“It is pretty hard not to spoil “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” when the words “Stars Wars” spoil “The Force Awakens.”
– Mike Pesca in the 12/21/15 edition of The Gist, “The Ultimate Star Wars Spoiler is Star Wars”
Last week’s edition of The Gist (a Slate podcast that I cannot recommend highly enough) hit the nail on the head. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” follows very closely in the footsteps of “Star Wars” Episodes IV, V and VI. In fact, if you say that J.J. Abrams didn’t bring anything new at all to the epic tale you won’t get an argument out of me.
But you know what? I loved it anyway.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a fan girl. But so are most of the millions of people who went to see the movie during its opening weekend. As Pesca also pointed out, this movie isn’t intended to win over people who don’t like “Star Wars.” It’s made for the people who do. And as he also pointed out, there’s a reason for that: “The movie studio looked at the demographics and said, ‘Well we see the list of people who are interested in ‘Star Wars,’ and we see the list of people who are not interested in ‘Star Wars’ and we would much rather market to the people who are interested in ‘Star Wars.’”
That’s the first marketing lesson we can take from “The Force Awakens”: find the audience who loves your product and deliver exactly what they want. Don’t focus on winning over the people who don’t want or need what you’ve got to offer. If you do, you’ll run the danger of losing your core base of customers. Deliver a top-notch product or service to the people who want and need it, and you’re in a strong position to succeed. With more than half a billion dollars of revenue in “The Force Awakens’” opening weekend, it’s pretty clear that the movie studio chose the right audience and gave them what they wanted.
That simple formula is a good place to start, but executing it isn’t always easy. As countless movie sequel flops prove, “formula” can quickly become “formulaic,” generating yawns instead of cheers. How did Abrams avoid that pitfall?
One way was by tuning into changed audience expectations. It’s been almost four decades since the first “Star Wars” movie, and (to state the obvious) today’s culture is dramatically different from the world of the late 70’s. “The Force Awakens” mirrors those changes by placing the light sabre in the hands of a young woman. In 1977 Princess Leia broke the mold with her sharply worded comebacks and take-charge nature. She was inspiring, but she wasn’t the Jedi. Abrams was smart to realize that a strong female character wouldn’t be enough in 2015. His audience was ready for more, and he gave it to them. The 10-year-old girls who loved Leia are now 40-something women who are thrilled to see Rey take center stage. It’s a smart update that matches today’s cultural ethos of girl empowerment, making “Star Wars” relevant for a new generation.
That’s the second marketing takeaway from “The Force Awakens”: always look for ways to win new fans and if possible, use your current fans to reach them. Many of us who loved “Star Wars” as a kid are parents now. When Abrams delivered an entertaining, updated version of the movie that drew us in, he made it easy for us to bring our kids into the “Star Wars” family, so to speak.
One final “Star Wars” marketing lesson: make sure you’re using the latest tools. Can you imagine what would have happened if Abrams decided to stick with 1977-era special effects? He might have been able to work with a 1977-sized budget but he wouldn’t have been able to deliver a 2015-sized movie. The same rule applies to marketing in today’s world. You can’t use the same tools that you did a decade ago and expect to reach today’s audience.
May the (marketing) force be with you.
Tracy Paden is a senior vice president at Cookerly PR.