Use The Force (For Retail Profit)

There are important lessons in the longevity of the Star Wars brand for retailers looking to capture some of that elusive lightning — or, in this case, lightsaber — in-a-bottle and apply it towards building enduring relationships with consumers.

When George Lucas began production on “Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars” (for reals — that was the original title of Star Wars and Luke Skywalker’s initial surname in it) in 1976, he no doubt predicted that it would go on to spawn a global franchise worth nearly $30 billion (and counting) almost 40 years later. Right?

No. Prior to the 1977 release of Star Wars: A New Hope, Lucas himself — along with the majority of his peers in the film industry — did not expect the movie to be a success. Anyone who has not been living under a rock on the desert planet Tatooine in the time since knows that to say those expectations were exceeded would be a galactic understatement.

On top of the $8.1 billion that the six released (so far) Star Wars live-action films have made at the box office and through at-home rentals and sales, tie-in merchandise — including video games, books and, of course, toys — accounts for $18 billion of the brand’s $27 billion (the conservative estimate, while some sources have the number at more than 25 percent higher) global haul to date.

Starting tomorrow (Sept. 4) at 12:01 a.m., that merchandise money is poised to get a boost into hyperspace with an event called “Force Friday,” marking the release of products affiliated with the upcoming seventh Star Wars movie — Star Wars: The Force Awakens — at retail stores worldwide.

Although The Force Awakens (the first of the Star Wars films — of a currently planned six, including three spinoffs — to be released by the Walt Disney Company since it purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for a cool $4 billion) will not hit theaters until Dec. 18, Macquarie Securities Analyst Tim Nollen predicts that sales of related consumer merchandise could reach $5 billion in the first year.

While that’s doubtlessly excellent news for Disney, who would be well on its way to earning back its investment in the property before a single film is released under the company banner, major retail chains like Walmart, Toys R Us and Target — all of whom (along with the Disney Store, natch) are going to host store-specific special events that expand upon Force Friday — are in the unique position to profit robustly (both in terms of capital and education) from what easily could have been a one-off piece of disposable, escapist entertainment 40 years ago.

One of the unique characteristics that Star Wars has always had going for it — and, for a while, decidedly against it — was the seemingly singular vision of George Lucas. Since the release of the first film, the man has become a godlike figure to some acolytes, while other, equally fanatical audience members consider him the devil himself. There is an entire documentary devoted to the subject of fan opinion about the creator of culture’s most lucrative outer-space Western.

No one would argue that Lucas’ creative decisions have always unequivocally hit the mark — and hidden in that very fact is a secret of the brand’s multigenerational appeal. The introduction of the animated character Jar Jar Binks in 1999’s The Phantom Menace stands as a key division point between the core audience of the original trilogy (who mostly loathe him) and the younger generation for whom the “prequel trilogy” was their first experience of the Star Wars universe (they think Jar Jar’s hilarious — and they bought up his toys like crazy). That being said, what many consumers of the Star Wars franchise saw as a major misstep by Lucas was not so offensive that they abandoned their interest in it entirely … and, for its efforts, the brand picked up an entirely new generation of loyalists moving forward. Say what you will about George Lucas’ artistic integrity, the man knew (and knows) business.

The idea of purity of a creative vision behind the brand has really struck a chord with consumers of all things Star Wars. In reality, the franchise has been shaped by many creative collaborators over the years, but the public’s general belief that the entire universe spawned from the mind of a single prophet contributes to the brand’s appealing mythology. In a way, consumers — particularly during the first 20 years of the property’s existence — not only formed a personal attachment to the stories and characters depicted in the films (and in toy form) but to the architect behind them.

That deep, personal connection with the Star Wars brand — extending to its affiliated entertainment offerings, such as books and animated television shows — has snowballed from generation to generation. Whether it’s baby boomers in their 60s who remember seeing the first film in theaters as adults, millennials who have fond memories of various reboots and spinoffs or anyone in between, each generation feels a shared history with the franchise and an enthusiastic interest in what will come of it next.

Even in 2012, when there hadn’t been a Star Wars movie released in seven years, Hasbro cited its Star Wars toy line as one of its top performing brands for boys. At the time, Derryl DePriest, the company’s vice president of boys marketing, made an important observation that the interest level in Star Wars rose sharply among girls when there was a major event related to the brand, such as the theatrical release (or re-release) of a movie. That’s precisely the sort of phenomenon that Disney is banking on today: revived interest in a known, and beloved, brand.

For Disney, the magic won’t be in reimagining Star Wars — concerns over which were actually the source of much fan backlash when the Mouse House first acquired the property (nobody wanted to see Star Wars “Disney-fied”). Rather, the company’s success hinges upon creating opportunities for the fan base to rediscover and deepen their connection to the films, the characters and the universe (ergo, the merchandise), while introducing enough touch points for new fans to get in on the fun.

While every brand can’t be Star Wars, that particular challenge is not unique to it. Retail companies often face mandates to come up with the next big idea, concept or trend. In the rush to create something new, it can be easy to overlook what consumers already love about their brand and their products.

Of course, it’s an affinity that can be somewhat elusive. Maybe it’s a retailer’s commitment to outstanding customer support; they don’t want to let that fall to the wayside as new technology is introduced that can automate such services. It could also be the care and craftsmanship that goes into every single one of its product offerings or even the sourcing of those products. Whatever a retailer’s particular level of midi-chlorians may be, they can be converted to use the Force for profit — provided they have Yoda-like focus.

Disney is betting that the Star Wars franchise has (at least) six more films in it. Based on the sales projections for merchandise related to a movie that won’t even be released for another three-plus months, that gamble looks to be on track to pay off — for now. Once Force Friday is officially underway, that will be the first indicator of whether or not the release of the inaugural offering in the Disney-era Star Wars brand has enough momentum to carry its consumer popularity far, far into this century.

If all else fails, perhaps the company can send Luke into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.