Re-Building the Empire’s Brand Image in Star Wars

I’m a huge geek—a fact those of you who have seen my other site will already know. I’ve been a fan of Star Wars ever since I was a kid. Back then, I practically burned holes into my VHS tapes of the films. Even today, in the months leading up to Episode 7, I am excited to see that fantasy universe once again on the big screen.

In anticipation of Episode 7, I got to thinking about the brand challenge the Empire must have faced after the second Death Star was destroyed. Consider this: a galactic empire whose largest military base has been destroyed by a handful of rebels (and Ewok teddy bears), and whose most important civil and military leaders have been killed.

Yikes. So much for the indomitable might of the Empire.

With the trailers for Episode 7, it’s clear that the Empire hasn’t died quite yet and that the Rebels are still struggling to gain ground. But the events on and around Endor cannot be ignored. After all, the Rebels would surely use their victory as a key focal point of their propaganda campaign, wouldn’t they?

The Brief:

Congratulations, you are now the Empire’s Lead Brand Strategist. Plucked from a small agency on Corresant, you have been given the mandate to improve the Empire’s brand image and ensure that any Rebel gains in public perception are mitigated or reversed. You have the Empire’s resources at your disposal. Oh, and failure will result in summary execution. Good luck!

Some Disclaimers:

  • I neither support nor endorse the Empire in real life, especially their penchant for planet-destroying, torture, etc. They DO have cool uniforms though, so they’ve got that going for them.
  • I like Star Wars, but I’m a casual fan. The assumptions I make here are primarily based on the six canonical movies. In other words, I guarantee you that I’ll miss nuance and piss off hardcore fans in the process.
The Empire's early marketing efforts were well-intentioned, but misguided efforts.
The Empire’s early marketing efforts were well-intentioned, but misguided.

Key Challenges:

The Empire is facing a number of challenges after Return of the Jedi. Here are some of the important ones:

  • Assuming that the destruction of the Death Star was validated by independent sources, the incident would have left the Empire in a perception crisis: leaderless, weakened and embarrassed
  • On the other side, the Rebels will be riding a wave of support after their miraculous victory
  • The Empire now lacks a key figurehead around whom loyalists can rally
  • At the end of the day, the Empire has done some really bad stuff (see: the destruction of an entire planet). People may be sympathetic towards the Rebellion at this point. The destruction of the second Death Star could be a tipping point for popular support

Key Opportunities:

It’s not all bad news for the Empire though. There are some opportunities they could use to retain the hearts and minds of the people:

  • People will be afraid and uncertain about the fate of the galaxy in the event of a massive shift of power. If the Empire is good at one thing, it’s promoting stability. In other words, “better the devil you know.”
  • The destruction of the second Death Star and the massacre on Endor could be spun as acts of terrorism
  • No one except Luke knew firsthand that Vader repented before the end. If the Rebels try to own this narrative, they’ll face an uphill battle considering Vader’s reputation and how unlikely it would be for him to switch sides and kill the Emperor
  • People will (or should) be asking these questions:
    • Can the Rebellion establish stability in a power vacuum?
    • Could this breed more civil conflicts?
    • Will this hurt the galactic economy?
    • Aren’t key Rebellion leaders known criminals? (e.g. Han, Lando)
    • And most importantly: are the Rebels terrorists?
This performed well in focus testing, particularly among aggrieved tauntauns.
This performed well in focus testing, particularly among aggrieved tauntauns.

What Won’t Work:

Before we find our central strategy, let’s look at what won’t work:

  • Offensive Strategy: Vocally Painting the Rebels as Villains
    • This should be an indirect tactic, not a primary part of the Empire’s overt messaging strategy.
    • If directly addressed, it creates two additional problems for the Empire:
      • One, it validates the Rebellion as a real threat
      • Two, it might introduce knowledge of the Rebellion to areas where it had previously not been a problem
    • In other words, by directly attacking the opposition, the Empire inadvertently elevates it to a competitive status. No matter the specifics of the messaging, publicly attacking the Rebellion puts them on equal footing with the Empire—and suggests that people have a choice in the matter.
  • Figurehead Strategy: Rallying the Empire around a Central Figure
    • I’m pretty sure this is what is going to happen in Episode 7 and it’s a good strategy for the long-term, but for this brief, we’re talking about the immediate aftermath of a major military setback. That central figure has not yet emerged so we can’t develop a strategy around such an unknown.
  • Non-engagement Strategy: Continue business as usual without publicly acknowledging the problem
    • Once again, we have to assume that news of the Death Star’s destruction will be disseminated throughout the galaxy by trusted sources. We have evidence of this from the celebrations on Cloud City, Naboo, Corresant and Tatooine in the new version of Return of the Jedi.
    • Even if this evidence did not exist, we would assume that if the Emperor disappeared one day, his absence would be noticed.
    • In any event, there would be enough information out there to create doubt—doubt that could turn into a dangerous cascade of popular support for the Rebellion. Suddenly the “stability” provided by the Empire seems rather oppressive… and dare I say, unnecessary!
"Also, I'm not seeing the logo here. I'm going to need to see the logo before I give feedback."
“Also, I’m not seeing the logo here. I’m going to need to see the logo before I give feedback.”

