How Harry Potter Became a Global Brand – Part One

In Featured, Industry Insights, Katherine Sanderson by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Katherine Sanderson –

This is the fifth article in a six-part series (The first and second covered ‘Marvel’ and the third and fourth covered ‘Star Wars’).

For each brand, the first article covers the corporate strategy that initially launched them, and the second covers how they expanded the brand, with marketing partnerships, consumer products, and themed entertainment.

In the mid-1990s, when the Harry Potter book series initially came out in print, the children’s publishing industry was in decline, with studies showing kids were watching television and playing video games, and certainly not reading for fun. And in the late 1990s, when the first Harry Potter film went into production, fantasy films were not doing well at the box office. Disney turned down the opportunity to produce the films series citing this very trend. So how and why did a children’s fantasy book series about a boy wizard, originally intended for audiences 9-12 years-old, become a global franchise with fans of all ages, and a brand with an estimated worth of $25 billion?

The Harry Potter books have been translated into over 80 languages, and the films have been dubbed in various languages all over the world. As of February 2018, the books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, making them the best-selling book series in history, and the films have brought in $7.7 billion worldwide at the box office, making the Harry Potter films the third highest grossing film series ever. And with the tenth film in the Harry Potter universe expected this year (Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald), this multi-billion dollar franchise is only continuing to grow. But how did the Harry Potter brand become what it is today?

As with my previous articles about Marvel Studios and Star Wars, I believe there are four areas of business that a global entertainment brand like Harry Potter had to conquer in order to make the jump from film franchise to global brand: 1.Corporate Strategy 2. Marketing 3. Consumer Products and 4. Themed Entertainment.

This article will cover the initial corporate strategy of the Harry Potter brand (i.e. the books and early films).

Corporate Strategy

What has been key has been the presence of Harry Potter creator Joanne Rowling (aka J.K. Rowling). Rowling has been a protective keeper of her brand, having a say over every decision made on films, consumer products, and theme parks over the last two decades. All the while, she has maintained a strong relationship with fans, striking the correct balance of giving them what they want, while still holding some back to keep them wanting more. Here are four early decisions that allowed Harry Potter to become a global brand.

  1. Not following literary or film trends

So often in entertainment, we hear that certain genres or formats aren’t connecting with audiences. Executives have a tendency of simplifying a literary property to its genre, saying something like “You’re crazy if you’re trying to make that kind of film! Look at these past films. They don’t sell!” And most of the industry takes heed, conforming to these trends and making content in whatever genre is “popular”. Ironically, many should look to the less popular genres, with underserved audiences (Star Wars and Marvel both used this to their advantage too!). The Christopher Little Agency, a London-based literary agency, actually almost turned down Harry Potter (it was in the reject pile) on the basis that it was a children fantasy novel – until an assistant picked it up, and asked their boss to take another look.

And they continued to break the rules. People said that kids only would read books with up to 40,000 words. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had 90,000 words total. Children book publishers said that kids wouldn’t buy hardcovers. They made hardcovers. What was key to Harry Potter’s initial success, beyond the great story, was that it was different. And it came into a market where there were very few competitors both for children literature and even for family film (it truly had the competitive advantage!) But beyond that, critics soon learned that the property couldn’t be contained to a simple genre. The Harry Potter stories may technically be ‘fantasy’, but like any complex narrative, they boast elements of coming-of-age, adventure, romance, and many more.

  1. Having seven books / eight films in original series

J.K. Rowling made the decision early on to have seven books, so that each book would cover a year at Hogwarts. But that decision was actually very strategic for the future marketing of the Harry Potter brand. It allowed for perpetual marketing. As a result of the overlapping timelines of the books and films, from 1997 to 2011, for nearly fifteen years fans were receiving a steady stream of Harry Potter. And because Rowling had set down how many there would be (and wasn’t just writing sequel after sequel) fans could rest assured that they knew exactly how many books/films they could expect. Of course now there is a five-film spin-off series called Fantastic Beasts, but even that has been planned out in advance!

