The “Star Wars” marketing strategy; a lesson in planning

When talking about a marketing strategy, an analogy that often comes up is the “ostrich” or “emu” strategy. The analogy is that, when there’s a problem, an ostrich or emu buries its head in the sand.

Business owners and marketers are no different. When things go wrong with our marketing, we shrug it off thinking the problem will go away.

This analogy has been done to death, which is why I think there’s a better analogy, and it can be found in the media franchise Star Wars.

You read that right: Star Wars. Arguably one of the biggest media franchises in history, and a great franchise nonetheless, but not without its flaws. Now, for this analogy to work, I’m going to assume that you’ve heard of Star Wars. If you’re one of those rare breeds who haven’t, well, keep reading anyway!

There are plenty of opinionated folk out there when it comes to critiquing the Star Wars film; some love the Original trilogy, and nothing else. Some believe you should watch them not in chronological order. I have my own unpopular opinion, which is linked with the marketing analogy I’m going to share with you.

Here’s my unpopular opinion: The Prequel trilogy of Star Wars (as in, Episodes I to III) are the best of the nine films, from a story perspective.

But what does this have to do with marketing? One word: Planning.

Allow me to elaborate: (P.S.: Spoilers if you haven’t seen Star Wars)...

In the original trilogy, specifically Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke Skywalker’s father. It goes without saying that this was, and to this day still is, one of the biggest dramatic reveals and plot twists in cinema history. It was a shock that even the cast weren’t aware of, with David Prowse (the man in the Vader suit) originally saying something different on set.

But here’s the thing: Darth Vader was never meant to be Luke’s father. One of the biggest plot twists in history was never part of George Lucas’ original plan. Why? Well, because the Star Wars original trilogy was never meant to even be a trilogy. George Lucas’ original plan was simply one film. 

In fact, the film originally released as the title of simply Star Wars and it was only after the commercial success of the film did he retroactively call it Episode IV and press on with the subsequent two films. And it’s because of this lack of a plan that Lucas had to scramble to rectify plot holes as a result.

You can see this in lines from Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. After telling Luke that Vader killed his father in Episode IV: A New Hope, he does a “course correct” by saying “He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader… So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” 

That line comes back to the problem I highlighted earlier: Planning. Because George Lucas didn’t originally plan on two subsequent films, the plan therefore was never for Vader to be Luke’s father, and so he spends the proceeding time firefighting to correct the plot holes made.

Here’s another example from Star Wars, this time the Sequel trilogy.

When the Sequel trilogy was initially announced, each film had its own director: J.J. Abrams for Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson for Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and Colin Trevorrow for Episode IX. With each film, Disney decided to give each director creative freedom, meaning that the succeeding director used what the previous director established in their film. Except, that’s not what happened.

When The Last Jedi released, there was some polarising criticism to many of the plot points. Many historical fans were unhappy that certain plot points hadn’t gone in the direction they were expecting. Hardcore fans had built up theories about characters in the two years since The Force Awakens released, which didn’t materialise as they had hoped when viewing the film for the first time.

But, as was the plan, the succeeding director, Colin Treverrow, accepted that and carried on. That is, until he was replaced with J.J. Abrams.

Colin Treverrow had a plan for Episode 9, and it was a completely different plot and vision to the film that was eventually released to the public. For starters, Treverrow’s version was titled Episode IX: Dual of the Fates (the plot and script of which was leaked online a few years after it would have been released).

But what’s worse is that in the version that J.J. Abrams directed, titled Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, like the Original trilogy, Abrams performed a “course correct” and attempted to retcon much of the previous film. I could write an entire chapter going into detail of specifically how he did this, but instead, here are a few of the biggest examples:

At the start of The Last Jedi, Luke is handed his lightsaber from the Original trilogy, but discards it by tossing it over his shoulder. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey attempts to throw the same lightsaber into a fire, with Luke’s force ghost catching it and commenting “a Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect.”

Rey’s lineage, formally a mystery in The Force Awakens, is revealed in The Last Jedi, the reveal being that she is a nobody, born to drunken parents. In The Rise of Skywalker, it is corrected to her parents “choos[ing] to be nobodies to hide her lineage, as the daughter of Emperor Palpatine from films I to VI.

The majority of The Last Jedi seems Luke living in exile, having closed himself off from the force willingly over his failures as a teacher. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey attempts to do the same, before Luke’s force ghost visiting her and saying “I was wrong [to do this].”

Luke’s lightsaber is destroyed in a force struggle between Rey and Kylo Ren is The Last Jedi, and is left broken into two pieces at the end of the film. In The Rise of Skywalker, the lightsaber has been repaired, without any explanation.

And finally, the final shot of The Last Jedi depicts a child slave with force powers, implying that anyone can be a force user and that it’s not based on blood-line. This plot point is completely abandoned in The Rise of Skywalker, instead focusing on pre-established force sensitive characters and implying that the force is only linked with certain blood lines and lineages. 

What’s the moral of this story? You need to plan. In both the Sequel and Original trilogy, the films were victims of not having a plan in place, hence the retcons and course correcting that are so clearly evident. 

That is why I have the unpopular opinion of the Prequel trilogy: George Lucas had a plan from the beginning. He had a vision for the three films, writing the story and script, and directly all three films. From a plot perspective, they make the most sense and are the most coherent as a three-film narrative, all simply because George Lucas had a plan.

There’s a saying: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Marketing, like Star Wars is no different. If you don’t have a coherent marketing plan in place, your marketing is going to be reactive, and you’ll stop starting with various marketing tactics until you find one that works. 

If you plan, you have structure. You’re in it for the long haul, and you have the tools to make your marketing a success.

Don’t be like Star Wars. Plan from the outset, and be prepared.