My job at my agency is to see the creative relevance in the work, and try to help discuss with the larger world how and why it worked. And because of this job, it’s hard to see a cultural moment as huge as Avengers Endgame, and not see the kind of creative bravery that led to a film that’s so successful by financial and critical standards – and to see what brands should learn from it.
Yes, I went in asking myself "Who will live and who will die?" and "When will I leave to pee?" but I also left asking: What can my industry learn from a film franchise that’s become something bigger, with such bravery on bold display?
I don’t mean Captain Marvel’s bravery; I’m talking about the creative bravery that led to a story with so much emotional depth – in a world where superhero movies are derided for not having real, emotional relevance. I’m talking about the creative bravery that gave us a trailer for this action-packed sci-fi juggernaut, and mostly just showed the main characters feeling strong emotions. You didn’t see Iron Man projecting repulsor blasts in the marketing; you saw him sending a message to his wife.
That’s not what we expect. It’s creative risk-taking.
This is the culmination of a lot of films that work simply because they gave all the characters meaningful, hard-fought, emotional, honest friendships. The reason these are hard to dismiss as "Just Superhero Movies" is because they’re beautifully wrapped gifts that, when you open them, are stories of people trying to do the right thing in a world (not enough unlike ours) where a lot of people want to do the wrong thing. And they’re being made for an audience of general market viewers ("If I don’t know it, good luck trying to sell it to me") and comic book nerds like myself ("If it’s not exactly like what I remembered from the comics, I’m going to write a pretty harsh online review.")
You have a brand that’s built on tradition trying to reinvent itself for scale with every one of 22 films – and succeeding. So, what feats of Endgame’s creative heroism can we apply to brand thinking?
Commitment: This is a movie where (slight spoilers) a god from a destroyed kingdom talks to a space raccoon about how he misses his family and his ex-girlfriend – and it actually hits home. There’s no wink at the camera. There’s no dismissal of the absurdity. They’re characters in an insane world, and they commit. As brands, do the same. As you craft your narrative, and create big, lofty, ambitious stories, don’t disregard the reality you’re selling. Commit to your brand promise. Follow up words with actions. If your brand is a duck selling insurance or a bear selling toilet paper, be the most relevant duck or bear you can be.
World-Building: If you truly believe in brands as a full, multisensory experience, note that the film itself and its experiential components are an exercise in world-building. If you’re truly committed to your ideals, it’s easier to ask the standard improv question: "If this is true, then what else is true?" Endgame is an exercise in integration, and the building of consistent, meaningful world-building around a core premise. What brand doesn’t want that?
Diversity: Let me make this very clear, as someone who tries to critique these movies fairly through a feminist and multicultural lens – Marvel has not always gotten it right in terms of diversity. (I’m still waiting for an out, gay Avenger.) But what they have done right is to not let a need for perfection get in the way of imperfect progress. And all progress is important. This is not a perfect film from a diversity standpoint, but earns some notable diversity wins that will change the literal face of pop culture. And the more diverse audiences can connect, and see themselves, the more they will invest in the future of the story. Diverse representation directly drove creative possibilities in the plot.
Long-term investment: The problem with brands wanting "love" and "loyalty" and "affinity" from real life humans is not their aspirations; it’s their timeline. You can earn love, because some people do love brands... eventually. You just have to build affinity by earning it. (By the way, the hashtag to discuss this is #affinitywar.) Pace your brand story. Give immediate value and long-term payoff. There are moments in Endgame that make viewers literally cheer because they’ve been expected for years – but value was provided in advance of that payoff. What’s your long-term vision?
This brings us to…
The "Surprising But Inevitable": I love this term, which our CCO John Patroulis often imparts to capture the beauty of the best ideas. Those aforementioned, long-awaited Endgame story moments worked because they inspired total surprise, but at the same time, felt like something you always hoped would happen. You kinda saw them coming, but when they actually happen, you didn’t really see them coming. That’s the magic of the best brand work: when people didn’t realize they needed the solution you’re presenting, but welcome it as something that’s almost familiar.
The nerd community often punishes brave moves. The ad world is always looking for signs of what creative bravery looks like. Endgame sends out the battle cry: brave creatives… assemble.
Graham Nolan is senior VP of reputation management at Grey.