How did Harry Potter become so popular?
Harry Potter book merchandise

Written by Bartek Bezemer

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November 6, 2021

Harry Potter turned into one of the most highly valued media franchises of all time. How did it grow into such a phenomenon? 

Harry Potter is one of the most popular media franchises in history. Most millennials of today have grown up with the franchise, even if they haven’t read it themselves, they’ve either watched one of the movies or are familiar with the franchise. The books themselves sold over 500 million copies, making it the most popular book franchise of all time with just seven installments. 

The world of books and genres

The success of the franchise is even more remarkable when considering the declining readership during the 2000s. Statista reported that in 2000, 47% of newspaper readers in the United States had read a daily newspaper the day before, this number declined to 40% in 2006 and decreased to an abysmal 29% in 2012. When looking at book readership in the United States, 34% of respondents replied they’ve read a book the day before in 2002, which increased to 38% in 2006 and decreased to 36% in 2012. While lower than six years prior, it has been relatively stable. 

The concept for Harry Potter struck Rowling in 1990 when was on a delayed train from Manchester to London’s famous station King’s Cross.

As with all posts on this very blog, when we do a deep dive, we need to lay down the foundations to properly analyse the topic at hand. This time we have to first tackle the most basic of questions, what genre does Harry Potter fall into? Categorizing the genre might prove more difficult as the series saw immense popularity among children and adults. LingQ categorized the Harry Potter novels into fantasy literature, but the franchise also moved into the bildungsroman and coming of age genres. One of the aspects that enforces the bildungsroman is the forced growing up of Harry to defeat his greatest enemy Voldemort. This shows that the Harry Potter franchise has an appeal across multiple age groups and genre fans, helping us to understand later on why younger and older generations were captivated by the franchise. 

A sleeper hit and a daring bet

J.K Rowling always had a knack for writing. She wrote her first book when she was six and at the age of eleven she wrote her first novel. Obviously these were not published books, but merely the play of the imagination of a young child. After graduation, she worked as a researcher at Amnesty International, where she witnessed the cruelty and hardships that those in danger faced, which she described as a humbling experience. The concept for Harry Potter struck Rowling in 1990 when was on a delayed train from Manchester to London’s famous station King’s Cross. She would build the world, the story and its characters on notes and scraps of paper. The following year she took all the loose paper to Portugal, where she went to teach English and had her first child. As her marriage fell apart she returned to the United Kingdom in 1993 with the first three chapters of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on board. She continued her teaching career and kept working on Harry Potter in the hours she could find. 

The first novel eventually hit the bookshelves in 1997 in the United Kingdom and released in the United States in 1998. But it was all smooth sailing for J.K. Rowling, who was a newcomer to the book scene. The first installment was rejected by nine publishers, but one dared to take on the challenge of this unconventional book, which was UK publisher Bloomsbury who was captivated by the magical story. Scholastic, under the leadership of Barbara Marcus, paid $105,000 during an auction to release the book in the United States. Marcus, who spoke to Underlined, recalled why she decided to invest in the manuscript saying, ‘I didn’t have time to read it right away, so I gave it to my daughter Lucy, who is now thirty years old. She was always a really great reader, and she read it and said, “Mom, this is better than Roald Dahl!” Once I read it, I knew it was special.’ When asked why the Harry Potter franchise became such a success Marcus replied, ‘I think it’s a success because it’s about regular kids in an extraordinary world. There was an “I can relate to this no matter who I am” feeling about it.’ The massive popularity of the series came with its own challenges as Rowling didn’t want the press to have copies for reviewing in advance when the fourth book came around, ensuring everybody had the chance to have the book at the same time. This was fairly irregular and spawned the midnight releases, where fans could get their hands on the copies together. Another hurdle for the publisher was the unprecedented resistance of parents against the franchise, which rose to the most challenged book in 1999. Christians believed that positive portrayal of occult-like characters such as witches and wizards would ‘desensitize’ children to the dangers of modern life.   

