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“You were made to be ruled.” Tom Hiddleston’s Loki spoke those words in the first trailer for The Avengers, the 2012 film that took Marvel Studios to new heights and brought Hiddleston’s God of Mischief to new levels of popularity. The $1.51 billion grosser also holds a special place in Walt Disney Studios marketing president Asad Ayaz’s heart as the first Marvel Studios campaign he ever worked on.
Nearly a decade later, Ayaz is still living in Loki’s world, with the exec’s team dreaming up mischievous ways to engage fans over the six-week run of Loki, the latest Disney+ series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the campaign’s secret weapons is Hiddleston himself, who over the years has proven game for stunts, such as showing up in costume at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013, considered one of the great moments in the history of Hall H and one that required a dress rehearsal the night before.
“We try not to do everything in character because that’s a lot to ask an actor to dress up as Loki every single time,” says Ayaz of teaming with Hiddleston on Loki. “But he’s done so much for us. You look at the campaign, you look at the brand tie-ins.”
The marketing work begins all the way back at the time a series is greenlit, with Ayaz and a few team members getting access to scripts and footage as it comes in. They work backward from the release date to craft the story they want the marketing to tell. Unlike a film campaign, an ongoing series means preparing posters and other materials to drop each week when new characters and elements are introduced. The team is also prepared to be nimble, shifting gears to promote the show’s move from Fridays to Wednesdays and keeping an eye on unexpected moments fans are latching on to. (Falcon and the Winter Soldier, for example, saw Baron Zemo dancing become a meme-able moment, and the marketing team responded by releasing more footage of actor Daniel Brühl showing off his moves.)
Loki, from head writer Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron, has been a hit for Disney+, with Disney CEO Bob Chapek revealing the June 9 premiere was the streamer’s most-watched premiere to date. (Like other streaming services, Disney+ does not provide public viewership numbers.)
The Loki campaign also comes amid Marvel Studios’ busiest year ever, which saw the Disney-owned studio delve into streaming for the first time with January’s WandaVision, restart Black Widow‘s marketing following a year-long COVID release delay, and gear up to introduce two new properties to the big screen: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals.
You are working with actors with different comfort levels of what they are willing to do. Tom seems very comfortable with Loki being part of his public persona in a way. How does having Tom help with the campaign?
He is a very collaborative actor and partner to us. He is very close to Kevin Feige and Louis D’esposito, who run Marvel. He always is willing to hear out our ideas. We try not to do everything in character, because that’s a lot to ask an actor to dress up as Loki every single time. But he’s done so much for us. You look at the campaign, you look at the brand tie-ins. We did fan events around the world to launch Loki and he came to our U.K. event, surprised fans. We simulcast it to London, Paris, São Paulo, L.A. and he was in London in person. Fans had dressed up as Loki. He loves the fans, he loves the character and he’s a great partner to us.
Take me back to when you first started working on Loki. Are you getting scripts early? Are you getting dailies?
Very few of us have access to the script, which we read right around the time a series is greenlit and is starting production. Then we have access to different footage, what they’ve shot so far, and we start developing a timeline of how we want this campaign to look, based on the release date, when we want to announce it, when we want to give a first-look at footage from the series. We work closely with filmmakers and Kevin and Lou and then start figuring out what that cadence of marketing needs to look like. We are being very cognizant of having WandaVision and Falcon and The Winter Soldier in the world and giving each of them fair time. Each one of these series is very unique and different from one another. They are following each other in terms of coming on the service, but in terms of genre, in terms of feel and look and vibe, we were so lucky to work on three shows that have a very different creative feel from one another.
How much debate goes into what to show in the marketing? Loki fighting a female Loki variant sounds like a great angle for a trailer, but that was left out of the marketing.
We are very protective of spoilers. We want people experiencing surprises in the series so we are very careful in what goes into materials before a series goes live. As you saw with Wanda and Falcon and Mandalorian season one and two as well, we saved so much. For streaming, you are marketing a series, not just an opening weekend of a film. You have a marketing campaign that goes on for weeks across the season and all the way through the finale when you want people to binge and catch up and tune in for the final episode. We do a lot of in-season marketing. We are putting out new posters. We put out a Miss Minutes poster on Monday morning. We did that with Wanda, revealing characters. You will see as the season for Loki progresses, as something is revealed in an episode, you will then start seeing it in the post-episode marketing. We have a whole plan that takes into account spoilers and making sure that we save the experience for the actual show.
