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  • Writer's pictureMatt Allmer

Staying On Brand: How To Add Value to High-Profile IPs

Adding value to a high-profile brand is appealing but perilous. These fundamental principles can help on your journey.

  1. A Committed Understanding of the Target Audience

  2. Balanced Creativity and Familiarity

  3. Strict and Trustworthy Communication

  4. Strong Leadership to Counter Inevitable Ambiguity

  5. A Strategic Mindset to Navigate the Unknowns

  6. Experience in the Industries Involved

Who benefits more, LEGO or the brands they partner with? Today, LEGO is synonymous with Star Wars, Marvel, Minecraft, and other high-profile brands. This was not always the case. Prior to this cross-brand business strategy, LEGO had a different business model. They sold generic build sets and emphasized personal imagination and customization. It was a winning strategy for a very long time until the internet, video games, and other market disruptors changed consumer behavior. This contrasting landscape and other compounding factors nearly forced LEGO to claim insolvency in 2003. This shows that every brand, big and small, must always compete for relevance and loyalty from their target audience. This includes even the most well-known brands that enjoy rare competitive advantages. It comes down to adding value to the brands involved. To do this successfully, there are some evergreen principles to keep in mind.

A Committed Understanding of the Target Audience

We’re all aware the target audience should guide decision-making, but what’s less talked about is the challenge of protecting the target audience as a priority throughout product development. It’s like having a soufflé in the oven the whole time, during the project’s schedule. The slightest disruption shifts focus to someone else: legal, accounting, creative, marketing… The line is long. The most important person in the entire process never speaks up: the customer. They’re never in the room when decisions are being made and yet they have the most impact on the outcome.

The greatest challenge to understanding the target audience is recognizing the difference between their needs and the competing needs of everyone else involved. While everyone involved claims to advocate for the target audience, it is often in service of their own agenda. Value is added when understanding the target audience's wants, needs, and desires regardless of personal gain or convenience. Furthermore, value cannot be added without also understanding what turns the customer off and how the new product/offering can avoid market and PR pitfalls.

The Super Mario Bros Movie is a recent example of successfully understanding the target audience. The story intentionally gives moviegoers what they expect. It doesn’t try to introduce ground-breaking concepts that would overshadow the core spirit of the brand. As a result, the brand gets a successful movie added to its catalog.

While not a cross-promotion or extension of a brand, an interesting example of misunderstanding the target audience is Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The story is actually told well and explores fresh, interesting themes. However, it changed a crucial element, which is that Luke Skywalker is the hero whose destiny is to bring balance to the force. Instead, Luke passes that role to a disconnected newcomer and is relegated to a rescue mission. Despite it being an impressive rescue, with an epic twist, this cataclysmic change betrays a deeply rooted, core aspect of the brand.

Prioritize the target audience. Protect the soufflé.

Balanced Creativity and Familiarity

In addition to a target audience soufflé, high-profile brands require walking a tightrope in the form of balancing creative novelty with established familiarity. The Last Jedi example carries over into this principle as well. The story was fantastically new and fresh but at the expense of crucial, fundamental familiarity. The most talented among us can easily get this balance wrong.

Some clear examples of successfully striking this balance are the 23 Marvel films from phases 1–4. These films revealed how some familiarities were less important than previously thought. Things like emphasizing ordinary-to-hero transition shots, strict loyalty to source costume design, excessively stylized action scenes, and unrelatable “what’s it like to be a hero” character moments. Instead, Marvel successfully applied creative focus to the strengths of the medium: Relatable, character-driven stories, expositional brevity, and thoughtful, lighthearted humor.

Netflix’s The Witcher series is widely agreed to be an example of a creative/familiar imbalance. It can be summed up as replacing familiarity with unfamiliar creativity. Beloved characters are portrayed in unfamiliar ways. Timelines are inexplicably altered. A new, non-canon villain makes a significant impact on major characters. The accumulation of changes creates an unfamiliar world that weakens the preserved familiarities, like setting and tone.

Balancing a soufflé on a tightrope is difficult but not impossible.

Strict and Trustworthy Communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw.

When collaborating on a household name brand project, trust exists between the brand holder and the project lead. To uphold this trust, it’s imperative to keep a strong line of communication between these two parties. It will be challenged by adjacent creative conflicts and differing interpretations of brand values. It’s difficult peer inside this arena since communications are not publicly shared. However, I can speak to my own experiences.