The first installment was rejected by nine publishers, but one dared to take on the challenge of this unconventional book, which was UK publisher Bloomsbury who was captivated by the magical story.

This caught headlines from the press as to which company would invest such an amount into a book. The coverage became a propalent for the newly created franchise and Scholastic themselves poured marketing dollars in making the book as marketable as possible. Constance Grady from Vox noted that whilst the first book didn’t get everything right, Rowling was an exceptional world builder. Grady said, ‘Rowling has a knack for crafting exact, specific details that make a world feel solid and lived-in.’ Further saying, ‘One of the greatest gifts of growing up with Harry Potter is that the books really did grow up with me. They got darker and harsher, with more ambiguity, as I got older and more equipped to handle those ideas.’

Selling Harry Potter to the world

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the Harry Potter franchise has sold itself solely on its own accord as many outside the world of advertising would love to believe. Through its magical world building and enchanting characters it was able to take the world by storm. And while a lot of that has played part in the success of the book series, we cannot understate the marketing part of the franchise. Countless hours went into crafting the Harry Potter brand, fitting it neatly into the heart and minds of its target audience. 

Before the first movie adaption was released into the wild, Warner Brothers was betting millions on the brand, investing $125 million into the first movie alone from which $40 million would be used for domestic marketing. Despite the seemingly high marketing spending, efforts were made to ensure brand authenticity. In order to keep the franchise appealing to its loyal audience, no product placements with popular brands such as McDonald’s or Burger King would be used in the first movie. Furthermore, plans were made to withhold any making-of television shows, limit television interviews, control artwork releases and limit interviews with media outlets. There was one brand that despite the resistance to turn Harry Potter into a walking advertisement, was able to strike a deal with Warner Brothers, namely Coca-Cola who signed a deal worth up to $150 million. It’s important to note that the collaboration would mainly revolve around promoting literacy programmes around the world. Although, whilst not being featured in the films themselves, in practice Coca-Cola plastered its products with Harry Potter imagery and sold it through its ‘Live the Magic’ campaign. 

All this would uphold the mysterious allure of the Harry Potter world. The LA Times said about the marketing strategy, ‘Overexposing and overcommercializing the first of as many as seven “Harry Potter” movies runs the risk of offending a generation of young readers and their parents who have turned the 11-year-old orphan hero into a pop culture icon.’ Warner Brothers wants to maintain momentum for the franchise and not oversaturate the market through advertising and tie-ins which might harm the brand. Already predictions were made by industry insiders who said that the Harry Potter franchise would become a box-office hit, breaking all records. But the LA Times observed that Warner couldn’t control all the exposure surrounding the excitement around the first movie. Premier Magazine, TV Guide, Vanity Fair, Sixteen and Nickelodeon featured covers of Harry Potter. The press was all over the upcoming phenomenon, building hype around the franchise. 

But Warner didn’t shield off all exposure from the press. Through its tie-in with Time Magazine, owned by AOL Time-Warner, it created an exclusive media partnership. Time prided itself by featuring, ‘We’ve seen the movie’ on its cover and a six-page inlay covering the movie extensively, accompanied by an online cross-promotional program to create a community around the franchise and enabling fans to purchase merchandise. A dedicated Harry Potter brand manager was appointed which would ensure consistency of the franchise across all different media outings and create cross platform promotions. No brand within the Warner family received the same attention to detail as the Harry Potter franchise.

