In case you didn’t hear, Marvel comics have been having a rough time lately. It all hit the proverbial fan in recent weeks when in an interview with ICv2, David Gabriel, Senior Vice President of Sales, Print & Marketing, was quoted as saying that retailers and readers were “turning up their noses” at Marvel’s more diverse titles. Although Gabriel has since updated and corrected his original statements, reaffirming Marvel’s commitment to new diverse characters, the damage had already been done.
Fans have since taken to the internet to voice their dissatisfaction and provide their own opinions on Marvel’s current downturn. Although this is an incredibly complex marketing research problem that demands an in-depth analysis, I would distill Marvel’s woes with the following simple sentence: if you ask the wrong questions in marketing, you end up with the wrong answers.
We see this time and time again in every industry. Just look at what happened with Coca-Cola in the 80’s when it altered its traditional soda formula and introduced the fabled beverage disaster known as “New Coke.” It backfired so spectacularly that Coca-Cola was forced to revert back to the original formula in less than three months. Like Marvel today, Coca-Cola knew it was losing market shares to its chief competitor i.e. Pepsi but incorrectly deduced that it was the shifting tastes and preferences of consumers towards the sweeter flavor of Pepsi.
Moreover, whether or not a combination of increased diversity and legacy characters has led to declining sales, this illustrates a gross misunderstanding of the difference between causality and correlation. To put it simply, causality designates that a change in one variable results in the change of another, whereas correlation simply indicates that a relationship occurs between two variables. However, a correlation does NOT equal a causation. I can’t stress that enough. For instance, Wal-Mart discovered years ago that the sales of strawberry Pop-Tarts increase by nearly 7 times their normal rates before a hurricane. There’s absolutely no logical proof that hurricanes are somehow compelling shoppers to buy strawberry Pop-Tarts. It’s certainly worth exploring further to determine the answer, but until then we can only deem that a relationship exists between hurricanes and the sales of strawberry Pop-Tarts. Data and numbers are invaluable resources for any company, but if interpreted improperly, you might as well be reading tealeaves.
My biggest takeaway from this ICv2 report though is the incredible disconnect that has formed between the executive side of Marvel and its customers. Like a lot of people, I slogged it out for a number of years in various retail positions. It’s not a glamorous life and you may end up like Colonel Kurtz lamenting “the horror,” but I strongly feel that everyone at some point in their lives should work retail. It’ll not only teach you compassion for others but being on the frontlines and interacting with customers gives you first hand insights you can’t really gain from sitting in a comfortable office. I’m a firm believer in the Socratic Method or at least what I learned from Bill and Ted, “the only true wisdom consists of knowing that you know nothing.” Marvel needs to realize that it doesn’t understand its consumers as well as it used to.
The 4 P’s (Product/Price/Promotion/Placement) are basic framework concepts that you learn in Marketing 101. A weakness in one of the 4 P’s results in complete failure. Marvel definitely requires work in all areas but from my perspective “Promotion” is where Marvel is currently struggling the most. I detailed in a previous piece the flaws in its branding tactics for the Inhumans. A reader comment from that article perfectly captures Marvel’s faulty promoting strategy:
All of this is only serving to block casual comic readers who are now practically an endangered species. Years ago, the late/great Dwayne McDuffie wrote a brilliant article entitled “The Crisis on Mono-Earth” ( a must read reprinted in the link) describing how the shared comic book universe and excessive continuity has made it impossible to be a casual reader in this day and age. Crossover events and tie-in books only exacerbate the situation. It’s not hard to figure out why Marvel movies and television have a much larger audience since they’re able to condense decades of continuity into stories that are entertaining and accessible to anyone. The Marvel Netflix shows have found the ideal balance not only to feel part of a larger shared universe but to also stand on their own.
That brings me to another critical point. Marvel comics are taking their cues more from the movie and television adaptations than ever before. Regardless whether bringing in aspects from other media is forced upon creators, in the eyes of the readers it seems like movies/television are guiding the direction of the comics. Is it really surprising that Groot will suddenly be stuck as a baby right when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is released in theaters? Selling anything with Baby Groot’s image is the equivalent of printing your own money, so the transparency of that creative choice is not lost on anybody. I’m not arguing against Marvel or other comics publishers from aligning their characters with the depictions in other media, but it has to be seamless and warranted.
Additionally, I think there’s been too much focus placed on the short-term and too much neglect of the big picture. Sure, catering to established loyal readers is important, but there’s also future potential readers to consider. And don’t even get me started on variant covers. Did the 90’s teach us nothing? This may mean taking a hit in profits, but they’ll pay off down the road. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson faced a scandal when seven people died from taking Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. On its own accord, J&J recalled the tampered Tylenol capsules, replacing them with a safer product and spending over $100 million. Unsurprisingly, its stocks plummeted and many predicted the end for J&J. However, the company’s commitment to the safety of its consumers had endeared it to the public and J&J rose from the crisis an even stronger company. In the case of Marvel, eliminating or at least reducing crossover events and tie-ins may not give certain titles that extra sales boost, yet in the long run it benefits casual readers who will likely stay with a book rather than be compelled to drop it due to a disruption in the regular narrative and thus stabilize sales.
No doubt that solving any kind of business dilemma is complicated. First and foremost, Marvel has to accurately define its problems by mapping out its goals and building from there. In my own experience studying marketing as a graduate student and consulting for different clients on marketing solutions, here’s how I would break it down:
(1) Management wants to increase market share
(2) Therefore we should study comic book buying preferences and behavior
(3) So that we can explain reader desire for Marvel
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s an old saying that seems to accurately describe Marvel’s current state. The argument can be made that Marvel has once again fallen victim to many of the problems that plagued the company in the 90’s that eventually led to Marvel filing for bankruptcy. This isn’t to write off Marvel completely. On the contrary, failure can actually breed innovation. Not an understatement to say that these days everyone at Marvel has their work cut out for them.