Marvel’s Black Panther – Grassroots Marketing and the Brand Activism of Afrofuturism

LEVIATHAN: A mano-a-mano slugfest, a scene from 'Black Panther'.

Photo credit: Scene from Black Panther

I distinctly remember back in mid-2017 making a mental note to self, followed very quickly by an actual calendar entry in my Android phone to remind me; “February 2018 is Black Panther – book tickets”.  I’m serious. Roughly a year ago I made a commitment to pitch up with my SK Club member card at Ster-Kinekor and watch this movie.  Those who know me will appreciate this because I usually take to trends long after the wave has crashed.  Also, I don’t live in the world of Comic Con, so it really is of little significance to me which studio produces whichever of the superhero/villain comics lauded by the faithful of that movement.  But I pitched up for Black Panther, in my usual understated way and not at all like the social masses who took to the premier weekend with the pomp of black pride.  Boy did my people go to town!  

The kingdom of Wakanda finally arrived and in retrospect I’m mindful of what exactly it is that intrigued and appealed to me for nearly a year prior to watching this movie.   Branding is my everyday passion and because I’m usually of three minds when it comes to most things, I watched this movie through three prisms.  The Black Panther, as a brand, spoke to me on a corporate, innovation and activist touchpoint.  

 Marvel Studios is a corporate out to make a fortune with every box office release and the Black Panther brand is a business asset.  But with Black Panther it was not business as usual.  Marvel got so much more than most studios could hope for.  The timing of this movie, as marketing strategy would dictate, is incredibly attuned to the trends and accurately poised to capitalise.  We are in an essential moment right now in our history.  With movements in recent years like Black Lives Matter and Africa Your Time is Now, the clarion call for diversity, equality and equity across society and into multiple industries is demanding the rise and recognition of black value and excellence.  The global Afropolitan culture essentially took Black Panther and made it a movement.  

For months before the worldwide release of this movie, so many Afro-descended natives and diaspora spearheaded marketing at a grassroots level and made a lot of noise over this movie, myself included.  People leading ordinary lives identified with the extraordinary precedent set by Black Panther.  This movie was a coming together of black creatives drawing inspiration on African streams of heritage, from casting lead and supporting roles, to costume and set designs, to the soundtrack and down to the director.  The business value of what black culture did through grassroots marketing for Marvel as a corporate brand is immense.  It can be quantified, and it will show other brands the power of diversity and inclusion.  And that leads me to think of Marvel as corporate citizen, and the possibilities for shared value translating profits into some real impact for grassroots supporters in some of those communities.  The cynic in me says don’t hold your breath but the believer in me wants to wait and see. 

My next thought on Black Panther is on innovation, particularly as it relates to Afrofuturism.  In the build up to this movie, I marvelled at the idea of a modern African civilisation so far advanced that first world nations paled in comparison.  Not only an advanced civilisation, but one that was inherently African in its way of life, progressive in national governance and gender roles, and strategic in public diplomacy affairs.  I count myself among brand practitioners that would kill to work on a nation brand like Wakanda.  I loved that it piqued my curiosity as I’d never mused about a futuristic sci-fi Africa.  But I have since gotten acquainted with authors such as Nnedi Okorafor and discovered that Afrofuturism is by no means a novelty.  

With Black Panther specifically, the display of technology in medical treatment, powering cities and structuring complex transport networks again highlighted the role of STEM in the industrialisation and infrastructure development agenda for Africa.  And Letitia Wright as the sci-fi nerd sister to Chadwick Boseman is the celebration of all those girl coders and inventors across the continent doing awesome things in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  I hope that young African inventors, creatives and design thinkers see themselves and the possibility of what their brand innovation, research and development can mean to the future pride and competitive identities of African economies.  May the powers that be continue to invest heavily in these forward-thinking minds. 

Lastly, Black Panther reinforced the platform for the brand activism of diversity and inclusion.  This movie is pan-Africanist muscle on steroids with Afro chic swag.  It’s about the social dynamics that bind universal black culture, the economic emancipation and elevation of a people historically exploited, undervalued and underestimated.  It’s the cultural pride, humour, wit and wealth embedded into the DNA of a race that covers the earth.  

It’s Martin Luther King’s dream on that long walk to freedom, hand in hand with Nelson Mandela and echoing Thabo Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’.  Wakanda arrived, told the world what’s up and scores of black people ascended that vibranium mountain with T’Challa.  As we descend back down to earth, we echo Solange’s words, “don’t clip my wings before I learn to fly, I didn’t come back down to earth to die”.  Black Panther is ‘for us, by us’ and brands know they need to practically show up for diversity if they want to keep up.

Lungiswa Mzimba’s passion points are branding, communications and sustainability.  She has combined several years’ experience in FMCG sales & marketing with certification in Public Relations Practice (PRISA) and graduate studies in Communications (NWU) and Strategic Brand Communications (IIE-VEGA)