How Star Wars Stays Relevant Across Generations (and Why You Need to Toss Out Stereotypes Based on Age)

I took some time over the holidays to see the new Star Wars movie with my family, and regardless of age, everybody loved it -- myself, my teenage children, even the younger nieces and nephews in our group. This was no surprise. The entire Star Wars movement is one of the most stellar examples of prolonged customer engagement, having captivated audiences for nearly four decades. Since its 1977 debut, this "epic space opera" has not only secured its position as a cultural phenomenon, it has been a template for other franchises wishing to replicate its ongoing multi-generational appeal. It's a template that can be (and most certainly should be) emulated by all types of businesses.

So the question is: what can we as brands learn from the Star Wars franchise?

Consider this: fans are to Star Wars what engaged customers are to businesses. The lasting success of Star Wars is largely due to the fact that the franchise has rarely fallen victim to stereotyping its loyal cross-generational fan base, or focusing solely on one specific segment of that base. They have built a strong and diverse fan base and kept those fans engaged despite the fact that it's been a decade since their last film and 32 years since they first featured beloved characters Princess Lea and Chewbacca. Talk about staying power!

Most businesses, however, focus heavily on micro-segmentation which in has the unintended impact of limiting their reach. Star Wars has taken the approach that a fan is a fan and age, income, gender, etc. doesn't matter. I'm not saying that we don't need to segment in certain cases, as there are certainly benefits to it. But it does cause me to ask: what would happen if we stopped the hyper-segmentation for a minute? What If we saw our customers for their similarities and not their differences? For how our brand cuts across generations and provides a common experience regardless of the minute distinctions in taste and preference that define each generation?

In the Star Wars playbook, you won't find generational segmentation as they know it can limit their brand appeal. While Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millenials and the new up-and-coming Gen Z may not share many common interests on the surface, there remains a vast opportunity for us to adopt cross-generational engagement principles that draw all of them in and delight them. Star Wars' producers learned quickly, with the error of Jar Jar Binks targeted at a younger audience, that customers won't tolerate these kinds of ploys. It's about staying relevant to all of your customers while generating fresh and continual revenue.

So what lessons can we learn from Star Wars about being more inclusive across generations? I see four key ways:

Blend the old with the new. Han Solo and Chewbacca ensure that longstanding audiences stay engaged, while the introduction of new characters and plot lines draws in a younger generation. Don't leave loyal customers behind by catering only to newer generations. Part of this comes down to knowing what your customers most appreciate and value. It also means knowing how love for your brand is passed on to the next generation, how nostalgia plays into your customer's brand loyalty and how younger generations see your brand with fresh eyes. You should have been there for our post-movie conversation about Chewbacca and what he represents!
Build inclusive communities. With 65 percent of all adults and 90 percent of 18-29 year olds now using social networking sites (Pew Research), building an online community that appeals to customers of all ages and motivates them to interact is imperative. Don't assume only the younger generations are online. For Star Wars, it's all about their multi-generational fans and this is readily evident in the Star Wars community.
Apply more organic engagement. We can no longer afford to rely on advertising alone; it's all about leveraging and engaging with the right people on social media. We have to have meaningful and authentic connections and conversations, and Star Wars excels in that department. When Mark Zuckerberg commented that he loves Star Wars, the Star Wars social media team applied tactical engagement when they responded not only with a polite thank you, but with an applicable and perfect reference to a Star Wars line that fans would be sure not to miss -- turning praise from Zuckerberg into a moment that delighted fans. Tactical and well played, and applicable to the widest possible audience.
Ensure multi-dimensional and authentic content. We have to appeal to the widest possible audience with a diversity of content. Star Wars accomplishes this thematically with multi-dimensional story lines: romance, mystery, action, humor. Generations that are digital natives have a lifetime of exposure to content and are more selective about what they engage in; selectivity means we as brands have to be smarter about what we do -- it's quality over quantity. We also need to ensure that we leverage user-generated content which drives engagement at a much deeper level, and in some cases (like this great film franchise) for a long time to come!!

We can all learn from Star Wars how to delight fans. It's time we do so.