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Make Mine Marvel: Lessons from The MCU Marketing Strategy

What’s in this article:

  • How Marvel Studios handled the delayed launch of Phase Four and three lessons marketers can learn from it

For over a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominated movie theaters. From 2008’s Iron Man to Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019, Marvel Studios and parent company Disney (and Sony, in Spidey’s case) racked up billions of dollars, broke box office records, and made an indelible impact on the pop culture conversation. Even as Phase Three of the MCU wrapped up, Marvel was poised to continue its winning run of comic-inspired movies, starting with the planned 2020 release of Black Widow and continuing with a number of tie-in TV shows set to air on Disney+.

And then 2020 happened.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Widow was temporarily shelved. No one wanted to leave their homes, let alone go to movie theaters. This had implications for the rest of the Phase Four roster, which also needed to be pushed back. For the first time in over a decade, audiences went a full year without a Marvel movie. But even after losing that momentum, the MCU came back strong in 2021 and managed to dominate the virtual water cooler conversation. Here’s how Marvel Studios handled the delayed launch of Phase Four and what marketers can learn from it.

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Lesson 1: Flexibility is key

The delay of Phase Four could have been a momentum-killer for Marvel Studios, and there was probably temptation to rush Black Widow and its subsequent films to theaters as soon as possible. Instead, Marvel delayed the Phase Four film slate, took a year off, and waited to come back strong in 2021.

A couple of weeks into the new year, while the world was still essentially in lockdown, WandaVision premiered on Disney+. The limited series was met with strong reviews, positive fan reactions, and an incredible 23 Emmy Award nominations. Since then, the MCU hasn’t missed: WandaVision was followed by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and the long-awaited release of Black Widow, with even more MCU content planned for the second half of the year. Because of this flexibility, Marvel Studios has proven that it wasn’t gone in 2020 — it was lying in wait.

Lesson 2: Timing is everything

When a new season of an original series debuts on Netflix, all episodes become available for streaming at the same time. This has come to be the expectation in the modern age of media: all episodes, available for your perusal whenever you’re ready. The only problem with this strategy is that the series tends to dominate virtual water cooler discussions for a few days after its release, and then everyone moves on to the next thing.

Marvel and Disney took a different approach: the Disney+ shows that have made up the bulk of Phase Four so far were released one episode at a time, week after week. While this made for some impatient fans, it also ensured that the MCU shows were getting coverage for their entire runs. Each episode was analyzed, discussed, and scanned for Easter Eggs. When the buzz died down from one episode, another one was there to get the conversation started again. Even the breaks between different TV shows are well-timed, ensuring that the MCU is never far from fans’ minds.

Lesson 3: FOMO is powerful

The impeccable timing of Marvel’s Phase Drops has a secondary effect: FOMO, or fear of missing out. This is an effective technique that marketers have long been aware of, and Marvel Studios wields it particularly well. When social media, blogs, news sites, and even awards shows are wall-to-wall MCU coverage, those who aren’t watching often feel left out. On top of that, the fear of spoilers — missing out on big reveals and surprising twists — ensures that fans are watching as soon as possible.

With these simple strategies, Marvel Studios has heralded the return of appointment TV. In a time when more movies and TV shows are readily available to watch than ever before, MCU fans are tuning in on a designated day and boosting Marvel’s presence with organic marketing: social media chatter, Easter egg videos, blog recaps, and more.

Modern marketers should keep these tenets in mind for their own campaigns: flexibility, timing, and FOMO are ideal ways to drive awareness and engagement. These three lessons can also help strengthen relationships with your existing customers and fans.

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