The Core Strategy: Objectives

We have several objectives we’ll need to meet in order to call our brand campaign successful:

  1. Reassure the galaxy that the Empire is still strong and capable (or failing that, still powerful enough to crush dissent).
  2. Convey message around benefits of Imperial rule
  3. Sow doubt that “the alternative” (i.e. the Rebels) would be disastrous for galactic stability

On the surface, this seems like a conservative approach that will not hold water against the predestined moral fortitude of the Rebel Alliance, but there are real world precedents for this strategy. Whenever there’s to be a revolution, a tipping point has to be surpassed after which the risk of supporting a dramatic shift in power is outweighed by the perceived gain. We must elevate the risk and minimize the gain of revolution. Support for the Empire will not be led by Imperial loyalists, but by families and citizens who don’t want to risk everything in the name of faraway politics.

Most of us live our day-to-day lives blissfully unaware of what “could be” in the absence of a strong civil authority. We pay our rent or mortgages content in the knowledge that rule of law protects our rights. We go to work in exchange for our paychecks and we generally don’t fear for our lives when we walk out the door. But what if the rule of law fell apart? Riots. Famine. Unemployment. Civil unrest.

Wouldn’t those consequences be enough for you to resist revolution, or at the very least, tacitly support the status quo?

Remember folks, we’re the Evil Empire. We should be the beneficiaries of the sentiment: evil wins when good men do nothing.

What an evil KPI. I think we’re on the right track.

Messaging Strategy:

Remember, we’re not trying to elevate the Rebellion into a position of parity. As far as we’re concerned, they’re thugs and terrorists, not political rivals. Does that mean we ignore the Rebels? No. It means we’re segmenting our messaging into different channels: public, broadcast style messages for propaganda and private, influencer-led messages for creating a ground-swell among trusted independent sources. The distinctly unsubtle tact of general Imperial strategy suggests that the Empire is accustomed to to the former approach. Interestingly, I think this means that the Empire favors paid media while the Rebellion leans towards an earned media strategy. I know who media agencies will be routing for in Episode 7!

Message Layer One: What the Empire Says Out Loud

I don’t really have a good idea how news and information is conveyed to a mass audience in the Star Wars universe, so I’m just going to assume:

  • The media structure basically mirrors our own in terms of general format, but more science fiction-y (e.g. holographic OOH advertising)
  • This structure is consistent across the Galaxy

Our key messaging challenge is to humanize the Empire, make people realize what value it provides in their lives, and implicitly ask the question whether the Rebellion is even capable of providing the same level of service. We need to make this message personal and surprising. Did you know the Empire protects you from pirates? Did you know the Empire is colonizing new worlds for its people? Did you know that serving the Empire gives you upward mobility and an education? People might be able to rattle off a list of complaints, but do they ever stop to think that without the Empire, they’d have an even longer list of problems and no one to go to for help?

The message then is designed to create passive gratitude for the service the Empire provides: “The Empire serves you always.”

Huh?!

What an incredibly humble and modest statement, right? Is this right for the Empire?

First, we need to pass the litmus test of whether or not this is a meaningful strategy or a hollow vision statement: Would the inverse of this statement be a viable strategy?

Inverse: You serve the Empire always. 

Now THAT sounds like the Empire we all know and love. But in this case, such an authoritative message doesn’t do anything to reinforce the value the Empire provides. If anything, it drives more sympathy for the Rebellion and its freedom-loving ways.

“The Empire serves you always” is a statement that contains warmth and humanity that is lost behind the white face plate of Stormtroopers. From this simple message, we can remind the galaxy that the Empire doesn’t exist to dominate, but to serve–and that service is the thin line that separates chaos from order.

Sample Tactics:

  • Broadcast advertisements that show the Empire doing unexpected things ranging from patrolling the Outer Rim to helping the elderly cross the street. By putting Stormtroopers and other Imperial representatives into unexpected and positive scenarios, we put forward a memorable message that the Rebellion will have to put more energy into countering.
  • Commemorate the fallen soldiers at Endor. Rather than let the Rebellion own Endor as a complete victory, paint the battle as a heroic struggle between valiant soldiers and terrorists. Show the barbarism of the Ewoks and terrorist forces. Show the world that the Empire exists to prevent that kind of violence. Finally, say that the Empire will always put itself on the line for the good of the people, no matter how much its armies must bleed to do so. To make this even more personal, commemorate individuals who fell in battle or in the second Death Star explosion.
  • Events such as military parades can be presented as public outreach activities, but there is also a not-so-subtle reminder of the Empire’s power when an AT-AT is parked in the middle of a city for all to see. The trick is to convince people that the Rebels are not worth support while showing everyone that the Empire is still the undisputed champion when it comes to shows of force.
"Oh, and we're outsourcing production to a local shop. Wookies, mostly. I know, I know, they're not as open to feedback, but they're much cheaper so we have to take what we can get."
“Oh, and we’re outsourcing production to a local shop. Wookies, mostly. I know, I know, they’re not as open to feedback, but they’re much cheaper so we have to take what we can get.”

