Uncertainty: Will Nick Fury be in an animated Captain America Series? COMIC HEROES RETURN TO ROOTS AS MARVEL IS CAST AS HIP BRAND: THREE-PRONGED MARKETING PLAN HITS KIDS, TEENS, NOSTALGIC ADULTS

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Financially troubled Marvel Entertainment Group is forging ahead with a new, brand-focused marketing plan that will have major ramifications on its comic book business.

Marvel this week unveils to the licensing industry a three-tier strategy aimed at kids, trendsetting teens and adults who remember Marvel Comics from their youth. The goal is to cast Marvel as a hip youth culture brand.

Marvel began as a comic label in 1938, but what the industry calls the "Marvel Age" of comics began in 1961 under the aegis of writer Stan Lee. Until now, Marvel has thought of itself as either a publisher or a youth marketing company with several brand focuses.

A MARVEL BRAND

"Now, we have decided to move into the whole area of building our own [Marvel] brand, founded in youth culture, and capitalizing on the movements that are always there," said Joseph Calamari, president-chief operating officer of Marvel Entertainment Group.

Marvel characters will be cultivated as brands. Over the years, different creators have stamped different visions on Marvel characters, adding up to a lot of inconsistency. Later this year, Marvel will strip the characters back to their roots and core equities.

The Spider-Man titles, for example, once again will tell the story of a teen-ager balancing heroics and homework. The Incredible Hulk will again toggle between Bruce Banner and a gray-green brute. Even X-Men -- a best seller with a rich, complicated mythology -- is getting streamlined.

CONSISTENT WITH CARTOONS

A major goal is to create more consistency with the animated cartoon series and planned films, as filmed entertainment is such a driver in licensing, especially among kids.

Changes already are being considered, for example, to an animated series based on Captain America and slated for the 1998-99 season on Fox Kids Network. The question now facing Marvel is who will join Captain America in that series.

Marvel has scored a hit comic with "The Avengers," a new version of the superhero team that includes Captain America. But Fox recently aired a live-action film based on Nick Fury, another hero linked to Captain America; a Nick Fury live-action series also being mulled. So now, Marvel and Fox are rethinking the animated Captain America series, and whether the Avengers or Nick Fury will join him on it.

MADISON AVENUE TARGETED

Mr. Calamari, who compares Marvel to Tommy Hilfiger in terms of youth culture relevance, wants to license Marvel-branded, fashion-forward apparel. It plans subbrands called Stan, as in the iconic Mr. Lee, and Mighty Spidey, the latter for kids.

In character licensing, different programs are being conceived for different age groups, with separate artistic styles used for the same superhero. For Spider-Man, Marvel has created a pop art-style version for kids and another for teens inspired by the Japanese anime style.

Marvel also is taking its characters to Madison Avenue. Castrol North America is using Spider-Man in TV spots from Hampel/Stefanides, New York. Kraft Foods' Altoids is using a vintage-style Iron Man in print ads from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

KNOCKING ON DOORS

Future Marvel promotional deals would include providing partners with ad units in Marvel comic books; banners on Marvel Zone, the company's Internet subscription service (www.marvelzone.com); a presence at Marvel Mania, a theme restaurant at Universal Studios Hollywood; or a presence on the Marvel attraction being built at Universal Studios Florida.

In recent years, marketers have been scared off by Marvel's financial struggles, precipitated by a crash in the comic book and trading card markets, and a subsequent battle between billionaires Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn for the company. Both men are now out of the picture. Marvel has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

"We've been hard to work with," admitted Steve Bobowski, Marvel exec VP-advertising and promotions, adding uncertainty paralyzed Marvel executives as well. "We're getting deals now because we're back knocking on the doors."

Marvel's aggressiveness is also evident in advertising. This year, the company has been promoting its brand and retailers in pop culture magazines with ads linking characters to rap stars and filmmakers. Marvel created the ads and bought media in-house.

Still, observers are taking a wait-and-see approach. Management turnover undermined previous efforts to implement other transformations. Mr. Calamari, recruited by Mr. Icahn when he had control of the company last year, has been credited with crafting Marvel's new vision. Mr. Calamari said it appears the court will approve a merger of Marvel with its financially successful Toy Biz subsidiary.

And Mr. Calamari is optimistic, particularly with Marvel characters moving more aggressively into live-action movies, beginning with this summer's "Blade" from New Line Cinema. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. has a live-action "The X-Men" in pre-production.

"Through the bankruptcy and the media circus of the fight for control, Marvel and its characters have survived intact," Mr. Calamari said. "Now, a new Marvel is emerging."

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