This month, at midnight, I took my daughter and a gaggle of her friends to the opening night of the final film in the Harry Potter franchise. Dressed as favorite characters – Luna, Bellatrix, McGonagall and Hermione – we arrived an hour before the show to find the movie theatre packed and transformed to a mini-Hogwarts. “Wingardiam Leviosa!” exclaimed our would-be Luna to the ticket guy, to which he responded brightly “Diffindo!” as he ripped the tickets. It was another world. And when we left the theater at around 3am it felt more like mid-afternoon on a busy weekend – the parking lot was packed and another crowd of Dumbledores, Snapes, Rons and Ginnys were piling in for the next show.
JK Rowling published her first book in 1997: Seven novels, 4,000 pages and eight movies later, Harry has become a pop-culture phenomenon unparalleled in modern times. A whole generation of kids – including my daughter and most of her friends and cousins, not to say her parents – have grown enthralled by a fully-realized world of magic. Commercially, the Potter phenomenon has no equal: Over 400 million books sold in every language imaginable, a worldwide movie gross over $7 billion, and even a theme park in Florida. How on earth did this tale of a boy wizard going to school become so successful?
There is no question that Rowling’s vision – and her near-flawless execution in her books – was the core of the success. She created wonderful characters, embellished her plot with great imaginative touches, and had a story in her mind that she knew would hold an audience across a decade of reading.
But Rowling did more than that. Famously, she demanded great control over all things Harry, from franchising to having full creative control over the movies and their scripts, even selecting actors. She also remained true to her readers – she was almost possessive of them – and communicated directly to young fans in her blog and elsewhere. My daughter talks about “JK” as if they’ve met recently and are close friends: This is remarkable. Rowling also embraced the runaway success that Harry enjoyed. She has said that Harry and his world felt almost independent of her, and there must have come a point where the pop-culture juggernaut also felt outside her control. Despite this, there is a fidelity to the world she created that has never changed despite the movies, the fanzines, the endless media hoopla and the passage of time. Among her many other talents, Rowling has expertly managed the Harry brand. Her focus and fidelity to a vision is something we all could learn from in marketing.