— Kate Herron (@iamkateherron) June 15, 2021
You were in the midst of a Black Widow campaign last year when the coronavirus shuttered theaters and the date got moved. What was the process of starting up the Black Widow campaign again?
We were about two months out from the film when we paused the campaign. We do save so much for the final phase. We don’t want to give too much away. Even though we had put out trailers, we had put out posters, we still had so much that we had not revealed. We had character looks, we had story points that will not be revealed at all in the pre-release marketing, but some that we were saving. So we had a real opportunity to revisit some of those and also look at what a fresh campaign for Black Widow looked like. Because so much time had gone by since the date was pushed, we didn’t want to look like we were going back to the exact same campaign. If you go back and look at the very first posters we put out, they focused on the Black Widow symbol, certainly the black costume. When we came back, she was in her white costume from the film. Small things like that. The color pallet. The story points, leaning into her legacy as an Avenger is something we’re doing in the new campaign that we have started. There is so much for us to work with.
Do we know yet if there will be a traditional Black Widow premiere?
We are working on the event plan for Black Widow. Yes, we are able to safely have in-person events. We did our first event for Cruella. It was a little bit scaled back due to safety protocols and all of that, but we have had one. We certainly are looking at that for Black Widow and the rest of our films this summer.
You’ve already had so many campaigns this year, but we also have Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye to come. How are you deciding when to put out first looks at those series?
With Loki, you look at the release date of your film or series and you kind of work backwards from that based on the story you want to tell over the course of the campaign. We put a lot of thought and a lot of creativity into what we want the fans to experience, what we want to fans to own when they see the film and not necessarily spoil it pre-release. If you saw the Eternals teaser, it really gave nothing away. It’s just an introduction to the characters and tone. It was a very, very early tease. We have so much more to do on that. We will be very judicious because we do have other films and shows prior to Eternals hitting. And Eternals is such a special movie with all-new characters, and we have two Marvel movies prior to that. So that gives us an advantage in using those to expose people more to Eternals, but also spacing things out. Loki and Black Widow are two very creatively unique properties. You look at the Shang-Chi trailer and the Black Widow trailer and the Eternals trailer teaser, they are all completely unique. They don’t feel they are bleeding into each other or redundant or repetitive in any way. So that’s a wonderful thing for us to have as a marketing team. We are making sure that the way fans experience them is unique and special and it doesn’t feel like you’ve got all these different Marvel properties hitting you at the same time.
How in touch are you with the Sony team, which handles the Spider-Man movies? I think back to a Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer which featured a message from Tom Holland noting it had spoilers for Endgame.
Sony is absolutely handling the marketing for Spider-Man. Kevin Feige and his team are closely partnering with the Sony team on those. So there is coordination in that sense. We also make sure we are aware of who is dropping what when. But we are not working together on the campaigns because it’s their film. They are handling it but there is a level of coordination to make sure that it’s a win-win for everybody.
How helpful is it to look to fan reactions on social media?
We definitely pay a lot of attention. Many of us who work on these films and shows are real fans. We are comic book fans. We really care how people perceive them and we try to be really fearless and try things that are different. We don’t follow a blueprint. Every campaign we want to top ourselves. We want new ideas. People wanted to see dancing footage of Zemo from Falcon and the Winter Soldier. They were demanding it, and the hashtags were trending. We had a quick conversation. The digital team pitched the idea, “We’re going to release it. We have it. We have access to it. We should cut it.” I called Kevin Feige. I had a conversation with him and the team about it, and we moved really quickly and gave the fans the footage they were looking for, which is not traditional marketing and advertising, but it was a sensation. It went viral. It was the number one trend. It just took off and that was not advertising.
And then you saw the phenomenon of “Agatha All Along,” with Kathryn Hahn. We knew it was a zeitgeisty thing. The song was on iTunes, it was climbing the charts, the clip went viral so we quickly cut that. We had the Agatha emoji. We had a whole plan around revealing her as Agatha, vs. Agnes the neighbor, and letting the fans drive the conversation. The same thing happened with Baby Yoda. When we revealed Grogu in the series, we let the fans own that. We didn’t suddenly start putting him in posters and putting out new material. The fans were creating so many memes and so much content, and they owned it.
Amongst fans, there’s a mythical idea that Kevin Feige keeps a whiteboard in his office with all of Marvel’s secrets on it. Is there an equivalent of that whiteboard in your office?
I wouldn’t say there is a whiteboard, but we do put our ideas on paper and we do put them on whiteboards but we don’t leave them up. We are so careful about documents and things we put in emails because the fans want this content, the world wants this content, and our job is to protect is and let people experience it the right way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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