By now, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about The Avengers. Actually, it’s been virtually impossible not to hear a lot about it. In the wake of the flop known as John Carter, Disney is pulling out all the stops to market this blockbuster – relying on tried-and-true methods (trailers, posters, etc.) as well as unprecedented ones (an online social game, XD cartoon, etc.).

Much has been written about both The Avengers and John Carter, especially on entertainment sites and magazines. But what do their corresponding marketing campaigns teach the company trying to market a chemical analyzer or Droid-based phone?

A lot, as it turns out.

LESSON ONE: EXPERIENCE MATTERS

Do you know who directed John Carter? Andrew Stanton, of WALL-E and Toy Story fame. Although he didn’t possess a speck of action-film experience, with two Oscars under his belt, I suppose he was a reasonable, calculated risk. Sure, it was a bold move – but his inexperience was not the real mistake.

The entire team behind John Carter was inexperienced. From newly-hired (and as of April 20, 2012 – newly fired) studio chief Richard Ross (a former TV executive) to Sean Bailey (head of production) and MT Carney (marketing chief), not one person had the necessary experience to navigate their jobs.

To add push to shove, two key people were shifted out of the team mid-course – Richard Ross replaced Dick Cook, and Carney was eventually replaced by Ricky Strauss. Peter Sealey, former marketing president at Columbia Pictures, told The LA Times, “The worst thing that can happen to a movie is the marketing team changes midstream… It’s disheartening for the filmmakers, for the talent. They lose belief in the film.”

I’m not saying that everyone on your team needs to have a massive marketing portfolio under their belt – and I have certainly witnessed first-hand the benefits of using a fresh (some would say inexperienced) perspective – but there’s got to be at least a couple of key people on the team that know what they are doing. This will also help keep the marketing campaign from unraveling should you be forced to alter the team.

The bottom line: Make sure you have a couple of experienced people spearheading your team. Even better – have a mix.

LESSON TWO: COHERENT MESSAGING MATTERS

Make sure your marketing messages make sense – with what you’re trying to sell, with what you’re trying to say, with what you want your audience/client to take away, etc. It’s best to keep your messages consistent, if at all possible. If you do decide to change course mid-launch (which, although not ideal, sometimes cannot be avoided as we all attempt to remain adaptable, right?), make sure the change makes enough sense to outweigh the complications of that change. The worst thing you can do is confuse (and thus alienate) your potential customer.

It’s the difference between these two trailers:

The John Carter trailer – although beautifully constructed and somehow intriguing – didn’t explain the story or sell the movie. The movie’s director, Stanton, was given the reigns for marketing and (allegedly) refused to listen to the advice of the marketing team. The New York Times reported that Stanton “insisted, for instance, that a Led Zeppelin song be used in a trailer, rejecting concerns that a decades-old rock tune did not make the material feel current.” And I have to admit: it’s a bizarre choice.

The trailer for The Avengers, on the other hand, leaves no room for debate. It’s straightforward and to the point – full of intrigue, explosions, and superheroes fighting the evil guys (plus a few snarky one-liners). The marketing team for The Avengers seems to know its niche, and they capitalize on it. No, it’s not Oscar-worthy, but that’s not the point. The point is to get the right people in the theatre. And with such a trailer, they are ensuring that their customers will come out in droves to see what they expect to see: a great superhero action movie.

The bottom line: Don’t try to be something you’re not. Market your product in a way that makes sense – both for the product and to the consumer.

LESSON THREE: DOING YOUR RESEARCH MATTERS

In other words: don’t make assumptions – especially about your target audience.

Stanton thought everyone knew John Carter and it needed no explanation – hence the mystique of the first trailer. But he assumed wrong, and that cost him. Had he done the research – or at least listened to those who had – he would have quickly discovered that no one under forty really knows the John Carter character. Since he grew up reading the novels, Stanton believed that John Carter was an iconic character. Now, I personally remember picking up these pulp classics by Edgar Rice Burroughs (“father” of Tarzan) at the store for 79 cents – I get that it’s nostalgic. But Stanton let his nostalgia get in the way of reality – believing that, as Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast pointed out, “audiences would gasp in delight at John Carter’s very appearance in much the same way that a Batman teaser might only need to flash the Bat Signal.”

The bottom line: Do your research, don’t make assumptions, and do not base your entire marketing strategy on personal feelings. After all, in marketing terms, you are only a sampling of one!

LESSON FOUR: STRATEGY MATTERS

So what’s the big deal about doing your research? Once you have the research, you can decide on the best marketing strategy. Not only did the lack of research on John Carter cost them, but Disney could not even decide on a marketing approach for the film. The LA Times aptly observed, “Posters that at one point had been adorned with a mysterious figure under the letters ‘JC’ were replaced by ads that featured a shirtless man fleeing giant white apes and left prospective moviegoers scratching their heads.”

The Avengers team has a clear strategy, and it’s grabbing attention. It started at the Comic-Con International convention in July 2010. The movie’s director, Joss Whedon, and stars showed up to make a splash. And they’ve been splashing ever since. (OK, in fairness to John Carter, The Avengers really started marketing back in 2008 when Samuel L. Jackson, as “Nick Fury,” gave hints that he was recruiting a team in Iron Man. This stirred buzz with existing fans, who took it viral from there, and Disney capitalized on this build-up after buying Marvel in 2009.)

Part of your strategy needs to be knowing when to go full-scale and make a big Avengers-type splash, and knowing when to be stealthy. There’s not an exact science or a formula to it – part of it is research, part of it is luck, and sometimes it’s just a matter of merely working with what you’ve got. But it is a skill and can be honed and applied. Like hitting a baseball, success is not a 100% of the time thing – but a better than the other guy (competitor) thing.

Take The King’s Speech, for example. Since they had budget constraints and the movie was a tighter, art-house, serious movie, there’s no way they could market as loudly as The Avengers. And you know, it probably wouldn’t have been the right approach anyways. It quietly premiered at the London Film Festival, and relied on word-of-mouth marketing. And it worked all the way to the Oscars!

The bottom line: Make sure you have a strategy in place before you start marketing.

  • What other lessons can we learn from the movie industry?
  • What other movies had a notoriously awful marketing campaign or an outstanding one?
  • What else can you learn from looking at an industry other than your own?

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