The challenge to this was keeping the plot of each book secret. But Rowling succeeded in this as well. According to a recently published book, Rowling took extraordinary precautions, using fake titles for early drafts such as ‘The Life and Times of Clara Rose Lovett’ and ‘Edinburgh Potters’, and having her editor’s computer completely disconnected from the internet. Even Rowling herself would rarely do interviews or public appearances, only adding to the anticipation. Furthermore, the non-English versions of the book were not allowed to begin translation process until after the English version was officially released (meaning non-English fans had to either read it in English, or wait a few months to get their local version). In France, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix became the first English book to top the bestseller list for this very reason. But by ensuring that non-English readers got to read a properly translated version, with considerations taken for cultural references and local humour, Rowling only grew Harry Potter’s global audience. Although the films couldn’t necessarily do this as well, the audience was already there.

  1. Giving J.K. Rowling nearly full control of brand

In the past, whenever there were books-turned-film-franchises, the original author get sidelined, with Hollywood executives taking over all the creative and business decisions. This wasn’t the case with Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling specified early-on that she wanted to have creative control (i.e. approving final scripts, casting, set design, merchandise, etc.). Most of the major studios laughed at her demands and withdrew their offers. But Warner Bros. could see what a valuable property Harry Potter could be. And they knew that Rowling’s passion for her brand was not a hindrance, but would allow them to deliver consistent branding.

Rowling recognized that she would not always be the expert, but knew what decisions were crucial to maintaining her brand. Steven Spielberg initially negotiated to direct the film, but wanted it to be an animated feature with Haley Joel Osment voicing the title character. Rowling said ‘no’, and that she wanted live-action with British actors. Rowling also said ‘no’ to a lucrative deal for Harry Potter-themed Happy Meal toys at McDonalds. Diana Nelson, the EVP of global brand management for Warner Bros at the time said in an quote for the Los Angeles Times that Rowling promptly turned down the fast food toy tie-in deal with McDonalds, saying that “fast-food kid meals would be her worst nightmare.” These were just a few of her many decisions that would prove to be the correct ones.

  1. Allowing fans to interact with brand in-person and online

At first, it was Warner Bros and Scholastic’s nightmare. With the internet boom of the late 1990s, that all these unauthorized fan websites started to pop up, and they had no way of moderating the content contained on them. With MuggleNet in 1999 and The Leaky Cauldron in 2000, soon there were various sites marketing teams could use to learn what fans wanted. Warner Bros eventually began inviting the webmasters of the top sites to premieres of the films, as well as tours of the film sets, because of their close connection with the fans. Rowling soon began her own website in 2004 to reach her fans. Today, with the advent of social media, Rowling herself is an avid Twitter user, often rewarding her Twitter fans with a replies, retweets, or secret fun facts about the world of Harry Potter.

By 2000, for the release of the fourth book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, release parties were officially hosted by bookstores for kids to dress up and await the midnight release of the newest book. There was candy, face paint, quizzes, posters, readings from old books and conversations about what may be contained in the next book. Making the release of the book an event, much like the film premieres would eventually be, this made every installment a cultural event that promoted further buzz, and resulted in massive sales. In the US, the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours, and the seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold 8.3 million copies in its first day.

Conclusion

J.K. Rowling’s presence has been an essential element to the success of the Harry Potter brand, and her connection with the Harry Potter fandom has proved to be highly profitable. With the resounding success of the book series, the film franchise, merchandise, and theme parks had their market targeted. In Part Two, we’ll take a look at how Harry Potter expanded into consumer products and themed entertainment, as well as a more in-depth look at their marketing for films.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this article!


About the Author

Katherine Sanderson currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. Originally from Colorado, she graduated with a BA in English from Santa Clara University in 2014, and is an alumna of the JPCatholic MBA program (Class of 2016). Her professional aspirations are in children/family entertainment, especially animation.