Be a Dark Knight: Brand Positioning

Zach Stevens

Creative Director & Founder

February 7, 2018

Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War outgrossed DC’s Justice League in one weekend, but we shouldn’t be surprised

I’m an outrageously huge superhero fan. Growing up, I would read my Marvel Encyclopedia more than any other book in my library. It was perfect timing that, as I grew older and started going to the movies by myself, Marvel released Phase One of their Avengers movies. They were an instant hit, earning billions at the box office and cult-like fan groups. Marvel introduced and perfected the concept of bringing together a group of do-no-wrong heroes into a flashy battle for mankind. A classic tale of good and evil.

So why did Justice League tank for doing the exact same thing?

If you compare the nuts and bolts of the Avengers movies with Justice League, they’re extremely similar. A bunch of radically powerful beings coming together to save the world from imminent peril. Here’s the problem: Marvel owns that space within the mind of consumers and we have limited attention for copycats to vy for. One might argue that Justice League was simply a terrible movie, but what if Justice League was the first movie to do what Avengers did? They might have claimed that position in our minds.

It is all about positioning

Positioning is claiming a role within the mind of a target consumer. Typically visualized in a brand ladder ranking the preferred choice on top with one or two secondary brands beneath. Here is an example using Coca Cola and its competitors:

Cola Brand Ladder

I bring this up because effective brand building understands that you cannot uproot the top brand by copying them and claiming you’re better (even if you are). You have to be different, you have to create a new ladder.

An easy way to spot new position opportunities: Marketplace Perception Map

Marketplace perception maps are nifty grids that outline holes within markets based on attributes pertinent to the consumer. Here is an automobile example from Brands and Bullshit by Bernie Schroeder:

Automobile Marketplace Perception Map_Bernie Schroeder
Courtesy of Bernie Schroeder

Makes sense, right? These companies aren’t trying to compete, they are instead claiming a different spot. Going deeper, you can bring in outlying brands like Lamborghini and Land Rover to see how vastly different their appeal is. Land Rover is bulky, robust, and sturdy. Compared to Lamborghini which is sleek, futuristic, and sexy.

Superhero movie marketplace perception map, where Justice League failed

There are numerous genres of movies, but we can distill the four main attributes that help classify a movies to comedic vs serious and fantastic vs realistic.

Movie Marketplace Perception Map_Avengers and justice League

Avengers can be placed into the Fantastic/Serious quadrant, with a slight lean to comedic (I mean c’mon, they have talking trees and raccoons). Here is where DC screwed up, they placed Justice League too close to the Avengers and developed marketing material that closely echoed Marvel.

“But, it’s different heroes and we have Wonder Woman?”

Sorry pal, that’s not good enough. The lighthearted, hero-centric, colorful world of superheroes is owned by Marvel. If you want to break into the minds of consumers, you’ll have to radically differentiate to gain our attention.

Be a Dark Knight

I remember going to the  Avengers premiere in 2012, it was my first midnight showing and the entry line all stretched from the ticket counter to the parking lot of Clairemont Square. Fans decked out in ragtag costumes of their favorite Avenger.

It was epic. A nerd-herd brimming with enthusiasm to see the greatest heroes join forces in a fight against evil.

A few weeks later, I went to the premier of the Dark Knight Rises. Again, there was a line all the way to the parking lot with people dressed as Bane, Catwoman, and of course, the Caped Crusader. What’s more, it was a lot of the same faces from the Avengers premier.

How did the Dark Knight Rises hold its own against the first Avengers movie?

It’s simple really: The Dark Knight Trilogy didn’t resemble the Marvel movies at all, it was different. Christopher Nolan crafted a serious, realistic take on Batman that didn’t hold back from getting gritty.

Look at this poster for the Dark Knight Rises next to the Avengers poster.

Avengers Poster vs Dark Knight Poster

Now look at the Justice League poster next to one for Avengers: Infinity War.

Avengers vs Justice League Poster

There is a distinct and clear difference between the first pair, but the second pair is fairly similar. The viewer would set aside the competitor in favor of the choice, first brand: Marvel.

It pays to differentiate and own a position

Skeptics to positioning might say the market just wasn’t vibing with superhero movies at the time or that viewers are biased toward Marvel. Or maybe they don’t want to admit that Justice League was mediocre mimicry at best.

2012 Marvel’s Avengers: $1.5 Billion in worldwide box office sales

2012 Dark Knight Rises: $1 Billion in worldwide box office sales

2018 Avengers Infinity War: $1.4 Billion in worldwide box office sales (thus far)

2017 Justice League: $647 Million in worldwide box office sales.

What an ass kicking.

Same space, different place

Simply because you may offer the same products or services as a competitor does not mean, you have to look, sound, act, or feel the same. Apple is a classic example of this. While IBM and HP were focused on hardware and mass production, Apple focused on aesthetics and creativity. Now the tides have turned and you have IBM and HP trying to be more creative and focus on the user experience.

Too bad. That space is already occupied.

Think about how every aspect of the Dark Knight Trilogy was different from the Avengers. Dialogue, less special effects, desaturated, neutral color, deep, psychological dilemmas, harsh, realistic. For cryin’ out loud, it’s called the Dark Knight, that doesn’t sound uplifting at all. It’s an antithetical superhero movie. Making it stand out and hold the same weight as other options within the same genre.

Marketplace Positioning Map_Dark Knight, Avengers, and Justice League

The lesson: don’t compete, differentiate your brand

Diving into the problems and hurdles ingrained within direct competition is an article in and of itself. But here’s a synopsis: end up competing on price, no money for new initiatives, curl up and die.

Think about every major brand you know and love, there is no “second best” or “good enough.” There is only something new and completely different.

“When everyone else zigs… ZAG.” - Marty Neumeier

Is your brand working?

We'll send a brand report card to you so you can find out

Awesome, check your inbox for the report card.
Whoa there, something isn't quite right with that submission.

Want to learn more about branding?

Sign up for our email list

We got some good stuff in store for you.
Check you inbox for a confirmation email.
Whoa there, something isn't quite right with that submission.

Ready to rebrand?

Let's light this candle

We will get back to you soon.
Check you inbox for a confirmation email.
Whoa there, something isn't quite right with that submission.

Some other articles you might enjoy.

Want to learn more?

Get on the up-and-up with brand thinking by subscribing to our blog, we'll send new articles to you.

Thanks! We will get back to you within 24 hours.
Check you inbox for a confirmation email.
Whoa there, something isn't quite right with that submission.