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8/6/99 - The Dark Side Of Branding

Much has been made of the ability of the Star Wars prequel, "The Phantom Menace," to generate saturation news coverage while spending relatively little for conventional advertising. The May 10th issue of Advertising Age ran a worried article beneath the headline "'Star Wars': Who needs ads?"

Yes, who needs ads indeed, when you have licensees and retailers like Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Hasbro, K Mart, Wal-Mart, Target, Toys-R-Us and Sears eagerly footing the media bill to tout the film.

But Advertising Age's fixation on paid media advertising misses the larger issue. Star Wars' conquest of the public consciousness is a triumph of relationship marketing. The film franchise has achieved what every marketer would love to attain--rabid brand loyalty.

In fact, outside of organized religion, Star Wars has redefined the term. Can you think of another product that has provoked such passion? Such devotion? Fans driving hundreds of miles to see a two-minute trailer. Jamming the Internet with 10 million downloads of the trailer. Shopping sprees at the stroke of midnight the day the toys go on sale. Camping outside theaters for months to get first look. Crossing oceans for the premiere.

Yes, the Force is strong with the Star Wars franchise, and that's due to the single-minded vision of its creator, George Lucas. He's refused to choose the quick, easy path that leads to not only to the Dark Side of the Force, but the Dark Side of Branding.

Expediency and trendiness has lead to the fall of many a brand. Take, for example last summer's highly hyped "Godzilla." The fate of the Green Guy is typical of that suffered by established brands at the hands of a new marketing team. They trashed everything held sacred by the fans of this 50 year old film icon. When they were finished reinventing Godzilla, he wasn't even green. Instead of the fire breathing city-stomping Japanese star, we got, to quote the Taco Bell Chihuahua, a big "Leezard." And a big disappointment.

This summer, another well-known pop cultural icon, James T. West, of the 60s "Wild, Wild, West" TV series got a radical makeover and turned into Will Smith. Just like the "new" Godzilla, the "Wild, Wild West" apparently had no interest in attracting the TV show's existing fan base, preferring to start from scratch. As a result, the movie is presently trying to scratch up enough profits to pay for its reportedly $200 million production budget. Ironically, its director, Barry Sonnefeld, helmed two Addams Family features that fastidiously reproduced the characters and look of the old TV show. Then again, that was before he hit it big with "Men In Black."

Yes, ego often blinds the "keepers of the brand" to the source of their charge's success. Which explains how you wind up with debacles like the "new" Coke. You don't mess with pop cultural icons or brand icons without dire consequences.

Of course, there are brands whose keepers have been so thoroughly seduced by the "quick and easy" that they never really had an identity to begin with. This was made conspicuously clear in the rousing teaser commercial for the Tricon Global Restaurants' Star Wars promotion. (Tricon is a fast food company made up of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut chains.)

With Star Wars music pounding in the background, the spot has a resurrected Colonel Sanders, Pizza Hut delivery gal and Taco Bell Chihuahua piling into a vintage caddy convertible and zooming off into space at hyperspeed. The title card at the end, announces "The Saga Begins."

Whoa, wait a minute. You've got two famous fast food ad icons and the "Pizza Hut delivery gal"--what's that about? I'm sure the rationale for this weak link in the Tricon triumvirate would be something like, "Our brand is all about our staff's great service." Oh, really? Judging from Pizza Hut's steady stream of promo spots for pizza configured with a variety of shapes and toppings (Big Foot, New Yorker, etc.) their image comes off as being about "value priced" pizza. Try licensing that for a line of plush dolls.

In any event, strapping themselves to the Star Wars rocket did little to propel Pizza Hut's image or sales. Nor that of KFC and Taco Bell, for that matter. The "Saga" was terminated ahead of schedule due to poor sales figures. Obviously, choosing the quick easy path of a blockbuster movie tie-in leads to the Dark Side. And a lot of unsold Jar Jar Binks toys.

At $400 million plus and counting, things are certainly on the bright side of the box office for "The Phantom Menace." Possessing the patience and strength of a Jedi Knight, George Lucas has resisted tampering with his successful creation. And he's careful not to let anybody else mess with it either. He personally approves all commercials produced by his licensees.

Being very protective of the Star Wars mystique, he wouldn't allow Tricon to show any of the film's characters eating or holding food. They can't even appear in the same frame. For Pepsi, which made a 2.5 billion dollar pact to sponsor the new Star Wars trilogy, Lucas created an extraterrestrial specifically for TV spots that was permitted to partake in the joy of cola.

Whether or not you're happy with "The Phantom Menace," it's Luca's vision, not a gang of a dozen screenwriters. He's wisely kept the elements of the story the audience has equity in--Yoda, The Force, Obi Wan, Anakin, the Jedi, R2-D2, C3PO, while introducing new merchandising opportunities, ah, I mean characters.

"Star Wars, The Phantom Menace" might be loaded with aliens, but Lucas has been careful not to alienate the audience that's made the franchise a marketing force to be reckoned with.