Marvel's Power Play

It doesn’t get much more powerful than a Marvel superhero, and the company is capitalizing on that brand strength with a new strategy that focuses on partnerships in the performance and health categories.

Paul Gitter, senior vice president, Marvel Licensing, Disney Consumer Products

Whether it's Hulk's legendary brawn, Captain America's courage or Spider-Man's agility, there's no denying that Marvel's superheroes are, in a word, strong.

That strength is the inspiration behind Marvel's latest brand extension strategy, aimed at bringing its superheroes to a host of new categories in the performance and active lifestyle space.

"This initiative came out of looking at the equity of the character portfolio that is managed by the Marvel team," says Paul Gitter, senior vice president, Marvel Licensing, Disney Consumer Products. "As we started to look under the hood of these characters, it was clear that they really have become role models for kids. Then we looked at what is important to moms and kids in this day-and-age, which took us in the direction of a healthy, active lifestyle."

The new strategy is designed to allow companies to connect their brands with core attributes of Marvel's characters, such as performance, strength and durability, as a way to differentiate their products on retail shelves. At the same time, Marvel is looking to elevate the status of its brands by expanding its reach into new, high-performance categories.

As an initial test, Marvel teamed with activewear specialist Under Armour in spring 2013 for a line of Alter Ego Performance Wear that featured character Iron Man, in a partnership that has now become a case study for the strategy.

"The response was overwhelming. We couldn't keep it in stock," says Brian Siegel, director of franchise development, Marvel Licensing, DCP. "If you look at the products at retail, Under Armour really pops off the shelf."

Under Armour is now an anchor partner for the program, and an expanded Marvel line hit stores in March. The latest range includes adult apparel, this time featuring Captain America, along with new product categories such as football cleats, football gloves and hosiery for kids. The line is available at Dick's Sporting Goods stores nationwide.

The partnership also has a cross-platform aspect that will see product integrated into films and other media over the course of the next five years. In fact, the collaboration can already be seen on-screen in the opening scene of the recently released Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which shows Captain America taking a run through Washington, D.C., in an Under Armour tee bearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo.

Now, as it begins to expand the program, Marvel is taking a very deliberate approach, carefully choosing not only companies that will underpin the program's message, but also selecting products that suit each character.

"It's really important to us that the right partner is put with the right character," explains Gitter. "For example, Hulk, who is really identified with strength, has been teamed with WordLock, which creates really strong, high-quality bike locks; while Captain America is a natural fit for Under Armour because he stands more for activity. If we are being truly authentic to our healthy living, durable strength concept, then we have to have the right character with the right brand."

Siegel reiterates that the nuances of each character's persona play a vital role in the development of these partnerships.

"We look at the Marvel business in two franchises–Spider-Man and The Avengers (specifically Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor)," he says. "They each represent different aspects of strength. It's not all just brute muscle, there's also mental agility and personal strength, as well."

Among the other partners signed on for the program, each of which present a varied collection of characters on their products, are:

  • WordLock, which launched a range of bike locks this spring;
  • Bell Sporting Goods for helmets;
  • Huffy for bikes, tricycles, scooters and accessories;
  • Tantrum for protective phone cases and electronics accessories that will launch later this year;
  • Thermos for hydration products;
  • Perdue, which debuted whole-grain chicken tenders in December 2013;
  • Langers Juice, which launched juice pouches and boxes in April;
  • Crunch Pak for Snackers food packs that will hit shelves this month; and
  • Sage Fruit, which will have branded apples and pears at market later this year.

Marvel plans to continue to add to its roster of partners in hard lines, soft lines and consumables and then grow the program further with studio and digital content, promotions and eventually land-based initiatives.

"The key to making this happen is aligning ourselves with companies that hold these same ideals, not just in the product they make but in the way they deliver that product, as well," says Gitter.

The program, and the products that are coming out of it, align perfectly with parent company Disney's Magic of Healthy Living campaign, which launched in 2006 to promote healthy lifestyles through its roster of family-friendly, approachable products associated with its characters and content.

"Because our characters are aspirational and are role models, we believe we have a responsibility to provide these kinds of products so kids can have that aspect in their daily lives," says Siegel. "We feel, as a major corporation, there is a responsibility to inspire and showcase core attributes of activity and skill and strength. We want to show kids that these characteristics are something to aspire to, something that can be achieved."

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