The rise of a cinematic universe began with a rebranding on personal professional levels, and brought a business from the brink of bankruptcy to a billion dollar marketing empire.
It's a good year to be a fan of superheroes. The marketing value of comic-based films is unquestionable. In 11 days (at the time of writing this article) Avengers:Infinity Wars has become the fastest film release to reach $1 billion worldwide. Only a decade ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was conceived from a film that began as a gamble on so many levels, and it all began with Ironman. Its success story is one of risk, rebirth, and rebranding, now celebrating its tenth anniversary.
As many A/E/C firms know, rebranding is no easy process. Companies will spend thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and hire outside resources to complete the process, and even after all of the effort, the process is never really complete. While numerous resources exist, they could all learn a thing or two about rebranding from Tony Stark.
Tony Stark. Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. The man who has everything, and yet no one. A prodigy who rose to power on the name of his father, Howard Stark, Tony makes a living selling weapons of mass destruction. When returning from a weapons demonstration for his military clients in Iraq, he is nearly killed by one of his own bombs. After being taken hostage by a terrorist unit he is saved by another hostage, a doctor named Yensin, who saves his life from the shrapnel still stuck in his chest. The terrorist unit holding them both hostage demands he make them a missile of their own. Tony has other plans.
From scraps of weapons he creates a suit of armor capable of fighting his way out of the camp, based on a power source that fuels the arc reactor mechanism keeping him alive. After his escape, and making his way back to civilization, Tony re-evaluates the course of his career, his company, and his life. He quits making weapons and focuses on other realms of technology, including the arc reactor, which doesn't sit so well with his business partner Obediah Stane. He continues to perfect the suit that he used to escape, transforming it into flight suit of unprecedented proportions; which allows him to become Ironman. With this new power, he sets out to make the wrong things right.
With the help of his assistant Pepper Potts, Tony uncovers the treachery of his business partner Stane, who continues to deal weapons under his company name, and in fact, organized his kidnapping. Realizing that war and business are one and the same, he needs to stop Stane from turning his technology into a monstrosity and selling it to the highest bidder. After succeeding in defeating Stane, and deciding on the kind of business leader and man he wants to be, he officially announces to the world that he is Ironman.
The rebranding lessons may be buried beneath a classic story with cool tech, but there are more here than you may realize. The story behind the making of the film has just as much to teach us about rebranding as well. It is important to firstly remember the deeper lesson of branding, and maybe the most important. A brand is more than what your logo or letterhead looks like. It is more than the visual identifiers of your company. What you do and what you contribute as part of the company on a daily basis also contributes to the company's brand. It is the reason that so many companies give to charity, volunteer locally, offer scholarships or promote themselves in other social and philanthropic ways. Branding is more than talking the talk, it is also walking the walk.
First, there is the transformation and reformation of Tony Stark himself. At the beginning of the film, he makes no secret of what he is. He knows what he does, and what he sells, and it's good enough for him. He even finds ways to justify selling weapons for a living, telling one reporter "Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we've saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intelli-crops? All those breakthroughs, military funding, honey." After his near death experience, and upon returning from a war-torn Middle East, he immediately stops production of all weapons and reassesses what he could be doing with the gift of genius and technology that he possesses. He is essentially re-branding what he does as a professional.
Many don't realize that a career change involves a brand evaluation and redesign at a personal/professional level. Over many years, I have changed careers at least three times, and every time I had to find a different but relevant spin for writing my resume and selling my skills. That in of itself is a rebranding, and involves the same process as a company would use, albeit on a smaller scale. Stark is not necessarily changing careers, but he is shifting focus, and with that comes with a shift in how others perceive you as well. One clue that may go unnoticed is his insistence on having a mob of reporters sit on the floor with him to talk at a more intimate and personal level. He is telling the world that he is a different man, and undertaking the challenge of showing it.
Second, there is Stark Industries. As the head of his company, a legacy started by his father Howard Stark, he is the catalyst for what direction they take as a business. Part of the conflict that drives the story in this film is the resistance he gets from the board of directors (orchestrated, of course, by Stane) in going a new direction and ceasing any and all weapons-related production; despite it being the cornerstone of their business since World War II. While it is not uncommon for companies to completely change directions to stay alive (remember that Mitsubishi used to make warplanes), this often constitutes a total rebranding effort to explain to consumers and clients the purpose and goals of the change in direction. Companies that fail to effectively rebrand when this happens often fail to survive.
