No. 33: Marvel Entertainment

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2006-04-07 Print this article Print

Tracking the appeal of Spider-Man and other characters powers the bottom line.

More than 4,700 individuals rule Marvel Entertainment, including a 44-year-old man in a red and blue unitard.

Spider-Man, along with the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Wolverine and other comic book characters famous and obscure, are Marvel's biggest asset. But special powers like Spidey's spider-sense and Wolverine's retractable claws aren't what make Marvel No. 33 in Baseline's 100 Smartest Companies ranking, and No. 4 among media firms.

Rather, managers all the way up to the chief executive at the $391 million company analyze such data as audience desires (action heroes or cowboys?) and retail buying patterns (T-shirts or slippers?), along with sales and profits generated by Marvel's past projects. Then, the company's 230 corporate development, legal, creative, marketing and other employees formulate a branding and financial plan for each piece of intellectual property—a character or set of characters—in play. Spider-Man one year, Fantastic Four the next.

The 2002 movie Spider-Man was Marvel's first blockbuster, taking in $822 million at theaters worldwide. From then on, the company has sought to launch one or two carefully chosen character franchises per year.

But to do it, managers at various levels need "actionable" data from inside and outside the company, says Peter Cuneo, vice chairman of Marvel in New York.

Marvel must answer key questions that are sometimes esoteric: Do moviegoers prefer superhuman heroes or martial arts experts? How recognizable is Wolverine compared to Daredevil? Other questions are direct: How many copies of which version of the Spider-Man video game is Marvel's partner, Activision, selling each quarter?

Every quarter, Marvel's 800 licensees, including toy, clothing, food, video-game and movie companies, send product sales data to the company in all sorts of formats—faxed paper, spreadsheets, text files. The data is then entered into Marvel's Oracle database and financial and enterprise applications.

The goal is to connect quarterly royalty data reported by licensees with marketing information on spending and income by character, so that, for example, Marvel can know down to the stock-keeping unit level the revenue generated by each character, from each licensee.

The Oracle and Excel data help Marvel figure out the right assortment of companies to license each character. For example, the movie Spider-Man 3 is due out next year. Q ratings, which measure how well a brand is recognized by different cross-sections of consumers, show that Spider-Man is well-known with broad appeal to young children as well as adults. As a result, tie-ins with the new movie will come from toys, games and apparel, and, perhaps, fast-food.

The strategy appears to work. Marvel took in $230 million last year in licensing revenues, up 7% from $215 million in 2004, and another $92 million from publishing, also up 7% from $86 million.

Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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