The Magic of a Story

Editor’s note: This entry was originally published at Beneath the Brand, a marketing industry blog.

Ten days ago, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 enjoyed a record $43.5-million premiere — and that was just the midnight showing. By the end of the first day at the box office, the final Harry Potter installment had earned a whopping $92.1 million.

While Part 2 exceeded anyone’s expectations, the success shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone following the $15-billion brand empire built around The Boy Who Lived. Harry Potter is so much more than a gangly teenage wizard; Harry Potter is arguably one of the best-recognized brands in the world. If you’d like to read any of the seven books, you have 67 languages from which to choose, including Latin and Ancient Greek. If you’d like a more interactive experience, you have 10 video games from which to choose. If you’d like an even more interactive experience, you can take a trip to Florida to vacation at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

None of this came about by accident. While Joanne Rowling relays a fairytale story about being stuck on a train when the idea for Harry Potter came to her, the actual idea for the narrative was the only spontaneous aspect of Harry Potter as the world knows him now. Bloomsbury Publishing immediately identified a target demographic — children 9 to 11 years old — and asked Rowling to recreate herself with a gender-neutral name. Not having a middle name, she used her grandmother’s name, Kathleen, to create a second initial. Suddenly Joanne Rowling morphed into J. K. Rowling, which her publishers thought would be less off-putting to male readers.

Like the author, the first Harry Potter book has two names. Americans read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but the rest of the world read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Again, the marketing minds behind the book wanted to make it as accessible to as wide a demographic as possible, and they thought that an American audience would respond better to a sorcerer than a philosopher.

Tweaking semantics seems like trivial stuff, but making minor adjustments to customize your product to a target demographic sets the approach for an assertive marketing strategy versus a laissez-faire dud. And one of the reasons that Harry Potter is such a world-wide hit that transcends geography, age, and gender is that its product is one of the most sought-after by humankind: a good story.

Try to categorize the Harry Potter series into a single genre. It’s tough. It’s a fantasy, yes, but it’s not so black-and-white that it only appeals to children, so it’s not really a children’s book. It’s very much a coming-of-age story, but that’s not all it is. It also deals with death and the discomfort of the uncertainty surrounding that concept. So it’s dark, but not so dark that a nine-year-old can’t enjoy it.

Now try to categorize your company into a single genre. If that’s an easy task, you need to take a lesson from Hogwarts. Regardless of what you sell, you need to have a story about who you are. That story should have purpose. It should have a cultural impact on whichever culture you’re serving. And while that message should be consistent, it shouldn’t be two-dimensional; it should have room to evolve. It should be able to engage audiences for at least a decade, preferably generations. The best way to achieve that, if Harry Potter is any example, is to invite your audience to participate in that story. People didn’t just show up en masse to see midnight showings of eight movies; they showed up donning wizard hats and capes. They felt like they were part of the narrative. Even now, though she says she will not write any more Harry Potter books, Rowling has extended another invitation to keep the buzz going: Pottermore, the “free website that builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books,” will be public in October. But those true fans waiting on the edge of their seats can check back on July 31 to learn how to enter Pottermore early.

What invitations have you sent your brand’s clientele recently?

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