The article discusses branding lessons from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” emphasizing the importance of blending nostalgia with innovation, flipping familiar elements, and establishing a compelling backstory. It highlights how JJ Abrams’ treatment of the Star Wars brand offers insights for entrepreneurs and businesses, stressing the need to honor the past while embracing change and engaging customers. The analysis underscores the ongoing maintenance required for brands to thrive, drawing parallels between the film franchise’s journey and brand management in the real world.

(Karen Leland — December 27, 2015) —

New York, New York
Fair Warning: This blog post contains some Star Wars spoiler alerts! Not a whole bunch, but read at your own risk.
I don’t know about you, but I hated the last installment of Star Wars movies. You know, the ones that droned (no pun intended) on for hours (and hours) with no apparent semblance to the beloved original three, which in reality are the middle three, of the saga. Confusing, isn’t it? Image how it must feel to land the job of directing one of these epics. JJ Abrams, the most recent director to take on the challenge, is a brave man indeed.
So it was with more than a touch of trepidation that I went to see the latest installment in the series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Steeled for the worst and hoping for the best, I gripped my popcorn box a bit too tightly as the iconic writing against the black sky of space scrolled across the scene announcing the current state of affairs “long ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Well, JJ did not disappoint. I watched in delight as new on-screen friends were introduced into old themes. Talking about the film with friends afterward, I realized that part of the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens lay in Abrams’ masterful treatment of the brand itself — treatment any entrepreneur or enterprise can learn from. Here’s what I walked away with.
Give a Nod to Nostalgia and New: There’s a scene in the film where Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and crew get into a sticky situation while on the evil New Order’s Star Destroyer ship. Mid-snafu, Harrison Ford tosses out the classic “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” There are many other times during the film when a classic thread from past movies is brought into the present moment. At the same time, Abrams teases us with future possibilities for how this whole crazy thing might unfold.
Your Takeaway: Failing to give your brand’s positive past its due can be dangerous business. Remember when Coca Cola tried to introduce the New Coke? While preliminary taste tests for the new formulation were positive, consumers revolted at the idea of their old standby being replaced by a new upstart. Sales dropped and Coke Classic (the original formula) was reintroduced. Change can give your brand a powerful boost, but it needs to take into account the sentimental relationship your customers have with your brand as before.
Flip the Familiar: We were all shocked when Luke’s father (aka Anakin) turned out to be Darth Vader, so in a delightful twist of fate, this time it’s the son (Kylo Ren) who represents the dark side, and the father (Han Solo), the light. There are several of these flips of the familiar in the movie. Another example is Maz Kanata, the burnt-orange female who echoes Yoda in her wrinkled, wide-eyed wisdom.
Your Takeaway: What is it about your brand that your clients hold dear, but you could offer a slight variation on or flip sideways? Engaged and interested customers keep your brand fresh and your customers wanting more. Consider the case of Starbucks, which in 2011 wanted to expand beyond selling only coffee to other food items. While they anchored the past by keeping the core of their logo, the famous mermaid image, they removed the word coffee.
Get the Backstory Straight: Peppered throughout Star Wars: The Force Awakens are small moments relating to the backstory of the saga:

  • Former Princess now General Leia saying about her son, “There’s too much of Vader in him.”


  • Kylo Ren praying to the burnt-up helmet of his grandfather Lord Vader for help to resist the light side of the force.


  • A long-lost light saber being removed from a dusty box as it calls to the progeny of its former owner.

These flashes of the past, and more, continue to honor the place these characters came from and the circumstances that have brought them to where they are today.
Your Takeaway: Your brand most likely did not begin this morning. There is a whole backstory as to how and why your brand ended up here and now. Have you taken the time to write this backstory and integrate it into your marketing materials and brand presentation? How could you bring stronger elements of your backstory into your current brand?
There are two more films left in the Star Wars saga as it was originally conceived, and whether they’ll live up to the brand promise (or not) remains to be seen. Brands, like the Millennium Falcon, require ongoing maintenance and attention — even in a galaxy far, far away.
This article is copyrighted by Karen Leland and cannot be reprinted in any form, electronic or otherwise, without the express written permission of Karen Leland.
Karen Leland is President of Sterling Marketing Group, a branding and marketing strategy and implementation firm. She works with individuals, businesses and teams to enhance their business and personal brands. Her clients include LinkedIn, American Express, Apple, Marriott Hotels and others. Her ninth book, The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand, is due out from Entrepreneur Press in May of 2016.


United States