IBM was faced with this challenge in 1981 after releasing the personal computer at an affordable value backed by an IBM trained support infrastructure. IBM even went so far as to humanize the tech with a series of advertisements using Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" Character from his film "Modern Times" to create a parallel between the theme of the film and the message of the advertisement. (Ironically, Ironman star Robert Downey Jr. received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin). In the case of Tony Stark and Stark Industries, he realizes that he and his business are intrinsically linked. He mentions to Stane at one point "That is my name on the side of the building" and where that may not have mattered before his life-threatening incident, after considering his legacy with Yensin's help, it sure matters to him upon his return. In his address to reporters, he states "I never got to say goodbye to my father. There's questions I would've asked him. I would've asked him how he felt about what his company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch of man we remember from the newsreels. I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability." Suddenly, his name, and his family's name, means something. That is his impetus to rebrand.
Third, if Tony Stark as a man and Stark Industries as a company, although fictional, are one and the same, then the real-world parallel between Robert Downey Jr. and Marvel Studios is uncanny to say the least. Both the man and the company have undergone the same "phoenix rising from the ashes" journey. Robert Downey Jr. has made no attempts to hide his sordid past, drug addiction, arrests and incarcerations, but has explained their profound effect on his career and personal life. The nineties were a trying time for Robert Downey Jr., and if anyone has mastered the career change, it's him. Jon Favreau, director of Ironman, has gone so far to explain that Robert Downey Jr.'s having to face his demons in public scrutiny was part of the reason he wanted him for the role. According to Favreau, "The best and worst moments of Robert's life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That's Tony Stark." Since his success in this film, his bankability has skyrocketed. Where he once couldn't find a job without a production company taking out an insurance bond on him, he is now one of the highest paid actors in the MCU. He has not only re-branded himself as a family man, but as a film and franchise anchor. This, however, did not come without a lot of uncomfortable interviews, but he has stuck to his guns and put his words into action. His transparency and honesty, as well as his dedication, has made all of the marketing difference for this California Hall of Famer.
Lastly, there is Marvel itself. Marvel in the 90s to a kid like me meant cereal at 10am and X-Men and Spiderman, every Saturday, like clockwork. When I heard that Marvel was on the verge of bankruptcy in the mid nineties, I was scared since I couldn't fathom a world where Marvel didn't exist anymore. Their rescue came along in the form of some mutants in black jumpsuits. Eight years later, Marvel Entertainment released Ironman as an independent film studio. The risk to make it a success included the heavy gamble of using the rights to its characters as collateral for a seven year deal. This was a last-ditch effort to recreate a secure future for Marvel, since comic book sales weren't exactly what they used to be in the 70s and 80s.
The effort was a success, Ironman grossed over a half-billion dollars globally, and caught the attention of Disney, who purchased the newly formed entertainment company in December of 2009. Where Disney truly succeeded, from a fan's perspective, was in respecting the property and its audience, and maintaining Marvel's creative control of the universe that they had built over 6 decades. The success of their rebranding was the lack of it. The lesson that emerges from this decision is that re-branding doesn't always mean a new look or logo. The classic adage stands that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Many consultants will tell you how to rebrand, but they may not always tell you why. Some reference "staleness" which is not without its truth. To me, rebranding is a logical effect of change, and companies, like people, change often. If your firm adds a new market sector, enters a new region, or stops to re-evaluate what they are doing as a business and why they are doing it (something that should happen often) then a brand refresh may be necessary. However, the more important takeaway from Tony Stark, Stark Industries, Robert Downey Jr. and Marvel Entertainment is that brand maintenance means action, and doing what you promise to deliver. Tony Stark is Ironman (and Robert Downey Jr. is truly Tony Stark, history would have it no other way), and when he comes back a changed person, he acts on that decision. Stark Industries follows suit because of his decision and shifts their industry focus and business plan. Robert Downey Jr. is an Oscar nominated, bonafide actor, producer, director, and supportive co-worker. Marvel Entertainment can do no wrong at the box office, but they focus more on telling good stories and giving us inspiring characters.
Action isn't just for the movies, it's for marketing and branding as well, and every proposal, tradeshow booth, flyer, and conversation with a client is a refresh of what your brand means to your clients and outside of the office.
For more on Tony Stark and what he has meant to the ten years of MCU magic, check out this great read from Nerdist and if you haven't seen Avengers:Infinity Wars yet, catch up with the rest of us already!