Lesson #5: Do Not Lose the Core Essence of Your Product

Harry Potter is no longer just a character who comes to life in Rowling’s seven-book series. Instead, it has become a merchandising and marketing machine all on its own, pushing ahead at full throttle. And while Rowling remains in awe of the success that has been spawned by her stories, so too does she remain wary of the many attempts to capitalize on and commercialize her story of a young wizard.

In 2001, the first Harry Potter movie was released. It marked the dramatic acceleration of the product merchandising that has accompanied each of Rowling’s book releases. Starring Daniel Radcliffe as Harry himself, the movie became as popular as the book. So, too, have its successors found popularity. In 2004, a Harry Potter website was launched to coincide with the launch of The Prisoner of Azkaban. In its first week alone, the website was visited by some 17 million people. The first two movies grossed $2 billion worldwide at the box office, and more than another $500 million in video and DVD sales.

Rowling has not made the mistake that many entrepreneurs do, and that is to limit a single idea to a one-time product instead of a viable long-term business. Indeed, she has amassed her billion dollar fortune in large part not from her book sales but from the products that have emerged as a result of those books. Aside from the movies, there are DVDs, computer games, trading cards, board games, Lego sets, and more. Toy giant Mattel has sold over $150 million worth of Harry Potter merchandise, while video games by Electronic Arts have generated even more. Indeed, many Harry Potter fans do not consider others to be true fans until they have purchased anything and everything Harry Potter.

Rowling’s success demonstrates the fact that the payoffs from getting existing customers to buy more and buy again is often greater than trying to get new customers to buy. But while Rowling shares creative control over much of the merchandising, along with a cut of the profits, she worries about the extent to which her brand is stretched.

“How do I feel about it?” asks Rowling. “Honestly, I think it’s pretty well known, if I could have stopped all the merchandising I would have done. And twice a year I sit down with Warner Brothers and we have conversations about merchandising and I can only say you should have seen some of the stuff that was stopped: Moaning Myrtle lavatory seat alarms and worse.”

Rowling worries about what the likes of the Harry Potter Ice Pumpkin Slushie maker, the Late Night Ride Towel, and the Harry Potter and Ron Weasley alarm clock are going to do to the long term success of her Potter empire. And while the profits continue to roll in, Rowling is quick to warn others to avoid the same path: sometimes all the money you can make off of something is not all you should be after.

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