Marketing: Lessons in marketing… From The Justice League

Following on from my previous piece, in which I explored the successful brand and content marketing campaign for Liam Gallagher’s first solo album, I thought it might be worth exploring what lessons can be learned when things go wrong.

First things first, anyone who knows me will know I love comic book movies. So it’ll be no surprise to hear I was already ‘in the bag’ for Justice League. I’ve been an avid comic reader since my early teens and remember when big screen superheroes were as rare as they were culturally derided. Now they’re a big deal. A very big deal. And that makes their marketing a very big deal too.

Marvel’s roster includes The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy, which feature in movies made by its owner, Disney. There are other Marvel characters out there too like Deadpool, The X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-man, but (up until this week) the film rights for most of these sat with other studios.

For DC, it’s less complex, because they’ve been making movies featuring Batman and Superman with Warner Brothers since 1978. However, following a failed franchise-starter for Superman in 2006 and a Batman trilogy coming to an end in 2012, Warner/DC were close to having none of their heroes ‘in play’ at a time where Disney/Marvel were redefining the modern blockbuster. Justice League was Warner/DC’s opportunity to replicate the ‘team’ formula already established by their rivals. And in short, they rushed it.

For a start, director Zack Snyder wasn’t the right man to do the job. He never really grasped what made Superman and Batman special and both Man of Steel (MoS) and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) ended up being drab, confused and just not much fun. Patti Jenkins’ Wonder Woman improved things somewhat (and was massively successful), but after two critical flops, there was serious work for Warner/DC to do if they wanted to convince people another comic book ‘team up’ movie – featuring a largely mismanaged set of characters – was a good idea. And I don’t think they managed it.

1. Understanding the audience

When you’re marketing a superhero movie, you’re setting out on a journey that’s probably going to last about a year. And there are different audiences to consider along the way. Firstly, there are the ‘fanboys’ like me, there to scrutinise and devour every photo, trailer, poster and rumour from day one. But the truth is (and I’m sorry fellow fanboys) we’re not that important. I mean, you’d do well to acknowledge us and encourage our advocacy by promising us the things we love, but honestly? Our money is 100% safe.

More important than us are the secondary audience. For the ‘secondaries’, the cinema experience isn’t about picking apart Superman’s uncharacteristic lack of affection for humanity or Batman’s disturbingly wayward moral compass, it’s about having fun. Sell them a good time and they’ll show up for one – probably with their kids.

Those kids or parents may be fanboys or secondaries, but what if they fall into a third category? The audience section completely uninterested in superhero films? If you want to win them over, you’ll need their fanboy or secondary friends and family to do it. And if that works, you’re looking at a whole bunch of people buying tickets together.

The first full Justice League trailer arrived in March 2017, complete with explosions, gags and introductions to (almost) all the characters. Unfortunately, we’d already seen this in posters, promos and previous films and the whole aesthetic just felt like what we’d had before in MoS and BvS. Not much to put the fanboys at ease… and even less to excite the secondaries or the uninterested.

2. Setting the brand style

When you’re repeating a marketing message over such a long lead time, it’s important to get the words and pictures right from the start. What are you telling people is going to happen? Why should they be excited? What will they see and how is it like nothing they’ve seen before? The design and copy should be flexible enough to change over time, but consistent enough to retain audiences.

The message around Justice League fluctuated from early 2016 right through to late 2017 when it finally hit cinemas. Even before BvS was in cinemas, Zack Snyder shared an image of Jason Momoa as Aquaman (who would be joining the franchise in Justice League). A simple ‘first look’ aimed at fanboys would have been enough, but the accompanying message only ended up raising questions instead – during a key point in the marketing cycle for a different film.

Is Aquaman in BvS? Who are the seven? How does he unite them? Does it mean the seven seas or the Justice League? Does that mean we’re getting a seventh JL member? This last question was answered by July, when the the whole ‘unite the seven’ thing was replaced by ‘unite’ and it became clear there were only six heroes. Thankfully, that message came with a brand style that, while dull in terms of design, was at least close to how it would ultimately look and feel.

So, with a message and a brand style in place, wouldn’t it make sense to just keep that design on track and evolve the copy to build on what had already been set out? Well, either that… or you could just do something else completely.

3. Resetting the brand style… twice?

Now let me be clear, there are a tonne of things wrong with the end product that is Justice League. Myself, I had fun with it, but it’s easy to see that this is a film that was beset by changes and missteps – and unfortunately the marketing campaign that led up to its release was as much of a Frankenstein’s monster.

