of Marketing
How Warner Bros. and Lego Sold a Comedy About the Most Humorless Vigilante in Comics

Batman is dark and violent, with an air of secrecy cloaked beneath practiced toughness. In his most recent movie, he tried to murder Superman. But this year, the marketers at Warner Bros. and Lego had to sell a different caped crusader flick: a funny one.

While audiences liked the star of "The Lego Batman Movie" when he first appeared in 2014's unexpectedly clever "The Lego Movie," he now had to carry a whole feature himself, without the advantage of surprise to drive word of mouth. What the new movie had behind it was brand awareness—and an unrelenting coalition of allies. That was enough for "Lego Batman" to top $53 million at theaters in the U.S. and Canada in its opening weekend earlier this month, shy of its predecessor's initial $69 million but enough to top rival sequels "Fifty Shades Darker" and "John Wick 2" and take the No. 1 box-office spot.

Its success owed in part to good reviews, but also a tireless, yearlong marketing campaign that encompassed wide-ranging collaborations with other Warner Bros. properties like "The Big Bang Theory"; tie-ins with a long-running Chevrolet ad campaign and MTV's gone-but-not-forgotten "Cribs"; and an aggressive digital campaign with creative help from the film's voice star, Will Arnett. The result suggests that brands can extend themselves further than they might have previously thought.

A galaxy of creative brand collaborations propelled 'The Lego Batman Movie,' a mash-up itself, to No. 1 on its opening weekend. (Clockwise) 'MTV Cribs: Gotham Edition,' a promo Lego-izing 'The Big Bang Theory' and Chevrolet's 17-foot-long Lego Batmobile last month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Credits: 'Gotham Cribs': courtesy MTV/Warner Bros.; 'You're In My Spot': Warner Bros. TV; Lego Batmobile: Steve Fecht for Chevrolet.

"On one hand, from this character you get this crazy egomaniac ... but at the end of the day, there's still a message for parents that Batman is better with friends than alone," said Blair Rich, president of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros. "We wanted the campaign to still be emblematic of that for families. It's really the strategy about balancing all of those different elements without sacrificing the identity of the campaign and how funny and clever it is."

While the production budget for the film was a reported $80 million, or $20 million more than "The Lego Movie," Ms. Rich said marketing costs were on par with the first film, declining to be more specific.

There was no such thing as too many tie-ins for the "Lego Batman" campaign, said Gary Faber, co-founder of the firm Entertainment Research & Marketing. "The nice thing with this property is that the content lends itself to being original and fresh. For every tie-in—whether 'Big Bang Theory,' Chevy, 'Cribs'—they're all completely different jokes."

One of the best-received collaborations came from Chevrolet, one of Warner Bros.' domestic partners for the movie. Last month, Chevy used 344,000 Lego pieces to build its own Batmobile, which it displayed at the Detroit Auto Show along with its other new vehicles. The carmaker then ran a Lego-ized installment of its two-year-old TV campaign featuring real-people focus groups. In the commercial, Lego people make depressing psychological assessments about what the Batmobile says about its driver, as Batman rages nearby. "Screams loner to me," says one man. "There's no backseat," another notes. "Probably not many friends."

The spoof clicked with consumers. A 60-second version generated 2.6 million organic views on YouTube, according to Gary Pascoe, chief creative officer, North America at Chevy lead agency Commonwealth/McCann.

"We thought parodying an existing campaign showed that we're not taking ourselves so seriously, that we can laugh and have a great time as well," Mr. Pascoe said, arguing that the collaboration helped raise awareness for other Chevy products. "A lot of people were surprised that we went ahead and did it," he said. "They'll lean in a little closer now when we talk."

Warner Bros.' spoof of MTV's popular but defunct "Cribs" show found Lego Batman giving a "sick tour" of Wayne Manor. He brags about his pet dolphins and lobster thermidor-filled fridge and introduces his roommate, Bruce Wayne.

The studio created an opening sequence for the "The Big Bang Theory," the hit CBS sitcom that Warner Bros. Television coproduces, where Lego Batman takes key character Sheldon's spot on the couch. And Warner Bros. ran a custom "Easter egg"-type activation with Apple letting fans ask Siri (or " 'Puter," as Lego Batman calls it) questions about the character and fighting crime as a follow-up to Siri's role in the film.

"They've managed to create another lane that still isn't crashing into what came before."

— Neil Goetz, executive creative director at creative agency The Engine Room

The pursuit of teen audiences meant a big focus on digital marketing, including an Instagram account for Lego Batman since last summer. The feed has included posts about Lego Batman's vacations, press junkets for his movie and National Cat Day. The studio also created a selfie-maker website where consumers can take pictures of themselves with the toy superhero.

"The digital campaign was particularly important and successful," said Ms. Rich. "The real key is, how do you differentiate yourself in such a fragmented world? Our strategy for digital with social media was an 'always-on' strategy."

In another tactic that is becoming increasingly popular in Hollywood, the film's star did more than execute promotions and marketing dreamed up by others. Warner Bros. gave Mr. Arnett concept ideas, and he would often improvise and lend his own voice to the social media effort. That follows in the footsteps of another masked-hero movie—last year's "Deadpool," in which Ryan Reynolds promoted a significant amount of content through his own social media outreach.

As for the Lego brand, the new movie broadens the road it's been paving for new products. The Danish toymaker plans to use Batman to help promote a new line of collectibles called Lego Brickheads—four of which are "Lego Batman" characters—next month. Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations at Lego, said the brand learned quite a bit from the first Lego movie, when product sales surpassed expectations. Lego's creative team, which is based in Hollywood, worked with the movie studio on the promotion.

"We've been able to take the learnings from the first time and put it toward a more concerted plan that has really created tons of engagement and excitement with Lego fans," he said. The first film also helped broaden Lego's appeal as more than a building toy—now, the brand dabbles in a diverse range of entertainment avenues, including a collection of animated shorts with Disney's "Frozen" franchise. Linking up with a "Frozen" or "Batman" has helped Lego tell a familiar story with new humor and freshness, something that has now become part of the Lego brand identity, Mr. McNally said.

Experts agree that the fresh take on Batman can only mean more possibilities for Warner Bros. and Lego. "You want to make sure your franchise doesn't get stale, but they've reinvigorated Batman and made the franchise its own thing within the Lego world," said Neil Goetz, executive creative director at The Engine Room, a creative agency. "He exists in his own fresh world yet is still part of the larger franchise, so they've managed to create another lane that still isn't crashing into what came before."

Cover photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Web production by Chen Wu.