Column: Integrated -- Why We're Wild About Harry

A little less than 10 years ago, Harry Potter started his life in America. In the beginning, Harry was not just a fictional child-wizard who faces challenges of good and evil on and off a broomstick, but also as an editor’s hope to bring to America a character that connects emotionally with readers for a lifetime.

This summer, as the world eagerly awaited the arrival of J. K. Rowling’s last tale of Harry Potter, the media inundated its listeners, readers and viewers with every possible story line from the die-hards waiting in costumes to buy the book at midnight to the psychologists who would help parents use the likely deaths of main characters as teaching lessons. Then there were the reviews, followed by the media analyses of reviews, not to mention the interviews of those who influenced the books, and Rowling’s own appearance on American TV in prime time.

One interview struck me as most relevant to our work as marketers — a conversation with Rowling’s American editor, Arthur A. Levine, on NPR’s Weekend Edition in July. Levine, the editorial director of Scholastic imprint Arthur A. Levine Books told of first encountering Harry at a book fair in Europe where he was talking to editors from an English publishing house. He told his colleagues he was seeking a story that “makes such a deep connection that you remember it for 20, 30 years.” He elaborated that he wanted a book that was “special and enduring” and would incite a “powerful emotional response.”

For marketers, what’s most striking about Levine’s comments is that he wanted to accomplish with a book what we often try to accomplish with a brand. Whether it’s a product or service, the goal is to make a deep emotional connection that would last over time with a targeted audience.

The editor decided to publish based on the galleys of Rowling’s first book, but it was really the experience that readers had with the series of books that have established Harry Potter as a great character in children’s literature and an icon of popular culture. Like a strong corporation, the Harry Potter series of books built a brand that is enduring and incites a powerful emotional response. When looking at Harry Potter and its successful offshoots, it’s obvious that the books, movies and experiences delivered against the fundamentals that are common across strong brands: they stay true to the audience, while also making good on a clear and consistent promise.

Early on, children were seen as the main audience for Harry Potter. Over time, however, it was apparent that the books were embraced not only by the young, but also by the young at heart. What kept Harry Potter true to its audience is that as the demographics of readers expanded, the series never abandoned its core audience. The tales were always intended for children and their imaginations. The other readers were welcome along for the ride, but they never became the intended audience for the books.

As the tales of Harry Potter moved to the screen, the fans continued to experience a world closely aligned to the ones they read in books. The promise of heroic adventures that pitted good against evil was as present in the films as it was in the books.

This comparison between brands and Harry Potter is not to diminish the truly rare impact that the series has had on children’s literature and popular culture, but rather to identify lessons from the wizard, his author and editor that are relevant to marketers. Harry Potter did more than achieve the editor’s goal of publishing a story that would connect emotionally with readers. Part of the credit for the series’ unprecedented success may lie in the books’ alignment to brand values.

Jean Brandolini Lamb is the director of brand strategy for Enterprise IG in New York.

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