You’re a Marketer, Harry! The Magic of Effective Storytelling in Advertising

Thunder crashed, lightning cracked and rain lashed down as the half-giant Hagrid thumped down the door of the Dursleys’ hideaway.

The hulking Hogwarts groundskeeper stooped through the door, stomped into the house and sparked the dormant fireplace with his magic umbrella – before delivering some life-altering news to a young boy on his eleventh birthday.

”You’re a wizard, Harry”. 

For Harry Potter, it was the beginning of his journey into the wizarding world. For audiences watching in cinemas and at home, it was the moment that the mystical world of Hogwarts truly came to life.

Twenty years have passed since Hagrid and Harry began one of cinema’s greatest adventures. The eight movies since have grossed almost $8 billion in box office revenue alone, confirming Harry Potter as one of the most significant – and successful – franchises of our age.

But, unlike Harry himself, the movies were not necessarily destined for greatness.

Despite the success of JK Rowling’s books, it wasn’t immediately clear if the story was going to resonate with audiences and work on the big screen. There were a number of potential banana skins; the cast of young actors could have easily butchered iconic lines, the CGI could have failed to capture the magic of Hogwarts and its deep cast of characters – or maybe the accompanying soundtrack could have been anonymous and forgettable.

There were a million ways in which the Harry Potter movies could’ve failed to live up to the imagination of audiences. But they didn’t.

Advertisers aren’t adapting beloved books to screen. But they are trying to capture a bit of magic and make something memorable – and so there are lessons to be learned from the success of Harry Potter.

Effectiveness is not witchcraft

Harry Potter illustrates the power of story, sound, characters and place. But these ingredients are not unique to film. The success of any creative output, whether a blockbuster movie or a TV advert, is determined by how well you can align these fundamental aspects of good storytelling.

This may seem simple. But it is a truth many advertisers fail to address. At System1, we use a star rating system to gauge how an ad will impact long-term brand growth, based on the emotional response of audiences. In our research, we ask audiences what they felt about an ad, and how strongly. Ads that resonate strongly and create positive feelings score higher – and consequently generate stronger growth for brands.

The star ratings scale ranges from 1 – 5.9. But over half of all adverts published only achieve 1-star on the scale – suggesting they do nothing whatsoever for the brand in the long term.

So how can brands climb the star rankings to effectiveness? In his new book, Look Out, Orlando Wood argues that advertisers need to embrace the power of humour, strong characters, catchy songs, narratives and other techniques that genuinely engage consumers and win their attention. While these tropes aren’t new, they can help advertisers stand outside the crowd of generic run-of-the-mill ads.

You can see how Harry Potter leveraged these qualities to build a unique world fans felt they lived in – from the iconic theme to the instantly recognisable characters, to the rich and detailed universe it exists within.

As the franchise developed, it leveraged what we call ‘fluent devices’ – the use of familiar characters and scenarios consumers start to recognise and associate emotion with. These can be incredibly powerful as a tactic. Things like Quidditch, Chocolate Frogs and yelling “Expelliarmus!” aren’t usually vital to the wider plot, any more than the GEICO Gecko actually affects your insurance premium, but they immediately spark recognition and emotion.

Some advertisers have successfully leveraged these traits in recent work too.

Dr. Pepper has invested in creating a consistent sense of place for its ad spots – targeting US sports fans through the surreal world of ‘Fansville’. It isn’t quite a magical world of witchcraft and wizardry like Hogwarts – but it is a reliable and recognisable foundation that allows the brand to tell engaging stories.

Lego achieved an impressive 4.5 star rating with its Rebuild the World’ spot which celebrates children as the masters of creative problem-solving. The film features distinctive characters, such as the unlucky damp knight, and is able to tell an emotionally engaging story as a town comes together to help the knight cross the river – only to reveal it was an enactment conceived by a group of children playing LEGO.

It can be easy to overcomplicate things in our line of work. But the features which define effective, successful advertising are simple – and they are staring us in the face. Agency planners need to ask themselves – does this ad tap into people’s emotions? Does it have a clear narrative, strong characters and place?

The world has changed since Hagrid first met Harry. But the rules of engagement have not. By leveraging the powers of basic storytelling devices, advertisers can create more effective work which satisfies (and perhaps even exceeds) the expectations of those-who-must-not-be-named. (Clients.).

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