The story of the business and marketing of Harry Potter is a unique one. After all, this is a brand that changed the publishing world. This year, 26 years after the idea of Harry Potter formed in J.K. Rowling’s mind, the eighth book in the series people across the globe fell in love with was launched. While the fanfare might not have been quite as loud in 2016, there certainly was a buzz of excitement as people longed to immerse themselves in the wizarding world once again (and yes, I already read it).
I wrote a book about the business and marketing of Harry Potter that was published back in 2008 (Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon). It was an academic book published to teach marketing and business students (and professionals) how the Harry Potter brand became so successful. As a result, I’ve been contacted numerous times in recent months to offer insight about the success of Harry Potter.
Thinking about the topic again motivated me to share some of the thoughts I wrote in 2007 about the Harry Potter brand. What were the elements that made this book about a particularly unspectacular boy wizard become the global brand phenomenon that we know it as today?
I re-opened my book and flipped to the last couple of chapters where I analyzed whether or not another literary brand could achieve the same level of success as Harry Potter. Within those chapters, I identified five key elements in the success of Harry Potter that successors would need to emulate in order to have a chance at achieving the phenomenon status of Harry Potter:
1. A Good Product
Good marketing and business can only help sell a bad product to a certain extent. Without a good product, the marketing and business behind it is nothing, or at the most, will be short-lived and short-reaching. Longevity and breadth of product appeal is contingent on how good a product is. Part of the development of a good product is meeting consumers’ real or perceived needs with that product.
Content is key and a good product is the fundamental requirement of success, which leads us to this fundamental business truth:
Creating a product to fulfill an existing need is far easier than creating a perceived need to fulfill the business objectives of an existing product.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series fulfilled a need in that people love a classic story of a fallible hero, coming of age and good versus evil. Add elements of magic and suspense to the story and make the characters ones people can relate to, and you have the initial ingredients of success. J.K. Rowling’s successors need to start with a good product that fulfills an existing need.
Consider this. Disney churns out one animated film after another. Some of those movies reach high levels of success, and Disney capitalizes on that success by extending the brand in any way possible. Once the market is saturated with the brand and it becomes diluted, the company releases another animated film to take its place.
Very few of Disney’s films become classics. Those that reach cult brand status or become phenomena are Disney’s best movies and fulfill a need in a unique way. A myriad of Disney films have come and gone, achieving lower levels of success such as Pocahontas and Hercules. The quality of these films was deemed inferior to the best Disney animated films and so they did not rise to cult status.
However, films that fulfilled customers’ needs with a fundamentally good story, such as Toy Story and Beauty and the Beast, became instant classics and are still widely popular years after their original release dates.
2. Emotional Involvement
A product or brand cannot become a phenomenon without the emotional involvement of consumers driving it to that status. The first step to generating emotional involvement is to produce a good product that people need or want. Next, that product needs to provide the three S’s of customer loyalty by creating feelings of stability, sustainability, and security.
All the elements to invite customer loyalty were inherent in the Harry Potter brand. People started the journey with the character knowing how long it would last and continued on that journey feeling secure in the consistency reflected in the brand’s image.
Adding to the emotional involvement of the Harry Potter series was the linear, chronological structure of the books. Each book picked up almost exactly where the previous book left off, and each book followed one main story arc with the same core set of characters. Readers were invited to join the experiences of the characters.
With little to no time lost in the plot between books, readers felt no disconnect in their emotional involvement to the story. A single main story arc invited readers to follow it through to the end to learn the fate of the characters with whom they had become emotionally involved.
Many authors have written books as good or better than J.K. Rowling’s, but none have achieved the phenomenon status of Harry Potter. It could be argued that a main ingredient missing from those other books was the emotional involvement derived from the linear, chronological structure of the Harry Potter series. In other words, Rowling expertly executed a series in a time-tested and proven style similar to the style used by Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century.
3. Word-of-Mouth Marketing and an Online Buzz
Word-of-mouth marketing has been known historically as one of the most effective ways to boost book sales. When one person tells another they read and enjoyed a specific book and recommends it, the other person is far more likely to purchase it than if they saw an ad or promotion for it or simply saw it on a bookstore shelf. In fact, that is true of most product and services.
The internet has become the place to generate word-of-mouth marketing, and many authors and publishers have leveraged it as a catalyst to build word-of-mouth marketing. In fact, the internet is critical to Harry Potter successors. Scarcity can drive demand, and for Harry Potter, fans always wanted more from the brand. The internet became the place where the Harry Potter community could socialize and network.
By following the five factors of successful word-of-mouth marketing, Harry Potter successors will have a better chance of recreating the word-of-mouth success of Harry Potter. Creating a similar network and the power such a community holds, listening to what that community says and fulfilling the needs of that community would be considered a home run in terms of reaching the marketing goals for successors of Harry Potter.
4. Tease and Perpetual Marketing
A surefire way to boost word-of-mouth marketing and an online buzz about a product or brand is through tease and perpetual marketing tactics. By leaving consumers wanting more of a brand with which they are emotionally involved, each marketing tactic can build upon the one before it until the anticipation and buzz reaches a fever pitch.
Leaking bits and pieces of information, holding promotional events and contests, offering author interviews sporadically and strategically, and creating a veil of secrecy around the next product to launch related to a brand can drive the word-of-mouth marketing necessary to boost book sales (and any product or service sales for that matter) to the highest levels possible. Each piece of marketing should link to the one before it and fuel the one after it to maintain the ongoing emotional connection and anticipation consumers feel toward the brand.
Tease and perpetual marketing strategies would work best with a series that includes several novels as did the Harry Potter series with seven books in total originally. The longer a consumer experiences a brand, the more emotionally involved and loyal to it they become. Therefore, a longer series provides more opportunities to build that emotional involvement and leverage it.
5. Brand Consistency and Restraint
Once customers become loyal to a brand and have an emotional connection to it, it’s critical that nothing is done to taint the brand or betray customers’ loyalties to it. J.K. Rowling successfully retained control over the Harry Potter brand as brand guardian and reined in the marketing teams behind the brand to ensure brand extensions and marketing promotions did not negatively affect the brand’s image. Maintaining the brand’s perceived image in the minds of her fans as it related to the good product she had created was one of Rowling’s highest priorities.
In addition to maintaining consistency, it’s imperative that fans are left wanting more in order for tease and perpetual marketing tactics to work and drive word-of-mouth marketing. Overextending a brand can be appealing momentarily, but it can also dilute a brand. Once the market is saturated with a brand, customers will become bored with it and turn their backs on it.
Extreme emotional connection and loyalty to a brand can wane when consumers have their fill of that brand. J.K. Rowling often turned down brand extension proposals, giving up money in favor of maintaining the consistency and integrity of the Harry Potter brand in her fans’ minds. Even at the height of the Harry Potter brand’s popularity, it was not the most merchandised brand (that honor went to Disney’s Cars and DreamWorks’ Shrek at the time). Exercising strategic marketing restraint is a critical component to developing a cult brand and, possibly, a phenomenon.