Is Marvel’s diversity strategy paying off?

Marvel's diversity efforts paying off
Marvel's diversity efforts paying off

Marvel's introduction of Riri Williams, a 15-year-old black girl set to wear the mantle of Iron Man, is the latest character created by the comic book publisher as part of a trend to diversify its super-hero cast.

But is diversification having any impact on its bottom line?

In recent years, the Disney-owned company has taken several steps to introduce greater racial and gender diversity: in 2014, a black man became Captain America and Thor became a woman. The year before that, Marvel introduced Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager, as the super-hero Ms. Marvel.

One reason for increasing character diversity is to expand Marvel's audience, according to Augie De Blieck Jr., a columnist at Comic Book Resources.

"Marvel has relied on an ever-dwindling population to market its books to. Overwhelmingly, that's white men now in their 30s and 40s, who were reading comics during the last comic booms," he told CNBC via email.

"They need new people to market their comics to. With the boom in movie and television superheroes, there's an audience out there that craves this superhero material now. Those people aren't always being marketed to, like children, women, and insert your favorite ethnic minority in the United States here."

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Research by Helena Wu in 2014 for Duke University suggests diversity does make a difference to sales.

Wu examined the impact of featuring female and ethnic leads on the sales of video games across four major genres.

"The findings show that while shooter and adventure games conform to the conventional pattern where female and ethnic characters contribute negatively to sales, RPGs (role-playing games) favor the inclusion of female lead characters and action games favor the inclusion of ethnic lead characters," she said in the report entitled 'Video Game Sales: Does Diversity Pay?'.

Along with the huge successes of the Marvel cinematic universe and other marketing decisions, the creative choice to diversify seems to be paying off for the company.

Marvel controls around 40 percent of comic book market share in the U.S., according to the pop culture website ICv2. Also, the overall U.S. comic book market has grown in recent years: sales of comics were around $579 million in 2015, a year-on-year increase of 7.17 percent, according to figures compiled by comics history site Comichron.

However, this growth isn't due to the Marvel films turning movie audiences into new comic book readers, according to de Blieck.

"In many ways, the comics market has never been stronger, but that strength and growth isn't coming from Marvel and DC," explained de Blieck.

"The new readers are more likely to come from publishers like Scholastic, whose school book fairs create books that populate the New York Times best-sellers lists on a regular basis," he said. "TV shows that are focused on a single series, like The Walking Dead or Preacher, are also more likely to bring in new readers."