The Fans Awaken: What Star Wars Can Teach Marketers
Since the news first broke about Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, there has been a ton of speculation around whether Disney will be able to carry on the Star Wars legacy. Our questions were answered as Disney closed out the year by releasing Star Wars: The Force Awakens globally, and since then, it has been breaking box office records from left to right.
While George Lucas is much to credit for building the massive Star Wars fan base, Disney continued his legacy by catering to the fans and giving them what they want. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Lucas shared that, while it wasn’t what he wanted, Disney wanted to make something for the fans—a retro movie. And they did just that.
By keeping certain elements consistent with the prequels and adding their unique Disney-esque touches, Disney succeeded in carrying on the legacy and impressing critics, earning a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While it’s unlikely you’ll be directing a box-office hit anytime soon, there is a valuable lesson you can learn from this handover: your audience should always come first, whether it is a theater full of fans or your targeted prospects. It’s important to cater your messaging to them to give them the best experience possible because, at the end of the day, it’s their dollars that are feeding your bank. From my perspective, these are some of the key elements that Disney incorporated for the fans that contributed to the success of the new Star Wars movie, and can help you build your brand:
(Warning: This blog contains SPOILERS)
Granted that this is the seventh installment in the Star Wars saga, so Disney had to build on the story that George Lucas had created. Since The Force Awakens occurs after the events of the original Star Wars trilogy, they had the advantage of bringing back the original characters and actors that established the fanatic legacy that Star Wars enjoys today. However, that advantage came with the peril of tarnishing the “happily ever after” ending that was implied at the end of the last Star movie, Return of the Jedi. When we last saw our heroes, the Rebels had just blown up the second Death Star and defeated The Empire, Han and Leia were young and in love, and Luke led his father (SPOILER ALERT: Darth Vader) to redemption, finally becoming a true Jedi in the process.
Skip ahead a few decades and the events of the original trilogy are now a half-believed legend. Luke is a just a rumor of a broken man who ran away, Han and Leia are split up and trying to forget the pain of their alienated son by going back to old habits, and The Empire is back in a big way (now rebranded as The First Order). Did Disney just ruin the original Star Wars trilogy? In my opinion, no. What they did do is create believable continuity between the conflicts of the past and present. After all, who wants to watch a Star Wars movie about a universe where everything is going great? It would just be a boring movie about political debates and teen angst (*cough* the prequel trilogy).
In The Force Awakens, Disney brings back the basics with the good versus evil theme that defined the original films. In the new movie, the ultimate villain, Darth Vader, still looms large even from beyond the grave. This time, instead of Luke Skywalker trying to resist the temptations of the dark side and ending up twisted and evil like this father, Han and Leia’s son Kylo Ren is struggling to live up to his grandfather’s terrible legacy as a master of the dark side and fights against the good within himself.
Aside from telling a continuous story, Disney also paralleled key visuals into their movie that the old ones shared. This includes everything from the style of the opening crawls to familiar characters and scenes.
Take a look at the opening crawl from Star Wars Episode IV. Seem familiar?
Or what about when Han boarded the Millennium Falcon, blaster in hand with the same scoundrel grin he has always had (queue Star Wars theme song), backed-up by his sidekick Chewbacca who hasn’t changed one bit (and who we still can’t understand).
Marketing Lesson: Consistency is critical because it’s a solid element that allows fans to connect with you, associating new messages with all the feelings they already affiliate with your brand. And with such a huge fan base like Star Wars’, this is definitely a key thing to incorporate. In fact, when these consistent elements appeared on screen at my showing, the audience even clapped and cheered it on.
While Disney had to keep certain things the same, they also needed to add their own flavor to show that they can not only reproduce the same type of film, but contribute to it. Just take a look at BB-8, Disney’s take on an R2-D2 type of robot. R2-D2’s machinery has aged and is pretty old-age, but BB-8’s is much more innovative with its spherical shape that allows it to move swiftly. Even its noises have changed, sounding much more high-tech than R2-D2 static, satellite-sounding noises.
Personally, I think one of the best decisions that Disney, or J.J. Abrams, made was learning from the mistakes of the prequel trilogy and not overusing technology for the sake of technology. Just because something is old doesn’t make it obsolete (think light sabers or The Millennium Falcon). For The Force Awakens, they went back to the basics like shooting on real film, building sets on location, and utilizing practical effects and costumes. CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is definitely used, but it is used appropriately and doesn’t pull the viewer out of the story, which is what special effects are for and why the revolutionary techniques used in the originally trilogy were so effective—because they served the story and weren’t added just for spectacle.
The new film has improved greatly on the types of special effects that were pioneered by George Lucas and his team when they created the first films and combined with today’s state-of-the-art CGI. This blending of new and old is exactly what the new film is about and carrying that over to how the movie is made, looked, and felt is a big part of its well-received success. The first trilogy had no CGI. The prequel trilogy had WAY too much. This trilogy has started off with just the right amount.
Marketing Lesson: From the evolution of the droids, to the streamlined Stormtrooper uniforms, to the very methods used to bring the story to life, Disney has mixed the right amount of the past with the present to create an innovative evolution of a familiar universe. Take a cue from them and give your audience something new to keep them hooked. Otherwise, it’s just the same old, same old.
The times they are a-changin’. The last Star Wars movie was released in 2005, which means it was filmed at least a year before that. Being that a decade has passed since the last film, Disney had to adapt to our current culture. So what does this entail? For one, did you notice that the main protagonist in this film is a female? While women like Princess Leia or Queen Amidala certainly took the stage before, the spotlight was typically on the main characters—be it Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi. This time, Rey is the star of the show, and we watch her confidence grow as she overcames her fears to take down the dark force. When we first saw Rey, she had been left on the planet Jakku on her own, scavenging and selling things to survive, and certainly doesn’t fit a typical heroine stereotype. Even Finn’s commander is a female and perhaps the first female Stormtrooper ever.
Not to mention that we get our first black Stormtrooper played by John Boyega. This was such a controversial casting decision that the hashtag #BlackStormtrooper was born to handle the debate. Again, this is a sign of Disney not only adapting to the times, but doing it in a way that felt natural in the Star Wars mythology. Long gone are the days of clone troopers and faceless minions. These modern Stormtroopers are tragic militants, stolen from their families as children, and indoctrinated in the beliefs of The First Order. Some have doubts, some do not, but we finally we get to see one of the faces behind the mask. And he just happens to be reminiscent of another likeable hero who started off working against the Rebels, in both character and color—Lando Calrissian. Like Lando, Finn’s is just another well-developed character who continues the theme of redemption that runs throughout the Star Wars storyline.
Marketing Lesson: As Disney has proven, it’s important to keep up with new technology, emerging trends, and cultural norms to offer your audience new, engaging products and content. But this doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel each time. Go through your existing archives and recycle successful, old assets by tweaking it to make it more current.
Do, or do not. There is no try.
Disney did it. J.J. Abrams did it. And you can do it. Whether or not Disney’s take on Star Wars matched George Lucas’ vision, The Force Awakens is a successful continuation of the Star Wars story that resonates with the fans. Disney’s careful treatment of the core elements that made Star Wars such a beloved franchise provides the generation that grew up with Star Wars that familiar feeling of seeing old friends again, while its updates resonate with the current generation of fans-to-be to carry on the Star Wars legacy for years to come.
With strategic marketing through consistent and innovative branding, adapting to new generations of people and technology, you too can awaken your fans and build a brand that carries on for ages. Here’s to your legacy!