What Movie Franchises Teach Us about the Power of Branding by Ben Zeisloft W'22

On Tuesday, April 2, tickets for Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame were officially available for purchase. Within six hours, Endgame shattered the record for first-day movie ticket sales, a record previously held by Star Wars: The Force Awakens. AMC’s ticketing app crashed, and cinema enthusiasts faced lengthy virtual queues on Fandango’s website.

For decades, movie studios have successfully leveraged the power of franchises to drive profits. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s twenty-one films have resulted in over $18 billion in profits since 2008, while the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises each grossed roughly $9 billion over their respective histories.

Year after year, fans around the globe flock to movie theaters when franchised films are released. As a result, the ranking of highest-grossing movies is mostly populated by films belonging to franchises. Why do these particular movies succeed in driving profits? As with other blockbuster products and services, the answer is grounded in marketing and psychology.

Brand Identity

A significant force behind the success of movie franchises are fandoms: groups of fans that base their identities in films and their characters. Just as certain individuals find some degree of identity in owning muscle cars, drinking Starbucks coffee in the morning, or attending hometown sporting events, movies can provide a source of belonging as fans relate to each other and share in the deeper meaning of the films.

Members of fandoms may participate in online forums, dress as their favorite characters at gatherings such as Comic-Con, or engage with movie franchises in similarly devoted fashions. These super-fans are the most reliable consumers of movies, and their voices are always the first to be heard in film critiques.

Mass Nostalgia

Of course, not every movie enthusiast who buys tickets for a Marvel film belongs to a fandom. The ultimate driver behind the success of movie franchises is the power of mass-market branding. Definitionally, brands exist to elicit emotions and associations within the minds of buyers; as with consumer goods, the movie industry has harnessed this phenomenon to drive profits.

In the 1980s, Coca-Cola changed its recipe to compete with the growing popularity of Pepsi. Within days, hundreds of thousands of Coke drinkers penned angry letters demanding a return to the decades-old recipe. Later analysis of the letters revealed a common theme—betrayal. Consumers felt as if the trust they placed in Coke had been violated. Indeed, MRI studies have shown that Coke elicits feelings of nostalgia in the brains of Coke drinkers.

Like Coke, certain movie franchises undeniably prompt moviegoers to feel nostalgia. Perhaps a fan’s parents brought him or her to see a Star Wars film as a young child. Perhaps he or she remembers countless Friday nights spent watching Marvel movies with high school friends. In any case, nostalgia serves as a gravitational force, attracting consumers to theaters: year after year, decade after decade.

Complementary Offerings

Many successful companies encourage consumers to buy more of their products by presenting useful integrations across their range of offerings. For instance, Apple’s suite of iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and Macs complement each other through messaging continuity and photo sharing. The result is a pool of loyal Apple customers who seek useful applications with new products. In the same way, the best experiences with franchises often involve viewing as many member films as possible.

If one were to watch Avengers: Infinity War without seeing any prior Marvel movies, one would undoubtedly leave the theater with a sense of confusion. However, viewing the previous movies before watching Infinity War results in a much more enjoyable experience. An understanding of the characters’ personalities, motivations, and past struggles informs the events of the film. For many fans, watching characters such as Iron Man and Peter Quill interact for the first time was the equivalent of two close friends meeting. The foundation built by the three prior Iron Man movies and two previous Guardians of the Galaxy movies resulted in profound emotional experience, encouraging viewership of later Marvel releases.

Movie franchises encourage repeated engagements with member films to ensure that fans watch as many new blockbusters as possible. Through a coordinated effort to create potent brands, these franchises have deeply rooted themselves within popular culture and the minds of their viewers.