A while back I picked up a few bargain DVDs of classic movies I grew up on. I’ve been making an effort to grab these films, mostly for my own personal enjoyment, but also to share with my nieces and nephews. I’ve learned that a) many of these films are definitely not as tame and family-friendly as I remembered them to be – even with a PG rating, and b) lessons I learned from these movies shaped a lot of my life views and lifestyle. That’s a pretty powerful thing when you think about it.
For instance, I let some of the teenage boys at my old dayjob check out the classic space spoof SPACEBALLS, by Mel Brooks. The movie is still as fun and funny to watch today as it was when it was made back in 1987. But one of the running jokes stuck with me in ways that only now do I understand its effect. Spaceballs had a subtle subtheme criticizing the voracious consumerism of moviegoers and sci-fi fans. Everything from the strategic name brand and product placement (we call it “Mr. Coffee,” sir) to the advent technology (We’re looking at NOW, now, sir) to even scenes of Rick Moranis’s Lord Dark Helmet playing with his official SPACEBALLS action figures spoke to fans of franchises like STAR WARS and STAR TREK and their incessant need to own a piece of the franchises they adore. One of the children at my job was an unrepentant Trekkie and Harry Potter fanatic, who jumped at every opportunity to add memorabilia and merchandise to his already massive collection or books, games, toys, movies, and random knick-knacks that tie into these franchises.
The point was driven home quite blatantly when Mel Brooks’s Yogurt character went on a diatribe explaining the power of merchandising, hocking everything from SPACEBALLS plates to SPACEBALLS talking dolls and everything in between. He even mentioned the possibility of a sequel (fittingly called SPACEBALLS: The Search For More Money). Once he opens your eyes to that aspect of the film, then you can’t not see all of the SPACEBALLS merchandise they have strewn about the movie. There’s even an official SPACEBALLS placemat in a random space diner towards the end of the film!
So what affect did this have on me personally?
Isn’t it obvious?
While many high-falluting, artsy-fartsy creative folk talk badly of this as a form of “selling out,” I am firmly entrenched in the opposite camp. Once you attach a price tag to your object of creative expression, you step out of the realm of being a creator and you become a business person / entrepreneur.
And what is the ultimate goal of being in business?
Three words: Get. That. Money.
Some people may look at Bill Watterson’s refusal to license Calvin & Hobbes as a noble attempt to maintain the integrity of his creation. I look at is as a HUGE missed opportunity. The C&H product would have been enhanced, not diluted, by proper merchandising. Think about it: Peanuts and Garfield are still beloved franchises despite having their own TV shows, movies, and endorsement deals. The Heathcliff and Dennis The Menace cartoons and movies added dimensions to the central characters that were only hinted at in the comic strips. The Boondocks TV show still offers the same biting criticism of Black America and America in general, but is now exposed to a MUCH wider audience that doesn’t necessarily read newspapers. Meanwhile, the only people who give a hot darn about how “brilliant” Pogo and Doonesbury was are comic strip snobs. Watterson would have only added to the legacy of his characters by giving people more access to them than just the comic strips.
And to my earlier point, if he valued his artistic integrity so much, then why sell the strip at all? Give it away for free if making money isn’t that important. By distributing your strip through the newspaper syndicates you were already subjecting yourself and your product to dilution and censorship by the editors and bigwigs in the syndicates. Just ask Aaron McGruder or Berke Breathed how much creative and editorial freedom you REALLY have when dealing with those guys. Since you’re basically whoring out your product anyway, why not get the most for it, from as many consumers as possible, in as many markets as possible?
This is the life lesson I picked up from SPACEBALLS, and I follow it religiously now. There is no way I’m going to bother making a creation that lacks cross marketing potential. All of my novels have been written with a potential movie, video game or TV show in mind, and they can all easily be franchised into book series if they had been successful enough to warrant that. And you especially saw it on my GODMODE website: In addition to the book, I’m showing you the book’s soundtrack, and as much merchandise from book-related images as CafePress will allow. The hidden gem of this is that the cross-promotion, merchandising and licensing goes both ways. If people find a GODMODE T-shirt interesting enough to buy, that person becomes a walking advertisement for the source material, especially since I make sure this site’s URL is on every piece of merchandise.
I make no apologies for wanting to get the most out of my creations, and for exploring every opportunity and option to do so. If I can increase awareness of my product and profit from it in a new way, I’m open to exploring it. This is the process of branding, and all successful companies (and individuals, for that matter) do this.
So how does this apply to writers?
Whether you admit it or not, you create and cultivate a brand every time you make your stories public. they are establishing your unique voice and style, so when people see or hear of a particular story, they think of you and your work. Your stories themselves can also be brands, especially if they become series or franchises. You can turn this to your advantage. Even if you are still in the Watterson camp of not “selling out,” effective branding can increase awareness for your creation, which will bring more people to check your creation out.
There are multiple ways to cultivate and grow your brand. I’m a freelance graphic designer, and I advise my clients on branding constantly. having a presence online with a quality website for yourself and your works, along with a good selection of active social media accounts is a good start. You can create and sell merchandise related to you and your products with no upfront costs at a site like Cafepress.com. Selling NFTs related to your work is the new craze as of this posting. Of course, paid advertising is a tried and true way of getting your brand message out. There are plenty of other out-the-box ways of establishing a brand out there, and new ideas and methods are really just a search engine away. Take some time to cultivate your brand, and I’d love to see the testimony of your results in the comments section.