Watching a YouTube video this weekend (that made me cry!) was a lesson in how your brand can outlive you.
Over the Bank Holiday weekend, Marvel and the team at Disney released a video celebrating the gradual re-opening of cinemas worldwide.
The video also announced the upcoming ‘event movies’ that Marvel Studios have become synonymous with over the 13 years since the release of Iron Man in 2008.
The video was (in part) a celebration of what has come before; the legacy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), and its impact on both industry and audiences alike.
It was also a showcase of their upcoming slate of movies into 2023, the next chapter in their ambitious MCU project, dubbed ‘Phase 4’.
So why did a (currently #10 trending in the UK) video that was essentially a thinly veiled advertisement for a mass-produced product have me in tears? An experience that I’m sure a vast proportion of the (at the time of writing) 5,761,871 viewers on YouTube had as well?
Was it the pent-up frustration and (soon to be) release that I’ve felt as a movie lover who’s been locked inside for 14 months, about to be finally set free?
Was it the feeling of seeing something that I’ve identified with and held in high regard for 13 years of my life flash across the screen in a mere matter of seconds?
Or was it a Pavlovian response to hearing the late/great Stan Lee’s voice reinforcing the images that we see on-screen, one last time?
Whilst it was more than likely a combination of many of these factors, I believe that – at its core – it was Stan.
Those close to him knew him as Stanley Martin Lieber. But the world knew him as Stan “The Man” Lee.
“The Man”, the myth
Initially, he went by the pseudonym out of a sense of shame in working in the comic book industry, disassociating himself from the brand.
But as he and the company found success, everything began to synergise and become one-and-the-same. The line between the man and the brand became blurred.
It’s widely believed that Stan worked on his comics and characters for many decades. In truth, he started in 1961 with his monthly comics that started it all and stopped everything in 1972 – taking his creations to market.
That’s 11 years.
In just over a decade, Stan created everything. The Marvel universe that we know and love today all came about from 11 years of hard work and dedication to the mission statement: “A vision as far-reaching as our stories.”
Some would say that this was arguably the single most significant creative burst in pop culture history.
So why were competitor companies such as DC failing to find similar success?
They didn’t have a “Stan”.
Say the words “DC Comics” to someone in the know, and they may be able to throw out a name or two. Mark Millar, Alan Moore, Geoff Johns, and Jim Lee all immediately spring to mind for me.
However, for the layman who would only have a cursory knowledge of the industry, I’d wager that they would struggle to bring up a single person who wasn’t one of the fictional flagships of the comics themselves. They’d likely respond with Batman.
This is because Stan, for better or worse, was deified – becoming part of the fiction itself.
From the moustachioed grin to his bespectacled brow, or his raspy cry of “Excelsior!”, the iconography was dripping from this man.
“Face front, true believers!”
Stan’s history may be rife with monetary disputes and controversy (that are well-documented, and I won’t go into detail about here), which proves that the man wasn’t infallible, but perhaps the very best fictional character to come out of Marvel was Stan Lee himself.
It’s hard to believe that a man could be so entrenched in the character of Stan Lee and still live an ordinary life. It’s not something I’d wish for myself.
Separation from work and life is essential for me, and I suspect many others feel the same way in this post-Covid world.
In a way, Stan sacrificed his chance at a normal life to create a platform. A platform that he frequently used to call out racism and bigotry.
“Stan’s Soapbox” would become a regular addition to the comics that Marvel put out, and these messages continued into the 21st Century, adapting to YouTube videos and more.
I could easily picture Stan jumping on the latest TikTok craze if he were still alive today!
Your brand can outlive you
The speech from Stan that plays in the background of the Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies video is from a social media post that Stan uploaded to YouTube in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed in a vehicular attack.
The message is a profound one that is just as important in 2021 as it was when he shared it with the world in 2017:
Hi, heroes! This is Stan Lee coming at ya. Just want you to know, Marvel has always been and will be a reflection of the world outside your window. That world may change and evolve. But the one thing that will never change is the way we tell our stories of heroism. Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or colour of their skin. The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance, and bigotry. That man next to you, he’s your brother. That woman over there, she’s your sister. And that kid walking by you, hey, who knows, he may have the proportionate strength of a spider. We’re all part of one big family, the human family. And we all come together in the body of Marvel. And you, you’re part of that family. You’re part of the Marvel Universe that moves ever upward and onward to greater glory. In other words, excelsior!
It’s the outward-facing, forward-thinking framework that Stan instilled in his characters, himself and his brand, and – most importantly – the world, way back in 1961, which is ever-present here.
This is why Marvel has stood the test of time.
The times may have changed, but the core message and value remain the same. “A vision as far-reaching as our stories.”
That’s how a brand survives. Create a solid foundation to work from, take it to market – leave the creating to others if you have to – then sit back and watch it grow.
But never deviate from your core values.
Stan’s vision was far-reaching. In a Nostradamus-esque turn, he seemingly predicted a lot of the hardships that we’re facing in the world today. Hardships that he would never live to see stamped out.
He knew that he never could. But that didn’t stop him from trying.
And that’s why children (and adults!) want to dress up as Spider-Man for Halloween.
It’s why my girlfriend owns a pair of Captain Marvel Vans.
It’s why people turn up in droves to their local cinema, at midnight, to be the first to see the latest MCU movie.
And it’s why 28-year-old men cry at YouTube videos.