But with big hype, comes big responsibility. And its fallbacks. David Aaronovitch from the Guardian, wrote in 2003, that he was less than impressed by the aggressive marketing tactics employed by Warner and Rowling. The marketing strategy was pitched as to upkeep novelty and excitement for its readers, but creativity entangled with major success do not go hand in hand very well. He observed bookshops and records shops were filled to the brim with Harry Potter merchandise. Window spaces were completely decorated in wizarding fashion. Not only is the franchise heavily marketed, its legal team is armed to the teeth to ensure nothing is leaked or not in line with the brand’s strict guidelines. Aaronovitch said, ‘Last week the New York Daily News found itself facing a $100m legal action after publishing tiny extracts from the fifth Potter. The claim is that the News ‘damaged’ Rowling’s intellectual property rights and the book’s $3m marketing campaign.’ This reveals how well invested Warner was in maintaining a tight control on the franchise, trying to squeeze as much bang for buck out of the series. One might argue why there’s so much secrecy and control over the content. Aaronovitch observed, ‘But when this level of marketing is applied to books or to sport, then it soon becomes impossible to distinguish between artistic considerations and financial ones.’ In hindsight it’s easy to debunk the observations made by Aaronovitch that the books were too long and ill fitted for its audience. Because we now know how the commercial significance the books had on pop culture.

Seven years after the analysis from Aaronovitch, in 2010, the Universal Resort in Orlando opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter featuring the iconic set pieces from the movies such as the Hogwarts Castle, The Three Broomsticks and taste butterbeer. Brad Globe, President, Warner Bros. Consumer Products said in a press release about the opening, ‘Today’s grand opening is the culmination of our firm commitment to create the most authentic Harry Potter experience possible.’ Further saying, ‘We’ve enlisted the best possible partner in Universal Orlando Resort and we are proud to say that the result has fully captured the magical worlds detailed in both the books and the films.’ Obviously the press release is a fluffed up marketing piece, but the theme park addition is a crucial step in letting consumers engage with the brand in a unique way. It provides complete immersion in the world of Harry Potter, which was shrouded in mystery through the tightly locked marketing strategy coordinated by Warner Brothers. Ten years after the opening of the resort, a flagship store was opened in New York, featuring three floors full of Harry Potter merchandise. It’s remarkable that the franchise still receives such attention two decades after its initial release. 

In 2016 the first spin-off of Harry Potter was released, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, based on the 2001 Bestiary complementing the Harry Potter books. The New York Times called it a subdivision within the Harry Potter Universe and a prelude to the world of Harry Potter. And possible another cash grab, with the NY Times saying, ‘Given the expanding Potter universe — this is the first of five projected “Fantastic Beasts” features — the book could pass for a product catalog for potential merch, one that Ms. Rowling embellishes with comedic passages, glimmers of romance and parallel action scenes.’ Fantastic Beasts was a nice addition to the expansive world of Harry Potter which is filled with lore which is difficult to cover in the seven books released prior to it. In the same year the franchise had generated $25 billion, from which $7.7 billion came from book sales and a staggering $7.3 billion from toy sales alone. 

Magical marketing

Admittedly a simple Google search will give you a lot of articles that try to answer the question why Harry Potter became such a global phenomenon. Some are more lengthy than others and attribute most of its success to the magical world created by J.K Rowling. But there’s one aspect a lot fail to mention, because we know that marketing can be a decisive factor in determining the success of a franchise. A well choreographed effort can move a brand out of obscurity and turn it into an overnight success. 

Despite Warner Brothers claiming that it would limit the outings of the franchise to upkeep the mystery for its fans, it mostly translated into tight copyright restrictions and signing a lucrative deal with Coca-Cola which practically sponsored the first movie with margin to spare. Harry Potter and its wizarding world became a vehicle for something much larger. A global enterprise in of itself. 

Obviously this obscurity and exclusivity garnered the attention of the press who was wildly involved in the franchise. Who would dare to invest such vast sums into a media franchise who has yet to prove itself? But Warner knew full well what it had to do to stir the hype pot. Warner had Time Magazine, which is a suitable vehicle to move the brand into the mainstream, especially with parents who now were aware of the franchise captivating their childrens’ imagination. The movies and books grew along with its audience, keeping momentum for years as the story became more mature with the main cast growing into adulthood at the same pace. It was the perfect mix to keep the brand fresh throughout the years. Today, the world of Harry Potter lives on through its multiple spin-offs and theme park adaptations to keep the parents of today involved, passing on the story they loved so much onto their children. The same as we’ve seen with Disney and Disney+ for that matter.

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