• August 1, 2014
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Use the Brand, Luke

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This has been an interesting year for the CRM industry, with launches, mergers, partnerships, and personnel shifts galore. It's almost enough to write a half-year update just to get the players straight. But instead, I will write about the Star Wars franchise. You know I'll find a way to make it relevant, so strap yourselves in.

Allow me to set the scene: A long time ago, in a world before the Web and, indeed, mostly before home computers, film and TV fans had very limited ways of indulging their fandom in the long term. Other than occasional theatrical re-releases or TV syndication, the only outlets were licensed products, such as novels based on the movie or show. George Lucas kept the licensing rights to his Star Wars films, and let novelists and comic book writers add to the setting's lore—and made a mint in the process.

Over the years, the body of literature expanded in volume and grew in quality, and the fans took new characters into their hearts. Games also helped build the world beyond what happened in the official films, and the whole thing became known as the Expanded Universe, or EU. LucasFilm maintained careful control of what its subsidiaries and licensees could add to the EU, declaring certain topics and time periods off limits, while still feeding fans' cravings. The brand grew and prospered. It was a rare example of a business controlling its brand despite extensive pawing by others, and mostly keeping everybody happy.

Jump forward to May 2014. The EU is going strong, with two film trilogies in the can and a third in the works, a new animated series about to start, and always the toys and books and games. Fans have come to love (or at least accept) characters and situations from a myriad of properties bearing the Star Wars name, recently sold to Disney. In honor of the start of production of new movies, the company declared that the Expanded Universe didn't matter anymore. Everything except the films and the Clone Wars animated TV series would be removed from the official story continuity (what fans call "canon") and placed in a bin called Star Wars Legends. Fan reaction was not enthusiastic. Characters were locked away, with little likelihood of ever appearing in canon.

This action and the level of control it represents makes sense. Lucas never said he would be bound by what anybody added to his stories, and as long as he had no plans to make more movies, it didn't matter. Now he has, and it does. Further, Lucas is free to mine the EU for whatever bits he likes.

On the other hand, neither Lucas nor Disney have a spotless record when it comes to gentle handling of fan sensibilities in regard to brand. Lucas made changes to completed movies in the late 1990s and declared those changes to be the only official versions. Artists don't get to go into the gallery and paint over their work once it's been shown; neither should filmmakers. Disney is infamous for draconian brand enforcement, demanding nursery schools and hospitals remove hand-painted versions of Disney characters from view. Legally defensible, but terrible PR.

It's far too early to say what the result will be. However, the interchange of story canon and creative control will likely be the hottest topic in the intellectual property world since the last time the government tried to redefine how public domain worked. Over time, it will change how businesses manage copyrights and trademarks.

In the short term, it's likely to have a chilling effect on output, since the most anticipated stories are going to be off limits to anybody but George Lucas. Outright rebellion among fans isn't likely. They will continue to argue about the EU the way only fans can, and many will write horrible fanfiction to fill the gaps. And the great majority of us will throw money into the box office when the new movies come out. Such is the way of the Brand Force.

Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, a force for creative CRM interpretation throughout the galaxy. Join him at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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