Business Advice

Seven business lessons from the world of Harry Potter

Emma Koehn /

Harry Potter creator JK Rowling

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. Source: Dennis Van Tine/ABACAPRESS.COM

It’s 20 years since the first instalment of Harry Potter hit bookstore shelves, and over the past two decades the Muggle world has looked upon the fortune of billionaire author J.K. Rowling with rapt attention.

The creation of the global juggernaut is as mythical as its contents: single mum pens a novel based on an idea she had while on a train, and two decades later her idea has generated a personal net worth speculated to be $US1 billion ($1.3 billion).

Fairytales aside, serious strategy has gone into the development and growth of the Harry Potter brand, which now spans everything from interactive experiences to stage shows, theme parks and new illustrated editions. Here are seven business lessons from the wizarding world.

1. Being authentic and consistent

Strip away all the movie deals, theme parks and added extras and the Harry Potter universe rests on a very simple story, says brand strategist Michel Hogan. Throughout the past two decades the core of the brand has stayed the same.

“The simple thing is that Harry Potter has always stayed remarkably true to what it is about,” Hogan observes, saying the magic and inventiveness at the heart of the story feeds into all other parts of the brand.

While many entrepreneurs may not have a strong idea off the bat about the values of what they do, J.K. Rowling’s knowledge of her own interests has helped progress the brand forward, Hogan observes.

“The lesson for businesses? Well, it’s simple. Be honest and be deliberate about what you do,” she says.

2. Starting small

In a speech delivered to Harvard University graduates in 2011, Rowling explained how the creation of Harry Potter came from a series of difficult personal circumstances that forced her to let go of the things that weren’t essential to her and instead focus on completing one small project that she thought had long-term worth.

“I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me,” she said, explaining the tough personal circumstances she faced when starting to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

3. Respecting your audience and customers

Rowling has never underestimated the intelligence of her audience, says Hogan, and this has been a major source of the affection for the brand and loyalty of its readers.

“It has always respected the intelligence of the reader and maintained that, especially for really little kids,” Hogan says.

The respect Rowling, and by extension the Harry Potter brand, has for the experiences of her fans has also contributed to goodwill towards the world of Harry Potter.

Rowling has regularly responded to readers on social media when they’ve asked for help, and launched discussions about depression with references to the series’ mythical creatures, the Dementors — wizard prison guards who suck happiness from all things.

4. Leveraging social media

The world of Harry Potter lives online both in the form of fan communities and through the formal structure of Rowling’s Pottermore site, the digital publishing platform she established in 2012 to house a range of new Potter-themed content.

University of Cardiff English academic Catherine Butler says Rowling has been able to pivot her approach to audience engagement over the years, as the original Harry Potter series drew to a close and new social media platforms opened up.

“While the Harry Potter series was still being published, Rowling remained relatively aloof from her readers’ passionate engagement — or replied largely indirectly, through the medium of the books themselves. Once the series was complete, however, the question arose of how to (and whether she should) control the ways they were read,” Butler writes for The Conversation.

The use of the Pottermore site has allowed Rowling to keep control of the brand and storytelling even after the seven books were published, while Rowling’s use of Twitter has allowed her the freedom to both add commentary on her own narratives and to call out those whose opinions are not in line with her own, or the values of the books.

This includes her recent Twitter beefs with US President Donald Trump, who she regularly calls out on both his policies and personal values.

 

5. Building communities

Forbes estimated this week that while the first Harry Potter book manuscript was sold to publisher Bloomsbury for $US2,400, the entire franchise is now worth $US25 billion.

US investor Lee Seymour explains much of that revenue has been generated by fans who have woven the books into their lives and communities.

“The global reach of the Potter series points to the depth of Rowling’s insight into human desire. Her books, like all classic fantasies, tackle the longing we feel to be recognized, loved, and comfortable with our place in the world,” he says.

This emotional connection brings with it a desire to keep dipping into the world and communities, and has allowed Bloomsbury to tap into this by offering the fan base new ways of engaging with the actual physical books.

In the company’s 2017 financial report, group chief executive Nigel Newton reported Harry Potter book revenue is actually going up in several global regions; revenue growth for Bloomsbury kids books in Australia was up 26% last year alone, with much of that attributed to new illustrated versions of the book and a reprint of the originals.

6. Having a brand control plan

Who actually owns Harry Potter? It’s a complicated question, but the short answer is Rowling herself has tight control over what happens to the brand, and the power of this can’t be underestimated, says Hogan.

“She has maintained a hand across the way people can use her ideas, even outside the books,” she says.

Forbes estimated Rowling earned $US95 million in the past year, and has managed to secure revenue streams from a range of sources. Almost half of that amount is said to come from the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but she has also ensured she continues to receive a cut of ticket sales from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, run by Universal Theme Parks, as well as book and merchandise sales, and revenue from the new Fantastic Beasts film franchise.

Through the use of her Pottermore site, Rowling also continues to have control of the Potter story, and occasionally publishes original extra content directly to the site.

7. Having fun

Harry Potter fans are well accustomed to viewing parties, dress up events and book release nights, and the 20-year anniversary this week saw thousands show up in public places to celebrate and invest in new Potter merchandise.

This enthusiasm is echoed by the creator herself, who yesterday reflected on how enjoyable the ride has been, rather than the scale of her success alone.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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