Memorial Day weekend 1977 opened with an intergalactic bang as George Lucas’ blockbuster Star Wars hit movie theaters across America. The incredible success of the first movie, which received seven Oscars and earned nearly $800 million worldwide, began with brilliant marketing of a groundbreaking thought: Let’s create a revolutionary movie-watching experience, complete with never-before-seen special effects.
Star Wars leapt off screens and immersed audiences in “a galaxy far, far away.” The film made all three of its lead actors overnight stars, turning Carrie Fisher into an object of adoration for millions of young male fans and launching Harrison Ford’s now-legendary career as an action-hero heartthrob.
Over the years the Star Wars giant has spawned eight more feature films, five TV series and an entire industry’s worth of comic books, toys, video games and other products. This is the stuff of progeny greatness.
Lucas offers several lessons for business leaders, both for creating a strategy your customers will invest in and for positioning themselves as thought leaders afterwards. First, there’s nothing new under the sun—only variations on themes. Movies existed far before George Lucas put pen to paper, and special effects had been evolving long before. Yet, Lucas and his team gave us the seat-gripping, white-knuckle special effects we can’t forget. Success stories like Star Wars start with a unique approach to a universal idea, but they don’t stop there. More than forty years after the first movie, adults and children still enjoy the original work and all the generations of offspring.
Second, thought leadership and competitive advantage mean you cannot be ignored. You may not like science fiction movies, and you might especially not appreciate the Star Wars movies, but you can’t deny their impact on movie-goers, pop culture, entertainment, and audience expectations. What can you do that those in your industry won’t be able to ignore?
Third, you can have the best breakthrough product or service, but unless and until you market your brilliance, it will languish. You simply have to dazzle your customers.
I encounter two kinds or organizations: those with a strong strategy and culture of change and those going out of business. In other words, what got you here won’t necessarily get you to the next level. The Pony Express did not become the railroad, and the railroad did not become the airlines. Vanguards in their days, both the railroad and airline industries thrived. Today, however, both industries suffer from decades of bad management and failed deals. As you look back, where has your company been? You may decide to ride your horse in the direction it’s already going, but like the Pony Express, you could might also decide you don’t need horses at all.
IBM once defined itself as company that made hardware, helped clients develop software and provided service that users found invaluable. When IBM entered the microcomputer market, they disrupted early entrants, obliterating some with the power of the IBM brand. Now IBM makes its profits from consulting services. While their path has not been without speed bumps, they have dramatically changed.
Retail stores like Sears, JC Penney, and Macy’s didn’t morph into Amazon. In fact, they didn’t even remain viable once consumer shopping habits began to shift dramatically. Penn Central sold its money-losing railroad when it figured out their real estate would bring more wealth. Hospitals once measured success by the numbers of beds occupied for the maximum number of days. Today, they feature ambulatory supercenters, value rapid bed turnover, and offer remote access to physicians through video, sometimes pairing a remote physician with an on-site robot.
Successful transformations occur when decision-makers base their calls on reliable data from the past to inform intelligent decisions about the future. They do this not to perpetuate what they have done but to ask, “What does this tell us about customers?” Some companies never learn this lesson, however.