Creating a Brand Online-Lessons from Star Wars
Star Wars creator George Lucas would probably be the last one to disavow the power of the Force. TheForce.Net that is. The Website draws up to 50,000 fans a day, and boasts more than 9,000 pages compiled by 52 staffers across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. It regularly releases juicy tidbits, images, and audio clips of upcoming releases. It was the first, for example, to release sound files of the bungling, Bob Marley-talking alien Jar Jar Binks three months before he appeared in 1999’s The Phantom Menace.
So what could trouble Lucas and his privately held, San Rafael, Calif.-based Lucasfilm, about the TheForce.Net? How about this: The Website is run by unpaid volunteer fans. It is wholly independent of Lucasfilm, or any other Lucas corporate entity for that matter, and it rivals Lucasfilm’s official Star Wars site in both scope and sophistication.
Most corporations owning a brand like Star Wars would power up their Death Star against such blatant brand encroachment. Imagine McDonald’s sending over complimentary burgers and fries to the volunteer staff at a BigMac.Net. Not likely.
But executives at Lucasfilm seem happy to supply information to fans at TheForce, return their calls, and visit the site daily. “TheForce.Net is an example of our core fan base expressing itself. They’re the foundation that has sustained this franchise for 23 years,” says Jim Ward, Lucas’ marketing vice president. “Star Wars has always been about a collective experience – people coming together to share what they love about the films.”
An increasing number of companies are turning to their online user communities to help them build and sustain their brands. The motivation is simple. It’s an opportunity to create all-important buzz and disseminate information to their core base of users – with virtually no marketing costs. It’s also an opportunity to deepen their relationship with some of their core fans who serve as unpaid evangelists-in Lucasfilm’s case, the people who put on Darth Vader helmets and stand in line for three days to see movies.
Of course, there is a potential dark side to inviting customers into a branding process: The brand is no longer wholly under a company’s control. If customers are happy with a brand, a company will make sure others will hear about it at light speed. Conversely, bad brand experiences get propagated even quicker, especially over the Net.
Creating a brand used to be a command-and-control process,” observes Andrew Zolli, former chief marketing officer at Siegelgale in New York. “Now it’s more like gardening than architecture.” You’re never sure exactly what your users are going to do, Zolli says. But thanks to the Internet, companies have to go where their community of users is, otherwise the company will miss the opportunity to track and influence them.