The Content Marketing Of Star Wars: The Force Is Strong With This One

29 Feb
February 29, 2012

Deft content marketing is more art than science. And when executed to perfection, it’s a beautifully seamless experience for your customers – and, most likely, a wonderfully profitable experience for your brand.

No one exemplifies this kind of content marketing genius better than Lucasfilm, the company behind the wildly successful Star Wars franchise. In particular, the recent wave of campaigns centered around the rerelease of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 3D has showcased just how savvy the good people at Lucasfilm really are. Let’s break this down.

When talking with clients about content strategy and content marketing, we stress the absolute necessity of marrying brand goals with user needs. In order to do that, you must first understand who your users are, how they want to engage with your brand, and what content will be most valuable to them. It’s within this overlap of brand goals and user needs where the truly successful content resides.

So how does Lucasfilm do this?

Brand Goal: Promote the rerelease of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 3D.

User Needs: This part can get pretty tricky, and while I’m sure Lucasfilm has a legion of marketers running focus groups, user testing, polls, surveys and other such research, I’m going to make some educated guesses here (after all, I’m a pretty avid fan of the franchise myself). Star Wars consumers are multi-generational. You have the fans that grew up on the original films; you have the fans that grew up during the Expanded Universe explosion in the ‘90s, leading into the release of the prequel films; and you have the new generation growing up with The Clone Wars animated television show. Each segment engages with Lucasfilm content on a variety of levels, from novels to video games to TV episodes to Blu-ray extra features to comic books and beyond.

The Execution: Before releasing their marketing salvo, Lucasfilm apparently agreed on a theme: Darth Maul.

Wait, the virtually silent, double-bladed-lightsaber-wielding, demon-faced villain who dies at the end?

Yep, the one and only. His visage became a prominent marketing tool, lording over the rerelease poster, snarling on action figure packaging, even appearing on limited edition 3D glasses. The emphasis may have seemed an odd choice. But when the pieces of the marketing puzzle began falling into place, the brilliance of it all became apparent.

As far back as January 2011 (over a year before The Phantom Menace 3D release, mind you), rumors began swirling about a possible resurrection of the Darth Maul character for The Clone Wars animated TV show. This was confirmed in October. And it was huge news. An apparently dead character brought back to life, while not uncommon in sci-fi/fantasy franchises, was a relative first for the Star Wars universe, especially on this scale.

A slew of tie-in material was announced in preparation for the February 11 release date, banking on the Darth Maul hype. December 27 marked the re-issue of Michael Reaves’ novel Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, including a new Maul-centric short story, Restraint, by popular Star Wars writer, James Luceno. In the story, Luceno featured characters from the film and the TV show, beginning the process of tying the movie and TV worlds together. A similar re-issue of Terry Brooks’ Episode I novelization appeared on shelves on January 31, again featuring an all new short story, End Game, by Luceno. The focus of this short story? You guessed it, Darth Maul.

What followed was Maul-mania. Ryder Windham’s young reader novel The Wrath of Darth Maul (released January 1) gave youngsters a glimpse of what to expect from the upcoming Darth Maul story arc on the TV show. McDonald’s announced tie-in Happy Meal toys; Hasbro announced new Maul-tastic toy packaging; countless items of Maul merchandise hit shelves everywhere. And yes, there “was an app for that” with the “Darth Maul Me” app.

Then, on January 10, another major release: James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis novel hit bookstores. Not only did this novel flesh out Darth Maul’s backstory, it tied it together with the upcoming TV show story arc and delved into the backstory of yet another enigmatic character, Darth Sidious/Palpatine himself. A seemingly throwaway line from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith about “Darth Plagueis the Wise” was fully realized in novel form. The most common remark about the novel? It brought to light story elements that caused viewers to see Episode I in a completely new way.

But that’s not all. Collectors and fans of the Star Wars minutiae were thrilled when author Dan Wallace announced a follow up to his fan-favorite The Jedi Path, an in-universe manual for Jedi. Its unique style, electronic collectible case and gorgeous artwork had fans begging for a similar sequel. And on February 10 (a day before the 3D release), The Book of Sith was unleashed, complete with arcane information and secret tidbits that added yet another level of depth to the previously released novels, the 3D film and the upcoming TV show story arc.


So how do we make sense of all this?

The Results: Successful content marketing is the sweet spot between brand goals and user needs, right?

  • The kid fan: I love The Clone Wars TV show! But I don’t know much about all the hype around this “Darth Maul” guy…Mom, Dad! Take me to the theatre to see this new movie in 3D! The poster shows the guy from the TV show! And can I get this book about him too! It looks cool!
    • TV show watched – check.
    • Movie ticket purchased – check.
    • Young reader novel purchased – check.
  • The novel/Expanded Universe fan: I’m excited to finally learn more about the mysterious Darth Plagueis in Luceno’s new novel. And it makes me think of Episode I in a completely different light!
    • Novel purchased – check.
    • Movie ticket purchased – check.
  • The collector fan: I’m so psyched for The Book of Sith! And I can’t wait to see how it ties into the movies and the TV show.
    • Collectable purchased – check.
    • TV show watched – check.
    • Movie ticket purchased – check.

Obviously, this is a completely reductive view of the fans and how they ultimately engaged with these marketing campaigns. In fact, most fans are a complex combination of these characteristics and more. And, of course, there are those that wouldn’t be caught dead in a theatre reliving their perceived nightmare that was Episode I and those that probably ignored all this hubbub altogether, wanting nothing to do with this new wave of storytelling. And that’s fine. But the point here is this.

No matter where their customers were, no matter how they chose to engage, Lucasfilm was right there, delivering relevant content.

And the genius of it all – everything tied together. No matter where a consumer entered into the campaign, they could easily move through as little or as much of the experience as they wanted. The collector could enter via The Book of Sith and easily move into the novels, the movie, the merchandise and the TV show. Or, they could end their experience with their bright, shiny collectable and call it a day.

In addition, when viewed from a cross-promotional standpoint, the ingenuity of it all is staggering. While all this content ultimately pushes consumers toward the theatre, each individual piece of content promotes the others. It’s a veritable web of content that has endless entry points and seamless transitions.

So, was all this a success? I’d say so. The Phantom Menace has since passed the $1 billion mark, only the 11th movie in history to do so, placing it at the number 10 spot (and climbing) on the all time highest grossing movies list. Several of the novels have ended up on the New York Times bestsellers list. The Clone Wars has had ratings at the number one spot for network and cable TV in boy demos.

What’s next? The Lucasfilm behemoth keeps on rolling, with no end in sight. Plus, there are still five movies to be rereleased in 3D. Next up, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. And with preliminary photos of marketing materials centered around Yoda, expect a similarly focused content campaign in the months to come.

Regardless of your opinion of the prequel movies, or the novels, or the merchandise, one can’t help but recognize the financial success that this franchise has enjoyed. And with a content strategy this vast and this well-executed…who’s surprised?

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3 replies
  1. scott aughtmon says:

    Hi Dustin,

    Great post! Really enjoyed it. I just wrote a different take on Star Wars and content marketing and just happened to type in the words “content marketing, star wars” to see if my post was listed and stumbled on to yours.

    Really liked your explanation of how they chose Darth Maul as theme. Also liked how you fleshed out the results for a kid fan, novel reader, and collector. Thanks!

    • Dustin Diehl says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Definitely excited to see how LucasFilm rolls out future content strategies – they seem to know what they’re doing!

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