in his recent DC films.

Besides, with Mr. Snyder’s comments now public, audiences can see their feelings openly disparaged by a major public figure in the DC universe. Needless to say, such a spectacle does not encourage brand loyalty or help to win back old fans. In marketing, as in life, those who point fingers at everyone else in order to escape blame will sooner or later find that this strategy comes across as less than endearing.

Mr. Snyder’s own brand is likely to suffer, too, in the wake of these comments. He has already been taken away from his director role at DC, but what brand would now want him as their representative? If put in charge of the McDonald’s or Disney creative team, would Snyder have Ronald McDonald embezzling money? Would Mickey Mouse suddenly lose his temper and begin ‘committing atrocities’?

Brands are not static. They can and should be reinvented on occasion, to keep up with the times or to meet a changing demographic. But doing so requires a keen sense of the times, and a deep connection with the demographic in question. Beware the ship’s captain who ignores feedback from those around him, and steers without a compass.

Lexicon is a full-service digital marketing agency in Bangkok, Thailand. We specialize in corporate storytelling and produce all of our content in-house, including branding,  copywritingvideo production and graphic design. We bring all of our services together and use Digital PR and social media marketing storytelling to connect our clients with the ideal target audience.

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