Leveraging the Power of Fantasy for Entertainment Brands

Maybe it’s because we work with licensed entertainment properties and toy brands that we’re drawn to not only their unique brands, but the separate universes they create. Kids and adults find their imaginations fueled by characters with unique personalities and backstories. Ongoing storylines filled with colorful protagonists and antagonists have the power to become sagas, creating huge fan bases. There’s something emotionally powerful about fantasy.

Hence the rise of mythopoeic storytelling that appeals to kids and adults alike. Consider the enduring popularity of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings tales for adults; JK Rowling’s Harry Potter stories for kids and the Twilight and The Hunger Games tales for young adults. Some sagas, like Star Wars, appeal to everyone, regardless of age group. Modern TV series like Grimm and Sleepy Hollow bring fairy tales to life as supernatural beings mingle with actual people. These aren’t tales for children, yet they recall lurking, sinister characters from fairy tales and the heroes who must vanquish them. Game of Thrones spins a saga based on tales as old as primeval human history in the vein of classics like those of King Arthur, embedded deeply within our culture and our consciousness.

The power of these stories lies in their ability to make a significant cultural impact by actually drawing inspiration from mythologies and heroes of the past and making them relevant for today’s culture. Stan Lee understood this intuitively. He took his inspiration from the Norse gods of ancient mythology and repopulated them in comic books while creating a pantheon of new superheroes: Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America among others, all becoming blockbuster properties for Marvel in the 1960’s. These superheroes have captivated generations of kids ever since and remain relevant due to evolving storylines. Entertainment brands offer the ultimate fantasies because they have woven rich tapestries filled with details, creating new worlds and connecting with fans on a deeply emotional level, becoming part of their lifestyles.

Successful storytelling for entertainment brands delivers fantasy with hidden truths

Favorite toy brands have become highly interactive, using transmedia to offer seamless entertainment and more engaging experiences for children. Is it any wonder that brands that made the leap to the big screen like Hasbro’s Transformers and G.I. Joe and The Lego Movie were such hits with kids? Or does it surprise anyone that these films helped to refocus attention on these multi-generational toys? Strong toy brands have slowly turned into entertainment brands, bringing their properties to kids in a continuous manner.

Nothing brought the magic and fantasy of toys to life more than Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story animated movies. Kids from multiple generations have always woven their own stories around favorite toys from Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and Rex to Slinky Dog, Barbie and molded toy soldiers. A cowboy like Woody becoming a buddy with an astronaut like Buzz Lightyear is totally believable. Their adventures, along with a toy box full of classic favorites, were filled with both poignant and comedic moments delivering wonderful entertainment for kids and their parents. The storyline was based on Pixar’s vision: “Toys deeply want children to play with them, and that this desire drives their hopes, fears, and actions. Kids see their favorite toys as friends so this message is endearing to them, and it turns another generation’s attention to the magic of classic toy brands.

Mattel’s Monster High brand broke new ground for the toy maker, going beyond fashion dolls to create pop cult icons. Taking a cue from the vampires and werewolves of Twilight fame and the monsters of childhood nightmares like Frankenstein, The Mummy and Zombies, teens and tweens have been presented with a whole lot of fun and fantasy that they can relate to. These ghoul friends form an unusual high school clique; their adventures are, well, hair-raising.

More than anything, the brand tagline: “freaky just got fabulous” resonates with young girls. As Tim Kilpin, now Mattel’s President and Chief Commercial Officer, said before the 2010 launch: “There’s a universal truth behind Monster High. Who doesn’t feel like a freak in high school?” Exactly. With a mantra that it’s okay not to be perfect; the appearance, backstories and persona of each Monster High character leads girls into a fantasy world that reinforces the message that it’s cool to be who you are.

How to capture fantasy through storytelling

Between them, Marvel and DC Comics own some of the world’s most beloved superhero properties. Marvel is clearly the leader and there is one property that stands head and shoulders above the rest: Spider-Man. The Hollywood Reporter recently cited figures published in The Licensing Letter, showing that Marvel’s Spider-Man earned $1.3 billion in global sales in 2013 and The Avengers earned $325 million versus DC Comics’ top properties; Batman came in at $494 million in sales and Superman at $277 million.

As of 2014, The NPD Group stated that The Avengers and Spider-Man drove more than a billion dollars each in global retail sales, showing a staggering increase in licensed consumer product sales for The Avengers and those numbers will likely go considerably higher due to new film releases and aggressive licensing plans. Correspondingly, Marvel’s toy sales also grew by nearly 13% in the U.S. in 2014 vs. 2013.

So what is it about Spidey that makes him so irresistible? We could argue that Marvel works with far more licensing partners and that gives Spider-Man an awesome presence at retail; that’s true. But there is also something unique about the Web Slinger himself that resonates with fans in a deep manner. There’s the vulnerability of a high-school boy with the ubiquitous name Peter Parker who isn’t sure of himself; it’s something that every human being can relate to. Then, through a twist of fate, he is bitten by a radioactive spider assuming great powers of strength, balance, agility, and a sixth sense for danger. Being a nerdy scientifically-oriented kid, Spider-Man then develops the technology to create and deploy powerful webs that he can swing from and entrap criminals to protect the innocent.

In a recent interview with Collider, Kevin Feige, film producer and president of Marvel Studios, obviously concurs. “We want to play with Spider-Man in the high school years because frankly, there’ve been five Spider-Man films and the amazing thing about it is… there are so many things from the comics that we haven’t done yet. Not just characters or villains or supporting characters, but sides to his character. The most obvious being the ‘young, doesn’t quite fit in’ kid before his powers, and then the fella that puts on a mask and swings around and fights bad guys and doesn’t shut up, which is something we want to play with and we’re excited about.”

Unlike Batman’s Robin or Captain America’s Bucky, Spider-Man doesn’t have an adult mentor; he isn’t a side-kick but is very much on his own. As such, Spider-Man has become a galvanizing figure for teens from his creation, as he deals with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy while learning that “with great power there must also come great responsibility”. Adults who grew up idolizing Spider-Man still do, fascinated by his personality, internal conflicts, love interests and prowess in fighting the bad guys; they also respond to his mantra.

Bringing an iconic superhero to life on consumer products through brand licensing design

Marvel Entertainment is constantly updating the licensing program for the fan-favorite Wall Crawler. Our design team is intimately familiar with Spidey’s backstory and ongoing adventures. This has helped us to leverage the key visual assets associated with the property in diverse styles, inspired by current design trends that are relevant to today’s fans. We’ve also incorporated imagery of characters from the Amazing Spider-Man storyline to help licensees capture the essence of the film, for example. The key: to ensure consistent representations at retail while allowing licensees some latitude to interpret visual and verbal design elements in a manner which works best for their products and packaging needs for toys, apparel, home décor and countless other product categories.

Depicting the superhero in poses that leave no doubt as to who is represented in licensed consumer products and packaging, whether he’s crouched down, swinging from a web or crawling up a wall, helps his fans to easily spot Spidey. Even from a distance in retail stores, fans can hone in on the outline of Spider-Man. Background imagery of spiders and webbing as well as imaginative ways to suggest these elements capture the visual assets associated with Spider-Man that are unique to this character. Bold splashes of color and well-chosen fonts do the rest of the work of imparting the magic and fantasy of this comic-book folk hero.

Given the power of fantasy and the blurring of the lines between toy and entertainment brands, the future is filled with infinite possibilities. More consumer product brands might take a page from these industries to fire consumers’ imaginations to turn them into fans. And to make them an indispensable part of their lives.

Did you enjoy this month’s issue? Get on the mailing list!