Message Layer Two: What the Empire Whispers to Trend Setters

At this level, we’re no longer slapping posters on transportation hubs or broadcasting advertisements. We’re carefully selecting and approaching key personalities who can influence critical demographics. Which ones? The ones who, when combined, create resistance to the ambition of the Rebellion. In other words, the ones who stand to lose the most if the Empire weakens its grip on the galaxy. These include:

  • Business owners (economy driven)
  • Parents (family driven)
  • The Elderly (tradition and morality driven)
  • Nationalists (patriotism driven)

By spreading doubt about the capabilities of the Rebellion among these groups, the Empire appears positively rosey in comparison. The undeclared message of the Empire is therefore, “The Empire isn’t perfect, but the alternative is much worse.”

We’re not necessarily seeking rabid support with this message. In some cases, especially among loyalists, we might receive that kind of response, but for people who don’t have much at stake in politics, we need to generate hesitation and a slight preference for the status quo. For instance:

  • Business owners: “I don’t love the Empire, but I can’t afford to lose galactic trade for my business. The Hutts would just take right over!”
  • Parents: “I don’t support the Empire, but can the Rebels guarantee security? I’ve got a family to raise.”
  • The Elderly: “The Empire promotes order. The Rebellion are full of hot shots and renegades who don’t care about the real problems people face. They’re only in it for fortune or glory.”
  • Nationalists: “The Empire has to stay strong or there will be centuries of fighting and darkness! We must honor the fallen at Endor.”

The intended outcome is to create in-fighting among family, friends and professional units. Rebellion is easy when everyone is on board, but not so easy when your family opposes rocking the boat. People should be asking: are things really that bad?

Sample Tactics:

  • Smear campaign against rebel leaders, especially Han, Lando and Chewbacca. These guys are smugglers and criminals. Serving the Rebellion doesn’t absolve them; it simply makes them opportunistic and ultimately emblematic of greater problems within the Rebellion.
  • PR seeding across independent publications questioning the consequences of the Rebellion assuming more power. The messaging needs to rightfully point to the Rebellion’s lack of resources to govern and protect effectively. A few X-Wings will not suffice.
  • Meme generation. The Rebellion likely has its rallying calls, but nothing stifles a movement quite like mockery. On public forums, create a rallying cry that consistently points out the ineptitude of the Rebel forces. When the enemy has obese pilots at the controls of their elite fighters, the jokes write themselves.

Conclusion:

I feel gross, but this exercise taught me something important about brand marketing and ethics.

Strategy work in branding can feel very clinical and detached to the point that you can easily lose track of what exactly you’re recommending. Let’s get real for a sec: the Empire is evil and there’s nothing to suggest that the Empire stopped being evil once the Emperor died. This strategy helps an evil organization retain its hold on power, and that’s an evil thing in and of itself.

Good marketing strategy touches upon human emotion, gives the brand a role in peoples’ lives and generates a desired outcome. Note that process does not judge or evaluate the moral or ethical merits of the objectives, strategy, tactics or outcome.

This is why so many in the advertising industry are distrusted. There’s little if anything in our process that asks, “Is what we’re doing good for the world?”

This project has been in good fun, but the insight is important: evil is as benign as you want it to be. Good strategy isn’t necessarily good strategy.

Parting Thoughts for the Rebellion:

Because I feel so dirty, here are some strategic thoughts for the Rebellion’s marketing manager (who comes from Tatooine, no doubt):

  • Expose Imperial crimes and tear down the image of the Empire being the lesser of many evils
  • Build up your leadership and acknowledge that much of their experience comes from within the Imperial government structure such as the Senate; in a sense, we want to reassure the galaxy that new leadership have useful experience and will preserve security
  • Never bring up Jar Jar Binks
  • Build popular support among volatile elements of society, particularly young men with little to lose and much to gain from being early adopters (see: the gender and age profile of pretty much all X-Wing pilots); from there, expand into key special interest groups
  • Consolidate gains after the destruction of the second Death Star
  • Don’t bother telling the world the Darth Vader conversion story; stay focused on a singular narrative that promises a strong, secure and equality-driven future for all
  • Consider opening your arms to the enemy by offering amnesty to defectors and profiling their decision to leave the Empire; this places the Rebellion in stark relief as a benevolent and collaborative government

That’s it for this Thought Starters piece. Hope you enjoyed it.

May the Force be with you,

Kevin

 

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