It is six years since the last Star Wars film tied up the space saga, but Lucasfilm continues to reach new fans and stay relevant. Laura Snoad asks its president of licensing Howard Roffman how the franchise keeps striking back.
Marketing Week (MW): How can you keep the Star Wars brand relevant to new generations?
Howard Roffman (HR): One of the strongest elements of the Star Wars property is its timelessness. Parents have had a very strong motivation to introduce their children to Star Wars through the films. But we’ve also taken important elements of the Star Was story and expanded them, for example with [TV series] The Clone Wars.
We’re working on a second Star Wars animated TV series with a comedic approach and we’ve also been developing a live action series. It’s an ambitious move we have to solve the problem of not being able to produce movie quality programming on a TV budget.
Video games have been very important in remaining relevant to new generations, and we have a big online presence. But it’s not just digital, we have a very successful series of spin-off books, including more than 100 Star Wars novels that have been published since the early Nineties, so we’ve been able to expand the story significantly beyond what we see in the films.
MW: Is the online sector a good way of developing storylines now the films have ended?
HR: By its nature digital media, gaming media and literary media are very immersive and mean you can develop new characters, stories and situations. When you look at something like The Old Republic [an online multi-player game launching in December], we’ve essentially created a whole new Star Wars mythology that is set thousands of years before the time of the movies. It has a very adult focus to it. It’s a serious game in the genre of World of Warcraft.
It deals with the antecedent of the Jedi, The Republic [the government in Star Wars] and The Empire so there’s a lot that’s familiar in it but the details are new. That is an area where we won’t launch with a huge amount of products but depending on the level of engagement it might lead to more merchandise.
Online gaming is an advanced field and it’s not limited to any particular age group or demographic. It is simply a new media in which the audience is engaged in a massive way, so different initiatives are targeted at different audience segments.
But there are other things that we do that are certainly for kids. When we launched Lego Star Wars 3 we had an online game on our website that was hugely popular with kids: we weren’t looking to attract the older audiences.
MW: Is the breadth of the Star Wars audience problematic?
HR: Where possible, we do things that are right for particular age groups. If you’re making an action figure, it has to have good play value for a six-year-old and it has to be cool enough and authentic enough to appeal to a 30-year-old collector. We also do high-end products for collectors that have a whole different set of criteria around them.
MW: How do you work out whether a product is appropriate for the Star Wars brand?
HR: Having worked with the brand for so long, there is a certain intuitive feel to it. It’s about details and ethos. There are general guidelines but they vary depending on the product category. If you’re doing a Star Wars novel, adherence to continuity within the story’s universe is very important because they’re all part of this one seamless fantasy where all the pieces have to fit together. But if you’re making a T-shirt you have a lot more leeway: you can be satirical, you can be funny, you can convey different emotions.
We warmly embrace the parodies of Star Wars. For our new Blu-ray disc we worked with [animated TV series] Family Guy, and Robot Chicken and many other comics, film-makers and writers that are involved in comic television to celebrate Star Wars. As well as being a modern mythology that has a great integrity about it, it’s also a pop culture icon and that gives us the leeway to have some fun with it.
MW: Are you involved in the marketing of products?
HR: Yes, in terms of approving an overall marketing plan. We have to make sure what’s being done is not only appropriate to the product being marketed but it also fits into a broader plan for other initiatives that are happening within the Star Wars franchise. Then we work very closely with retailers around the world to make sure that we have some good, robust programmes. We provide strong creative guidance. We do style guides quite frequently, and give direction in terms of packaging look, for example.
MW: Can you describe how Lucas Licensing works with so many products and such an international reach?
HR: We have a core staff of 32 but some of our licensing agents work across global territories and are very important for managing on a local level. They include companies like Hasbro, Lego, and Atari. But all the approvals are done at our headquarters in San Francisco, meaning we process an enormous volume of product approvals, marketing campaigns and strategic marketing plans.
MW: How do you control counterfeit goods and keep a strong hold on your intellectual property?
HR: We have a pretty aggressive intellectual property enforcement programme that involves everything from trademark and copyright programmes around the world. We work with attorneys in every country and have relationships with customs officials in all the major markets. Fortunately, we also have a lot of dedicated fans who report things to us when they see them.
MW: Is it more difficult to police counterfeiting in the digital sphere?
HR: There are elements that are difficult to police. Film piracy has become rampant online and we work with the FBI and the authorities all the time. It’s a very serious industry online. There are also issues in gaming, but a little less so because the cost of developing a game are quite high. We’ve had issues with games being copied which we’ve pursued.
Lucas Licensing – the real story
Lucas Licensing licenses products that use the Star Wars name, including toys, books, apparel, consumer electronics, homeware and the Star Wars musical score. These have produced more than $20bn in sales over the past 30 years with just a core staff of 32.
The challenge now is keeping Lucas Licensing’s top two properties Star Wars and Indiana Jones alive without new films in the series hitting the cinema. Recent focus has been on smaller screen formats, such as the development of animated television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and online games to coincide with the launch of Lego Star Wars. The company is also developing a World of Warcraft-like adult-focused online game, The Old Republic, as well as a live-action TV series.
StarWars.com was also redesigned last month to make better use of developments in social media, with more changes to come. Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing at Lucasfilm, will detail these when he speaks at Brand Licensing Europe later this month.
Lucas Licensing real-time reader responses
Does your marketing strategy change depending on whether a product is part of the original trilogy, new films or extended universe?
HR: That is a complicated question. We do look at Star Wars as one brand so it’s very important that we have an overall strategy. But there are occasions when we have more specific strategies. When launching the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Complete Saga last month, at the same time we also launched Season 4 of [TV series] The Clone Wars on Cartoon Network in the US. Obviously, those two intersect with each other but there were specifics for each one separately. We look at everything holistically. There are essentially many different touchpoints that consumers have with Star Wars and we have to be confident of how they all work together.
What role does social media play in Lucasfilm’s business/marketing in future with the changes at StarWars.com?
HW: We’re in the midst of a very big change to StarWars.com to keep it up to date with what is happening with social media and how people are interacting online. We’ve redesigned the site to make it more acceptable to mass audiences interested in Star Wars, but we’ve also maintained the depth for those who want to probe more deeply.
It is an exciting and dynamic time for technology, and we want to keep pace with it. As we have such a strong dedicated network of fans, it is interesting to see how they use social networking independently of us to express their passion for the brand.
The website will also be easier for people to shop for Star Wars products and connect with other fans to see what other news is being generated from multiple sources. There’s an evolution in StarWars.com from wanting to be the [only] fans’ site to understanding we can connect to other channels that fans use to communicate with each other.