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When Story Becomes the Brand – Harry Potter
It’s amazing how our modern communication and consumerism driven world has transformed the landscape of popular literature and storytelling. Yes, we’ve had icons before. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is the quintessential American literary icon, perhaps no Christmas passes by without a reference to Dickens’s immortal Scrooge and the name Sherlock Holmes encapsulates the be all and end all of romanticized, old school sleuthery, unsurpassed even to this day.
But Brands? No, ordinary folks still consider these as literary icons, and confine them to the realm of books. In the traditional sense a brand involves much more than nostalgia and filial affection. It involves billion dollar marketing budgets; it involves mega budget movies; it involves a wide variety of merchandise.
Eventually, it took a bespectacled boy wizard by the name Harry Potter to be all that and much more. Harry Potter series is undoubtedly a publishing phenomenon. Never before has any book series been so wildly popular. But more importantly, it is also a branding phenomenon because it is impossible to consider it just as a series of books. The brand Harry Potter involves a series of seven books, a series of eight blockbuster movies, a plethora of merchandise, scores of copycats, billions of fans of all age group worldwide, a more than a decade long romance with fantasy and magic and last but not the least a celebrity author whose imagination and rags-to-riches story is an inspiration to many.
Let’s consider the product itself. J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts is no less fascinating or magical than C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But what the other two or any fantasy story for that matter don’t have is the perfectly crafted set of unforgettable characters that inhabit Rowling’s imaginary world. These characters and their exploits have made children come back to books and adults a reason revisit childhood. The victory of good over evil is an age old ethic in the fantasy genre. But Harry Potter’s underlying theme of friendship and togetherness combined with the classic theme of the underdog winning against all odds is what propelled the brand to stellar heights.
And then there is the marketing. Penguin Transworld and Harper Collins would never forgive themselves for having rejected the manuscript for the first novel when it reached them and Bloomsbury, UK perhaps took the best decision they ever made when they saw potential in Rowling’s vision and put their publishing and marketing might behind it.
The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published on 30th June, 1997 and was instantly bought by Scholastic in US. By the year end it had sold 30,000 copies in the UK. Soon Publishers in other countries took note and Harry was launched in other countries too. By the time the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets came out, word-of-mouth publicity was so strong that it toppled even John Grisham in the UK bestselling charts. And then Hollywood took note and out came the Chris Columbus directed first movie in the series which grossed $ 300 million in 2 months. From then on it’s been a marketing, publishing and filming juggernaut. The movies make the books mainstream and the books generated publicity for the movies and both have helped sell a plethora of merchandise that further enhanced the brand Potter. What started in June 1997, came to an end in June 2011, after 14 years with the release of the last installment in the series of movies. But we all know that the Harry Potter phenomenon is far from over and will continue for generations more.
But it’s not just the story of Harry Potter that has made the brand Harry Potter. There is also the story behind the story. The real life story of a young British woman who was barely able to make ends meet for herself and her kids and who started writing down ideas for a children’s story in 1990 while stuck in the train. At that point she could not have imagined that the imaginary world she was in the process of creating would eventually make her the richest woman in Britain (richer than the Queen even). There is a magical element in this story like the novels Rowling wrote, as much as there are highs and lows – the lows of rejection letters from publishers, the early years struggle and the high of movie deals and awards. And there is controversy too. A Pennsylvanian author took a legal action against Rowling for plagiarism claiming that she based her Harry Potter on the character in an earlier book called The Legend of Rah and the Muggles, which was called Larry Potter. Other than this, Rowling’s various publishers and Time Warner the copyright owner of the Films have initiated many legal disputes over copyright violation and piracy. A spin off of the Harry Potter phenomenon was the number of locally produced copycats, and together with the real stuff it just added to the hype of Harry Potter and created its own mythology.
One of the truest test of a brand’s greatness is when you start hearing “interesting trivia” about the brand and hunt for behind-the-scenes action related to the brand.
Here are 3 reasons why Brand Harry Potter works.
Great Storytelling – People love escaping into fantasy and that’s what Harry Potter series provides. It is plot heavy, a lot happens in the story and quite fast. It is peppered with interesting and magical characters, revolving around the troika of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Universal Appeal – Harry Potter is not just a children’s story, which Rowling had set out to write initially. It started with the kids and pretty soon took the adults also in its magical fold. In fact towards the end the story was hardly about children and was a full blown good-versus-evil underdog story with dark and spiritual elements in equal measure.
Omnipresence – Harry Potter is everywhere – in bookstores, in DVD stores, on TV, in toy shops, in video game stores, in t-shirt stores and even in candy stores. Till some time ago it was even in theaters. With so much of exposure you can’t easy ignore Brand Potter.