Harry Potter Brand Wizard

July 18, 2005

Harry Potter is one of the most remarkable brand stories of recent years. So much so, that there can't be a single person anywhere who hasn't heard of "the boy who lived" and the best-selling books that bear his name. To date, six books in the seven-book series have been published and approximately 250 million copies have been sold worldwide. This places the boy wizard third on the all-time bestsellers list, after The Bible (2.5 billion copies sold) and The Thoughts of Chairman Mao (800 million). J.K. Rowling's books have been translated into 61 different languages, including Icelandic, Serbo-Croat, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Swahili, Ukrainian, and Afrikaans, to say nothing of novelty editions in Latin, Gaelic and ancient Greek. In addition to the books themselves, the first three Harry Potter adventures have been made into live-action movies by Warner Brothers, earning some US$ 1.6 billion at the global box office and a further $750 million in DVD, video and broadcasting rights sales. More than 400 items of ancillary merchandise are also available: everything from candy and key rings to computer games and glow-in-the-dark glasses. It is estimated that the Harry Potter brand is worth $4 billion, or thereabouts, and that Rowling is a dollar billionaire. Not bad for someone who was a poverty-stricken single parent, living on state benefits in an unheated Edinburgh apartment, less than a decade ago.

Staggering as the sales figures are, the Harry Potter "effect" goes far beyond the bottom line. The entire children's book sector has been invigorated by the achievements of the teenage mage: applications to boarding schools have rocketed in the wake of the HP phenomenon; EFL teachers claim that the texts are ideal workbooks for those wishing to improve their grasp of the mother tongue, as do parents of children with learning difficulties; owls are proving increasingly popular as household pets, much to the dismay of Animal Rights activists; the locations used in the movies are proving popular with tourists (though some sites have been chastised by Warner Brothers' legal department for advertising the connection); and the Potter vocabulary of "Quidditch," "Muggles," "Gryffindor," "Slytherin," "Hogwarts," et al, is now part of the vernacular.

The boy wizard is Britain's biggest cultural export since the Beatles and James Bond. Rowling's teenage familiar may be small for his age, but few would deny that he is a giant of contemporary consumer culture. It is surely only a matter of time before Potter's lightning bolt ascends to the logo-sphere alongside Nike's iconic swoosh, Coke's copperplate curlicues, and McDonald's golden arches.

For many, of course, Harry Potter is just a passing fad, yet another in a long line of consumer crazes like Pet Rocks, Beanie Babies and, of late, Sudoku. But it is arguable that the Harry Potter brand contains lessons that are relevant to the entire marketing community. In a world of intense competition, indistinguishable products, impenetrable advertising clutter and increasingly marketing-savvy consumers, Harry Potter stands head and shoulders above the clamoring crowd, and for that reason alone, the secrets of the brand's success are worth considering.

Four success factors can be tentatively identified. The first of these is Narrative. Harry Potter epitomizes the storytelling propensity that characterizes contemporary corporate culture. Having exhausted one-word solutions ("synergy," "re-engineering," "disintermediation") and having run the gamut of acronyms, metaphors, and mnemonics (TQM, CSR, "relationships," "warfare," 4Ps, 3Cs), the consultancy-industrial-complex has belatedly discovered the power of parables, anecdotes, yarns, myths and more. Storytelling is the management method of the moment. "Tell the tale, make the sale" is the order of our day.

The interesting thing about the Harry Potter story, however, is that it comprises multiple stories. There's the story of the barnstorming bookselling, there's the story of the billion dollar movie franchise, there's the story of the gratuitous tie-in merchandise, there's the story of the anti-witchcraft critics, there's the story of the over-enthusiastic consumers, there's the story of the on-going, non-stop publicity campaign, there's the unresolved story of what'll happen next now that the seven-book brand is reaching its climax. Each of these stories draws sustenance from, contributes to, and occasionally contradicts, the other brand stories. In a world where corporate storytelling is increasingly commonplace, the Harry Potter narrative suggests that it's no longer enough to tell a single story coherently. It must be a majestic brand story, a magical brand story, a multi-faceted brand story.

The second HP success factor is Ambiguity. The Harry Potter stories are nothing if not ambivalent. They appeal to adult and child alike. They comprise a mix of genres: mystery, boarding school, coming of age. They are set in the present yet are decidedly old-fashioned. They consider the evil in good and good in evil. They are loved by consumers and loathed by critics. They are held up as exemplars of authentic, grassroots marketing and egregious over-exploitation by meretricious marketing types.

