The buzz around the epic big screen and small screen events this past weekend has reached critical mass, with endless social media memes, discussions, arguments and endless media coverage of Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame. From a purely marketing perspective, it’s an interesting moment in time to observe two different franchises that were very successful at developing products that wildly resonate with huge audiences. Here’s a look at how their success and marketing strategy breaks down:
Looking back over the past decade, Marvel has clearly deployed a very successful brand strategy that has kept their movies and characters top of mind for old fans and new fans alike. How did they do it better than their competitor DC Comics? Marvel developed a very well thought out plan for their brand, starting with singular movies for each of the individual heroes (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) to introduce non-main stream characters to a wider audience. They used these baby steps to build up their brand engagement, and then brought all the characters together in the Avengers series connecting multiple fan bases and their income generating potential.
GOT and HBO blow strategy out of the water with their perfectly executed marketing plans. They owned the customer journey through highly engaging multi-channel marketing and PR campaigns and found innovative ways to include consumers and viewers in the experience between seasons when the show wasn’t even airing. Using hashtag campaigns, profiling fan-generated content on their channels and developing offline experiences leading up to the launch of a season kept the show top of mind, nurtured consumers and leveraged digital media to its fullest potential. In the lead up to many of the seasons, including season 8, HBO used brilliant partner marketing campaigns to extend the reach of their brand to build more buzz.
A huge buzz word in marketing for the last several years has been authenticity, as brands have strived to reflect their true values and connect with consumers that also share those values. One of the most important decisions that both Marvel and HBO made was to be truly authentic to the seriousness of the franchises. For example, comic book fans are passionate aficionados with embedded loyalties from as far back as childhood. They may keep their love of graphic novels on the DL, but they are serious and dedicated when it comes to knowledge of the ‘verse and have strong opinions about their beloved characters.
“The key thing about Marvel is that they treat the content they are producing as premium content, serious enough for the core audience but relatable for any new entrant into the series,” says Evan Frith, Toronto creative director and pop culture aficionado. “Fans of Marvel know the characters aren’t going to break into a song in the middle of a scene. Marvel knows their audience, and respects how passionate about details and characters they are.”
George R. R. Martin and crew have done the same. Although he does admit to some of his own very minor errors in character descriptions between books, in general the series has tried to stay true to the written word as much as possible. As he reveals in this interview on Strombo many years ago, the fans of Westeros know as much or even more than both he and the producers sometimes which they take into account when developing the script.
Going even farther than the show production, the marketing budget for this final season of GOT is rumoured to be $20 million and has included some of the best authentic and creative marketing we will see for a long time. Cosplay is a huge part of both of these franchises, and GOT specifically has enabled a generation of strong women to sit on play thrones dressed as Sansa Stark at their leisure.
One thing that has come through in the all the online chatter and build up to this season of Game of Thrones is how powerful the women characters have become. This is marketing strategy and not just a random plot twist. For many seasons, George R. R. Martin and producers have done what all good marketers do and worked hard at keeping the show relevant. They listened to their audience, they did a landscape assessment and realized a major part of their fan base was women. Using this feedback they developed and nurtured the female GOT characters to reflect that audience’s feedback. The strategy has been successful, since even an outside observer can see that the female leads have prominent marketing positions and some of the most interesting story arcs.
Where Marvel has won in the marketing strategy game is their continual evolution of relevant characters reflecting women and minorities. They teed up Endgame and scored like a perfect game of pool by putting a female Captain Marvel on the big screen and launching the incredibly successful Black Panther movie. Additionally, what Marvel has tapped into is something even bigger than character development and that’s the cultural and political landscape around the globe. This isn’t a political piece, so I’ll just leave it at that. John Battison from the Collegiate Times explains it very succinctly: “Against all odds, a small group of superheroes once on the fringes of pop-culture have beat out the marketing machines around Superman and Batman and been at the centre of the movie universe for over a decade.”
And The Winner Is
According to a Google trends analysis between 2011 and today, Game of Thrones is the clear winner based on search volume alone. There are several explanations for this, one potentially being that Game of Thrones initially had a much bigger brand awareness hurdle than Avengers. Marvel has been nurturing the Avengers brand for over half a century so slightly less ‘curiosity’ or discovery around the brand. Game of Thrones was a slow burn but as you can see from below, the popularity increased significantly in 2017/2018.
What all of this analysis reveals is that there’s truly no winner in this marketing battle. Both franchises have done an incredible job at elevating their brands and using an integrated strategy to develop loyalty. It will be interesting to watch how HBO rebounds from the pinnacle of Season 8 and whether it will be able to shift audiences to a spin-off series without jumping the shark. Marvel has plans for the Avengers mapped out until 2028 so no need to worry, this won’t be the last clash of battling super heroes.
Next week on The B!G IDEA Agency’s Idea Generator: When did we stop calling journalists? Three major reasons why face-to-face contact is more important than ever in public relations.