May the Force Be With Your Business: What Makes the Star Wars Brand Successful

Not sure if you’ve heard, but there was a little sci-fi flick that opened this past weekend. Yes, Star Wars returned to movie theaters for the first time in a decade with The Force Awakens. People waited in lines for weeks to see it, and international box office receipts totaled a whopping $529M. Wondering what your business can learn from an action-adventure set in a galaxy far, far away? Cue up John Williams’ timeless score, and read on…

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While Disney is making unfathomable amounts of money this holiday season, the financial success of this particular film is not what I think business owners can learn from. Rather, the most valuable lessons relate to how the entire franchise has managed to remain relevant for so many years. The last time the series was in theaters, the movies were…well, not very good. That trilogy (episodes 1-3) received an average score of just 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, after the original three movies averaged 89%. In other words, last time they were more like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (a forgettable action movie from this summer) than an all-time great adventure. So how on earth (or on Alderaan) did Star Wars manage to maintain one of the most powerful brands in entertainment history, in spite of weak plots and weaker acting? And how can your company build a similarly indestructible brand? I count four critical lessons:

Make it Easy for Customers to Share

Most action movies carry the rating PG-13 or R, making it difficult for parents to watch them with their children. The original Star Wars movies, however, were all rated PG, as were the first two of the prequel trilogy. This encouraged parents to watch the movie series with their kids, no matter the kids’ age. On top of this, the movies have always appealed to both men and women – an unusual trait for this genre. While The Force Awakens carries a PG-13 rating, it is being widely lauded for its strong female lead character. Star Wars has managed to do this without in any way alienating (pun unashamedly intended) its core audience.

How can your company mimic this approach? What are the barriers preventing your core customers from sharing your products or services with their loved ones? Can non-core customers still appreciate your value? One common mistake made by retailers who serve parents is to make it impractical to bring kids into their stores (for instance with aisles that are too small for strollers). Strive to eliminate anything that could prevent your customers from including others.

Control the Experience, and Make Sure it Stays with your Customers

Something that struck me while re-watching one of the original movies was the incredible use of music throughout the films. The score plays not just during climactic scenes, but throughout virtually the entire movie, adding a subtle emphasis to important lines and keeping the audience engaged (and, importantly, humming the tunes for days afterward). Many movies use constant action to keep their audience’s attention, but much of Star Wars is filled with dialogue and slower scenes. The incredible music keeps viewers interested during the movie, and thinking about it later on.

How can your company mimic this approach? Focus on those times when you might lose the attention of your customers. What can you do to keep them interested and engaged? One example is to provide the kinds of ongoing entertainment that keeps customers from getting bored. Even something as simple as having a television in your store tuned to a relevant station (e.g. HGTV in a hardware store or ESPN in a sporting goods store) can help customers feel comfortable hanging around longer – and eventually making more purchases.

Appeal to Simple Values

For all the intricacies of the Star Wars plots, the overall idea is incredibly simple: the guys in menacing costumes talking about “the dark side” are bad, the friendly, virtuous humans are good. Again, Star Wars strives to maintain the interest of a very wide range of fans, and they succeed. Even the youngest audience members know who they are supposed to be rooting for.

How can your company mimic this approach? While your mission might not have the same epic, good-versus-evil nature, having a clear and simple message is still critical. Can customers tell exactly what your product is used for, just as quickly as a child can tell that Darth Vader is bad? Could they explain your value proposition in one sentence? Every company needs this sort of appeal, so make sure you are telling your story in as simple a way as possible.

Embrace Quirkiness

While the overall plot of the series is simple, some of the most iconic Star Wars characters are, frankly, weird. Yet those characters – like C3PO (the tin man with an English accent), Jabba the Hut (a giant slug), or Yoda (a green dwarf with an odd speech pattern) – are some of the most memorable characters in cinema history. Standard, unremarkable aliens – like those in Independence Day or the Alien franchise – are fine, but they are not going to sell nearly as many toys, and create the bond between customer and product that allows the series to succeed through multiple generations. The only other movie I can think of with such a strange and eclectic set of characters is Guardians of the Galaxy – a surprise hit last year.

How can your company mimic this approach? These kinds of peculiar characters are what Seth Godin would call a “purple cow” – something highly unusual that makes your product stand out in a world where few companies truly do so. Purple cows can include things like atypical packaging or a bizarre marketing campaign. What is your company doing to make sure customers remember you – even if it seems a bit strange?

This list is missing one notable component that you might argue is critical to the lasting success of the franchise (and is expected to contribute over $500M in revenue to Disney’s top line): merchandise and licensing. While I agree that merchandise has played a significant role, it strikes me as one of the many positive results of a successful franchise, rather than a cause. There is a key lesson for business owners here as well: Focus on the core of your business; if it is strong, then ancillary growth opportunities will follow naturally. Star Wars’ core was an iconic movie series and film universe, which was so beloved that customers practically begged for action figures, video games, and more.

Like many young boys who grew up pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, I loved Star Wars when I was a child. As an adult, I am less mesmerized by the power of the force and more mesmerized by the power of the brand. I hope you can take these simple lessons and use them to build a brand that would impress even George Lucas. As a great Jedi master once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

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