The Harry Potter Fantasy

Harry Potter is a great example of a product for which form and func­tion fulfill fantasy. Almost all products are accompanied by a service, and the Harry Potter series is no exception. Although the creation of the book prose itself is relatively straightforward, coming from the mind of a single product designer, J. K. Rowling, a vast production and distribution system prints, ships, and sells the product. For book­stores, the book brings in people who are likely to purchase other books, or to drink a latte at the cafe. The book also has the same pos­itive impact on Web-based retailers (minus the latte), where recom­mendation agents tempt purchasers with additional options and where delivery is an additional service. Because of the popularity of the Harry Potter series, Order of the Phoenix could be preordered months in advance on Amazon. com with the promise of quick deliv­ery at a discount.

Beyond the book and the services that accompany it, Harry Potter has created an industry. Merchandizing has led to products including multiple computer and video games, Lego games, sun­glasses, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor (Jelly) Beans (of course), and even Harry Potter cologne. The books have led directly to the production of movies. The first three Harry Potter movies each grossed around $90 million in the first weekend of their release. To date, they are three of the top six movies in terms of gross receipt their first week­end, each grossing more than $250 million over time.

The movies, themselves an entertainment service, have stayed true to the spirit of the books. They are accessible to the young and old. Like the books, they are an escape into the world of wizards and witches. Rowling’s rich writing is as descriptive and captivating as the movie set. The connection of the movies to the Harry Potter stories, which everyone fantasizes about being a part of, have allowed for an exceptional cast, each supporting the mystique of Harry’s world.

The Harry Potter movies are an interesting contrast to the Dr. Seuss movie The Cat in the Hat. Dr. Seuss books, written for readers and soon-to-be readers who are younger than the Harry Potter reader, have brought smiles to children for the past 70 years. The books stim­ulate children’s imaginations while teaching them the magic of words. Although some of the characters are slightly naughty, they are never bad, crude, or mean. The message of Dr. Seuss was lost in the movie The Cat in the Hat, which featured the industry of Mike Myers as a rude and crude Cat in the Hat. The technology was there, but the translation was a dismal failure. Rowling approved the translation of her books into movies, but unfortunately (or fortunately for him), Dr. Seuss did not live to see his book translated. The movie was largely panned and, although not a complete financial failure, likely because of the fans of Mike Myers, the film appears to have barely broken even through theater distribution (although video sales will probably bring the studio a fair profit). In contrast, the third Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which remained true to the Harry Potter themes, made a hearty profit in the just the first weekend.

If you look for other writers of fantasy with a clear English her­itage, J. R.R. Tolkien comes to mind. With his extensive background in the mythologies of ancient cultures, Tolkien crafted a world of characters and dramatic contexts for The Lord of the Rings, released in 1954. Tolkien used his knowledge of geography to make an imagi­nary kingdom with subcultures that reflect ideal settings for epic adventures. Tolkien went so far as to create his own language, merged from different ones, and the theme of the search for the ring was modeled from ancient myths. This was a brilliant literary achieve­ment and one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century, yet The Lord of the Rings did not flourish into mainstream until pirated paperbacks appeared in the United States in 1965. The success of The Lord of the Rings then quickly grew from a grassroots movement into cult status.

Although The Lord of the Rings movies that were introduced in 2001 were blockbusters and included an Academy Award for best pic­ture for The Return of the King, the first attempts in the 1970s to make a movie based on the Rings trilogy did not have broad-based appeal. They were animations, most likely because special-effects capabilities were too primitive to effectively capture the story.

So the social, economic, and technological (SET) factors for the Rings trilogy were not as aligned as the SET factors for Harry Potter. Both the Potter books and films were instant mainstream hits with children and adults around the world because the social aspects of the story and technological aspects of the films were perfectly aligned with cultural and market demands. Although both were economic blockbuster successes in the end, it took more than a decade for the Rings books to grow in popularity and nearly 50 years for the movies to strike, whereas for Harry Potter, both were instantaneous hits. That is the lesson for product development. If you are developing a product in today’s fast-paced world, you do not have the luxury of waiting a decade for your product to reach the tipping point to become mainstream.

The story behind J. K. Rowling and her writing of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is itself inspiring. A divorced mother who was on the dole in Edinburgh, England, Rowling would bring her baby in a stroller into a coffee shop and would write while her baby slept. Rowling, whose 2003 earnings surpassed even those of Queen Elizabeth, at present lives in a castle and is now one of the most recognized women on the planet. Although Rowling’s success is clearly literary genius, her accomplishment is a lesson in innovation for all. Envisioning the extraordinary part of the ordinary, a wizard’s blood­line in an ordinary-looking boy, was the kernel of her success. For each of us, all that is ordinary holds the possibility of the extraordinary.

Harry Potter serves as a metaphor for innovation in product development. Finding a way to make the ordinary into something extraordinary is a key lesson in product innovation. Sam Farber, of OXO, is a J. K. Rowling of new product development, taking the ordi­nary peeler and transforming it into an extraordinary kitchen utensil.

Updated: October 2, 2015 — 8:36 am