By October, having been through ‘Unite the Seven’, ‘Unite’ and later ‘Unite the League’, we got a new message in ‘You Can’t Save the World Alone’, which cleverly used character logos (including Superman, so far absent from all marketing) to spell out the sentence. Seemingly, in a bid to excite the fanboys, Warner/DC decided the poster should also reference the magnificent art style of Alex Ross, whose work for DC on titles like Kingdome Come makes gods of its subjects and is a real celebration of their iconography.

The Justice League October 2017 campaign banner
An example of Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come style artwork

Now, I have a few problems with this. The first of which is that, as I’ve mentioned, it was completely unnecessary as the only people who would get the Alex Ross reference are, well, people like me. People who were already on board for the film. Secondly, one of the criticisms of the DCEU so far was that its heroes lacked humanity, that they were deities that sat above humankind and (particularly in the case of Superman) cared nothing about the people they were apparently sworn to protect. So, with that in mind, why emphasise that with a photograph that distances them from ‘us’ even further?

But not to worry, because one month later, another message that was used in the artwork above ‘All In’ was being used more heavily to let us know that all of the individual team members were, well, ‘in’. As you might expect, the tagline came with even more new designs. Firstly, a series of character head shots, then some full-length action poses, then some international posters confusingly telling us individual cities like Beijing were ‘All in’.

So to summarise, we didn’t unite the seven, but we did unite the league because we realised we couldn’t save the world alone and now all of the heroes are in (including possibly Superman – but don’t tell anyone). Oh and your home town is in too.

4. Damage limitation and crisis management

Aside from the schizophrenic marketing campaigns we’ve seen around Justice League, there has also been the problem with too much transparency around its production problems, and a real lack of support from the people who made the film to boot.

It’s heavily rumoured that after BVS, Warner had lost faith in Zack Snyder and were looking to replace him, but were too far down the line with the shoot. His reasons for leaving were tragic, but it feels a bit like the studio took it as an opportunity to completely course correct with Joss Whedon (it’s even been suggested the homeless man in the credits holding the sign ‘I tried’ is a message of resignation from the new director). But at no point has Whedon come out in support of – or even so much as spoke about – the film.

In fact, no one’s really been out there talking about it that loudly. Henry Cavill, Gal Godot and Ben Affleck (who seems more concerned with whether or not he can be bothered playing Batman again) are nowhere to be seen. Even the interviews and apperances we have had – like Jason Momoa on The Graham Norton Show (above) – have felt very reserved and almost apologetic. Then of course, there’s the moustache… my god, where do we start with the moustache…

For those of you who’ve only recently been resurrected from the grave by a mother box, some alien goo and some forked lightning, the story goes that prior to the reshoots, Superman actor Henry Cavill was sporting a lovely moustache for his role in Mission Impossible 6. As rival studio Paramount were unwilling to have him shave it off for the reshoots, Warner had to film him with the hairy top lip then deal with it later using CG effects. And yes, you can tell. But the worst part about this story is that it’s now such common knowledge. So, in addition to director changes, reshoots and unhappy cast members, Justice League had to cope with this ridiculous story that was so prevalent online that it was a meme before the movie even came out.

And did Warner/DC do anything to tackle moustachegate? Was there any responsive social media to gently poke fun at themselves and encourage some goodwill? Make anything out of the fact that one of their most prominent product placement deals was a razor?

No. They said nothing. Did nothing. And let everyone laugh at Cavill’s top lip when the film was finally released.

5. Learning from your mistakes

There are many reasons why, at this point, Justice League has drastically underperformed – and while I’m not suggesting the marketing was entirely to blame, it definitely didn’t help. The design was all over the place, the message was unclear and it was all executed with a strategy that seemed confused from the start.

Whatever Warner/DC decides to do with the franchise, it needs to learn from these mistakes in time for Aquaman (late 2018) and Flash (TBC) or it will undoubtedly die. Outside making sure the films and characters actually work, this means a less scattergun approach to marketing, with clearer decisions about what will get people excited.

My three recommendations for doing this are:

#1 Get a clear idea of who the audience is.

Know who you’re selling to and have a clear and well-timed strategy to target the secondary audience… as well as the existing advocates.

#2 Set out a strong message and stick to it.

There’s no problem changing things incrementally, but setting a consistent message and style you can repeat is essential – and helpful when cranking things up ahead of the launch.

#3 Know when to speak and when to shut up.

Stories leak, people talk. Knowing how to deal with this is as important as stopping it happening in the first place, so get a contingency and consider your tone if things get hairy.

Movie marketing campaigns in review: Justice League
Article Name
Movie marketing campaigns in review: Justice League
Film marketing expert Noel Mellor looks at the 2017 film marketing campaign for DC and Warner Bros' Justice League.

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