The magic of 'Harry Potter'

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The sheer wizardry of blockbuster film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is hardly confined to the motion-picture screen. Having already broken records for the best three-day and five-day box office revenues for a film over Thanksgiving, "Potter" is also more than likely to match the record for fastest film to reach $200 million-even as consumer confidence wanes and economists confirm the advent of recession.

What is it with this "Potter" magic?

Some critics claim it's all in the surrounding hype. But from my perspective, the phenomenon actually exhibits deeper dynamics that remind us of the impact of core truths in marketing. The "Potter" brand, now delivering abundantly to Warner Bros., succeeds in its recent cinematic extension because it embodies three important dimensions:

* Authentic origins.

The popularity of "Harry Potter" emerged with schoolyard chatter, not with marketing hype. Today, two-thirds of kids ages 8 to 18 have read at least one in author J.K. Rowling's series of "Potter" books-properties that initially arrived with comparatively little of the fanfare we've come to associate with new book titles.

A generation that has been marketed to its entire life birthed its own buzz, took ownership of the "Potter" brand and declared it genuine. Until now, virtually everything marketed to kids has been saturated by hype, and they're hyped out. "Harry" grew organically, and it is the purity of these origins that has created real equity for the brand.

* Shared experience.

Few vehicles in recent memory offer the extent of interaction between young and old that "Potter" does, at a time when interaction between kids and their parents is increasingly important. A study conducted last year by Mindworks revealed that the No. 1 thing kids wanted most was more time with their parents. And more recently, post-Sept. 11, research conducted by Campbell Mithun and others has observed the emergence of family and shared activities as a very high priority.

"Harry Potter" created the opportunity for this experience-first in books, which enjoy healthy adult readership, and now has extended it to the movie theater. Interestingly, the "Potter" phenomenon originated with kids and migrated to parents, since kids love nothing better than giving Mom and Dad access to their world in a genuine way. This lends even further credence to anthropologist Margaret Mead's observation that American culture is unique because adults learn from youth, not the other way around.

* Target insight.

Those of us who are active in kid marketing know that many attitudinal segments reside inside the broad pre-18 population. And so does "Potter" author Rowling, who intuitively nailed the 9-to-11-year-old mind-set. She knows these are not "tweens," often characterized by advertisers as riddled with angst over their transition into independence. The very use of the word "tween" to describe this stage is indicative of the misunderstanding.

In fact, most 9-to-11-year-olds truly believe they are experiencing the best of both worlds-one foot planted firmly in the security of childhood and the other in the freedom and adventure of teen-hood. And this perspective on life is reflected in Harry's experiences: As he enters the sorcerers' world, he is beginning to experience the adventure of growing up through magic; meanwhile, the safety net of childhood is metaphorically represented by the protectiveness of characters Dumbledore and Hagrid.

As one 9-year-old observed after exiting the movie theater, "It was nice to see on the screen what was going on in my head." Although she was referring to the movie, she actually saw herself.

Yet even as I applaud the brilliant application of these marketing basics, I fear for "Harry Potter."

Because of its origins, the quality of its experience, and the nature of its target, this is a brand that is especially fragile-and quite susceptible to overmarketing. Just as its founders attempt to control its presentation, "Harry Potter" already has some 90 extensions through licensing and franchise agreements, and other marketing partnerships. And "Sorcerer's Stone" is just the first of seven planned installments.

At what point does Harry become overexposed, alienating the very fans who embraced his adventures for their sheer purity and sense of genuine connection?

We can only hope that the lingering magic of "Harry Potter" doesn't end up confined to the cutting room floor.

Mr. Lynch is exec VP-director of account planning at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, and at Campbell Mithun's youth marketing division, Campbell Mithun KidCom.

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