For instance, at the start of one particular project, the product developer pitched an idea that was rejected by the brand holder. The second pitch was then accepted, developed, and it performed fairly well in the market, but there was a twist. Just before the product launch, a competing product hit store shelves that closely resembled the original pitch, and it caught fire. It was such a big commercial success that it established itself as a household name brand. The lesson here falls at the feet of both parties: the brand holder failed in trusting the product developer and the product developer didn’t make a convincing pitch.

On the flip side, I had access to inner-circle communications with a brand holder who signed a contract with a video game studio. The brand holder was largely hands-off, giving full weight of the creative process to the studio. The final result went on to win many awards, and it put the game studio on the map. It was 2012, the brand holder was Skybound Entertainment, the studio was Telltale Games, and the result was Game of the Year Winner The Walking Dead.

If the entire formula of adding value to a high-profile brand was boiled down to a single element, it would be trust. If that is not established and protected, everything else is at risk.

Strong Leadership to Counter Ambiguity

The nature of creating something fresh and exciting is inherently challenging, requiring a robust and expansive creative process. It pushes all those involved to explore new horizons, stretch their imaginations, and venture outside the boundaries of conventional thinking. It’s an exciting working environment, but it cuts both ways, creating ambiguity that cannot be avoided. When conveying a single creative solution to 10 leaders, 10 different interpretations emerge, which cascade to their respective teams, further adding to the creative disparity. What was initially intended as a cohesive vision becomes a fragmented landscape of incompatible ideas and perspectives.

There is only one element to counter this problem: strong, clear leadership. If you’ve ever bought a product or watched content that didn’t live up to expectations, chances are it’s due to a breakdown in leadership causing hardworking people to fight a losing battle with mounting, unaddressed ambiguity. In worse-case situations, the leadership is replaced, often by the brand holder, whose sole purpose is to simply get the product to market, outcome be damned.

With capable leaders at the helm, inspiring communication, fostering collaboration, and guiding the creative vision, the inherent disparities and potential pitfalls of ambiguity can be mitigated. The vital role leadership plays is to provide a unified sense of direction. This ensures the final outcome aligns with the brand's values, resonates with the target audience, and meets or exceeds market expectations.

A Strategic Mindset to Navigate the Unknowns

In addition to ambiguity, another guarantee is that unknowns will reveal themselves at the worst times. So, the fifth aspect of adding value to a high-profile brand is the ability to strategically navigate these storms.

The two most common outcomes we see as a result of unknowns rearing their ugly heads are either a schedule delay or a feature cut. In the game industry, when I highly-anticipated title is announced, it is assumed the release date will be pushed out. This has to do with a complex sequence of underestimating the scope of work on several levels of granularity, which is a breeding ground for unexpected unknowns.

What’s needed to navigate unknowns is the skill of prioritization. Identifying necessity vs optional is indispensable because it’s an effective defense against sudden uncertainty. This way, when an unknown reveals itself, project leaders can quickly identify if it affects core features or low-priority offerings. This speeds up the course-correction process and streamlines communication channels.

"Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security." —John Allen Paulos

Experience in the Involved Mediums and their Respective Industries

The importance of experience within the mediums and industries involved cannot be overstated. Take, for example, the cautionary tale of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It’s a film, albeit created by talented people, their expertise was better suited for game development than filmmaking. Due to the lack of film-making experience, the film failed to resonate with audiences. It now represents the consequences of breaking the cardinal rule of staying in your lane.

I have heard many horror stories in the other direction as well. For instance, an influential figure in Hollywood demanded a fundamental change to a game far in development, utterly oblivious to the months-long consequences of such a change. A few days later, that same Hollywood executive expressed unreasonable frustration when the massive change was not complete. Not surprisingly, the game studio, which was well-known at the time, no longer exists.

These anecdotes shed light on the crucial role of experience within the involved mediums and their respective industries. Collaborative endeavors thrive when those involved possess a deep understanding of the unique requirements and expectations of their respective fields. Staying in one's lane, respecting the expertise of each medium, and valuing the insights of those with firsthand experience are vital.

Leave the soufflé to the chef. Leave the tightrope to the tightrope walker. Sometimes it's the same person, but nonetheless, it’s imperative not to mix up the two.

In The Brand Business

At the top of these guidelines, I asked who benefits more, LEGO or its branded partners. The truth is, it’s a trick question. It doesn’t matter who benefits more. What matters is whether both sides add value that is greater than the sum of its parts. If the answer is yes, the first hurdle has been cleared, and it’s time to focus on the principles discussed above. The pursuit of adding value to high-profile brands requires understanding the pivotal role these principles play on a day-to-day basis. Embracing them enables stakeholders to navigate the complexities of cross-brand collaborations and pave the way for a successful impact.

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