What Marketers can learn from Marvel’s What If…?

Marvel has finally woken up to the idea that they can use animation as both a creative and (relatively) inexpensive way to further build on their story universe. It’s a strategy that has long been established by DC Comics and, of course, their Disney sibling, Star Wars.

I do have one tiny gripe. American animation has the tendency to fall into the stereotype that animation = for kids. I understand the need for animated streaming properties to be “kid-friendly” but often the attempts at humor and the dilution of more mature themes in What If…? get in the way of fully enjoying the stories.

Animation doesn’t have to be just for kids

Japanese anime has demonstrated for decades that the animation audience is as diverse as the film industry’s audience itself. Anime projects run the full range from science fiction to fantasy to action-driven blood & gore to stories whose screenplays could have comfortably played out as live action drama. (If you’re a fan of Japanese drama anime, Japan Sinks: 2020 is a must-see.)

Marvel must take cues from DC Comics’ animation projects. From Batman the Animated Series to Justice League, through to what Sam Register’s team have done with more recent series like Young Justice, these projects show you can tackle adult situations and still be “safe” enough for TV.

Similarly, I would love to see a “serious” Star Trek series in animation. It would also be a way to bring back beloved cast members and characters to the screen, bridging the gaps between old and new Trek fans.

Catering for multiple audiences

For marketers, the first lesson to take from What If…? is that you need not be limited in your brand outreach to mainstream target audiences. Streaming media offers Marvel a direct channel to its more hard-core fans who represent a minority — albeit a highly passionate one — of box office sales.

Outside of your core campaign (aka “Hero” content), make sure to develop content for niche audiences with more specialist requirements. These are the audiences who are looking for more info through Google, comparing your product to competitors, etc.

For the hardcore audiences, the ones with deep passions for your sector, find the content creators they follow and partner with them. YouTube offers a near infinite number of “rabbit holes” for niche interests through channels with tens of millions of video views you’ve probably never heard of. Research shows that younger audiences especially are far more inclined to believe in endorsements from creators they follow and trust, rather than advertising. For these communities, less is more. Don’t go for reach, go for quality.

Adopt a Transmedia mindset

When Disney bought Star Wars in 2012, they didn’t just buy a movie franchise. They acquired a transmedia story universe that traversed film, television, video games, comic books and even fan films.

Unlike multimedia (telling the same story in different formats), transmedia is the method of building new story arcs, introducing new characters, settings and populating the story universe across different media platforms. Not only does this result in a more “lived in” story world, the approach also offers the audience multiple entry points into your content. For example, someone might have never heard of your movies, but discovered your characters through a video game. (Netflix’s The Witcher would never have been possible if not for CD Projekt Red’s bestselling Witcher video game series, for example, many players of which had never read the original novels.)

The challenge for marketers is to consider how content across media platforms are consistent in message, complementary in scope and offer entry points into other media platforms. Plan for how your content intertwines across YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, your website or even your email newsletter. Your Instagram post should not be just another random piece of content but one of many cookie crumbs that lead to other content. This not only increases the chance of finding a larger audience but also offers that audience the chance to be fully immersed in the content you’ve created.

My passion for content and storytelling has helped me develop marketing strategies that build brands, drive revenue, attract audiences and transform company culture. For over 25 years I’ve led Marketing for brands like Nokia, PayPal, Singtel, Virgin, CNBC, Yahoo! and MTV. Drop me a line and let’s see how I can help your brand develop a more cohesive brand strategy across digital channels.