Hollywood’s stupidest franchise is one marketers should take seriously

Deadpool fanboy and R/GA Sydney creative director Tim Wood argues the case for why the R-rated superhero franchise is one of the most important marketing case studies ever to grace our screens.

“Do you like Deadpool?” The question typically elicits a passionate “fuck yeah” or vitriolic “fuck no” response. He’s polarising to say the least. I’m going to declare my hand early. I’m a fan. Partly because I think he brings a sense of fun and irreverence to superhero movies that many franchises sorely lack. But mostly because of the way Deadpool sells Deadpool.

Dismiss the character if you must, but pay attention to the marketing, because Deadpool is a masterclass in story driven, content and social media advertising. But hang on, how hard can it be to sell Deadpool when he’s played by a wisecracking Ryan Reynolds?

Well, if history is anything to go by (it usually is), Deadpool’s success was far from assured. For starters, it was a superhero movie amidst an absolute glut of superhero movies; Marvel and DC alone have released no less than 45 of them over the last decade. And most were thoroughly forgettable. I’m betting you can’t name half.

The Deadpool fanbase demanded an R rating (citing the USA classification here). That’s a problem, because not only does that immediately restrict your audience, but R rated ticket sales have been sliding for more than two decades, falling from 39% of all tickets sold to just 21% – that’s a 43% decline (also USA figures). Hardly encouraging.

Even casting Reynolds as Deadpool didn’t guarantee a walk up smash hit. How do I know? It didn’t happen the last time he played a lead superhero. That was Green Lantern in 2011; a film that significantly underperformed. But Reynolds as Deadpool has been a runaway success. Here’s what changed.

Deadpool’s brand is very clearly defined

I’ve honestly lost count of the number of different types of Deadpool executions (films one and two) I’ve seen. There’s been everything from emoji billboards to Valentine’s Day love story spoofs. He’s openly punked other films, other stars, and virtually everything in between including delivering a heartfelt cancer donation campaign while keeping the Deadpool tone.

There’s no brand guidelines document ever written that could have possibly informed all of this. Know your brand, and you’re free to express yourself in whatever way is appropriate, as long as you remain authentic and consistent.

Deadpool will happily annoy or offend you if it means his fans love him

Imagine a crass and offensive Deadpool who also tried to be all things to all people. His maroon suit would quickly turn so many shades of vanilla. The Deadpool brand is obviously an outlier; it’s the Jester Archetype on steroids.

But the lesson for marketers is clear. Be relevant to those who matter. Worry less about those who don’t. Clearly, populist brands who speak to the many need to ‘throw straighter dice’. But if your brand sits in the margins, don’t be afraid to have a personality or point of view. Listen and respond to your fans too, but don’t forget about point one: keep that interchange on brand.

Deadpool is media relevant

Unlike most blockbusters, the heavy lifting for Deadpool has largely been done through digital/social. Cynics might say that with a production budget of only $60 million (Deadpool 1) the film may not have warranted the usual ‘all singing, all dancing’ ATL push. But I disagree. The Deadpool fanbase lives in these spaces. And these media allow for a constant (and affordable) stream of content, supporting the overall strategy. Along with what you say, be relevant about where you choose to say it. And how often.

Deadpool is always entertaining

You may not like his style, but you cannot argue that literally everything Deadpool does seeks to entertain his audience. Of course, he is an ‘entertainment brand’, so perhaps a better way for consumer brands to approach this is to always aim to add value. Whatever we’re saying it should, first and foremost, be of value to our audience. Entertainment is one form of value, but there are others. Use them or you’ll bore people.

Much like Deadpool the character, Deadpool the franchise stands apart from the rest of the superhero set; that is no accident and neither its the success. Aside from justifying a second film, Deadpool 1 managed to achieve the following (again USA numbers/classifications, mostly):

Highest grossing opening weekend of any R rated film, ever

Fourth highest grossing R rated film on record meaning it outperformed The Matrix, Gladiator, Good Will Hunting and The Green Mile to name but a few.
Ranking box office performance for all superhero films (worldwide dollars here) Deadpool sits at 15 out of 108 films, going all the way back to the original Christopher Reeve Superman in 1978.

For a highly polarising, outlier franchise that carries an R rating while having to compete in a super-saturated superhero category, those are incredible numbers. And with a full head of steam, Deadpool 2 will almost certainly outperform the original.

Or to summarise it as Deadpool would, “And there’s the money shot, baby”.

Tim Wood is creative director at R/GA Sydney.


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