Now, ambiguity is not a word that brand handlers are comfortable with. Since the days of Rosser "USP" Reeves, brand managers have been urged to avoid ambivalence. We are taught that images must be consistent, coherent and clear-cut. Logos are sacrosanct, slogans inviolate and positioning as near to fixed as makes no difference (Volvo is safety, Marlboro is freedom, Virgin is fun). However, the very idea of one-word-one-brand is increasingly untenable in today's profoundly paradoxical world. Chaos theory, the tipping point, post-structuralist linguistics and the like attest to the incorrigibly ambiguous character of our hair-trigger times. We are moving away from the epoch of monolithic marketing (monosyllabic marketing, if you will) to a polymorphic marketing dispensation. Ambi-brands are all around, as are pluri-appeals and multi-strategies. (Southwestern Airlines offers outstanding customer service and rock bottom prices. Red Bull astutely combines hedonism and health. Madonna adopts and abandons every image imaginable, from sexually ambiguous virago to Kabbalah-espousing supermom). Harry Potter is the poster boy of postmodern equivocation.

The third HP lesson concerns Mystery. The books are much more than mere comic adventures in the Tom Brown, boarding school, Bildungsroman tradition, though they are marvelous examples of that. They are replete with riddle-me-re, both at the overarching level (what will be the outcome of the struggle between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort?) and within each individual volume (who is Sirius Black? Why was the Philosopher's Stone stolen? What is the secret of the Chamber of Secrets? Which characters are going to get killed in Book VI?). Every installment, furthermore, contains a couple of concluding explanatory chapters, akin to classic Agatha Christie whodunits, where the chief suspects are assembled in the library prior to the private eye's pronouncement. Harry Potters are Hercule Poirots for pre-teens of all ages.

Marketing too is deeply mysterious. It is mysterious not only in the sense that we still don't know how advertising works, why Potteresque fads and crazes occur, or what the marketing concept is, exactly. Mystery is a marketing tactic in itself, although brand swamis have very little to say on the matter. Yet one only has to peruse the promotional practices of brand-centric organizations to appreciate that mystery, enigma, intrigue and "how they do that?" are an important part of their appeal.

Consider the "secret" recipes that help sell all sorts of comestibles: Coca-Cola, Heinz Varieties, KFC, Mrs Field's Cookies, Kellogg's Frosties, Grey Poupon, Brach's Chocolate Cherries, Angostura Bitters and, inevitably, HP Sauce. Consider the gift-giving business, which is predicated on secrets, surprises and agonizingly delayed gratification, as are gift-rich occasions like Christmas, birthdays and St. Valentine's Day. Consider the teaser campaigns, advertising soap operas and who'll-be-the-lucky winner promotions that are launched daily by Machiavellian marketers. Consider the self-help management gurus, who claim to possess the seven secrets of success, leadership, efficiency, effectiveness, time-management, corporate well being or, heaven help us, the Harry Potter Way to Higher Profits.

The fourth and final lesson concerns Entertainment. Whatever else it is, the Harry Potter phenomenon is enormously entertaining. The reaction of the public is entertaining, as the tribute websites, themed parties, and lines outside bookstores indicate. The reaction of the Harry-haters is entertaining as well, not least that of the affronted literary establishment. And, lest we forget, the marketing campaigns are wonderfully entertaining, particularly when new-release-date frenzy kicks in. If nothing else, Harry Potter reminds us of the easily forgotten fact that what we do is great fun. Yes, fun!

When all is said and done, Harry Potter epitomizes today's Entertainment Economy. This is a world-a warp-speed world-where there's no business without show business and where hot products, the next big thing, and the thing after the next big thing are where it's at. It seems to me that 21st-century brand wizards have much to learn from the book business in general and Harry Potter in particular. Although it is one of the oldest industries around (Gutenberg was the first modern marketing man), the book biz is a harbinger of how business will increasingly be. It is fast-changing, fad-prone, hit-driven, increasingly global and consolidating rapidly. It is facing technological threats, savage competition, copious substitutes, product profusion and channels confusion. Far from being an old-fashioned holdout, which has yet to come to terms with the marketing concept, the idea of customer-orientation and the nuts and bolts of branding, the biblio-business is where we should be looking to foresee the future of our field.

The secrets of Harry Potter's success are thus fourfold: Narrative, Ambiguity, Mystery and Entertainment. Or NAME for short. If you want to make a name for your brand, NAME's the name of the game.

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