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The Real Christmas Special: How Star Wars Changed the Packaging Industry

It’s Christmas, snow is falling outside, hot cocoa is steaming, and the kids are bubbling with excitement. Johnny pulls the wrapping off a box and is greeted by the Millennium Falcon racing across the stars. His grin explodes. Carefully, he undoes the box and inside, he finds an IOU!

Out of this universe experience? Back in 1977, toy company Kenner was so overwhelmed by the demand for Star Wars toys that they had to send out empty boxes with IOUs.

Kids strong with the Force ended up gifted with lumps of coal. Yoda wasn’t happy.

It’s hard to overestimate how much Star Wars has changed film, toys, and yes, the packaging industry. By examining how Star Wars made a huge impact, we can learn valuable lessons for packaging.

Star Wars is now one of the most valuable franchises in the world and netted George Lucas 4.5 billion dollars when he sold to Disney. Yet back in the 1970s, most industry experts figured Star Wars movies and toys would flop.

While negotiating with 20th Century Fox to produce Star Wars: A New Hope, George Lucas reportedly made Fox a deal they couldn’t refuse: he was willing to cut his director’s fee by $500,000 in exchange for retaining merchandising rights.

For Fox executives already looking at an expensive, technically complicated production, the deal must have seemed like a no-brainer. Movie merchandise at the time was an after thought.

Lucas turned around and sold the merchandising rights to the toy company Kenner, then a division of General Mills. While Kenner paid $100,000 for the exclusive rights to produce Star Wars toys, film merchandising was seen as a small seasonal affair.

Toys would move while the film was still in the theater, but once the theater run was done, Kenner expected demand to drop off. Instead, as Star Wars blasted off the charts, demand for toys surged well beyond Kenner’s capabilities.

This would have a profound impact on the toy and packaging industries. As Neil Archer, a lecturer at Keele University notes in his blog post:

“Since 1977, the StarWars films have been the benchmark – if not the catalyst – for modern Hollywood’s “synergy-driven strategies” – linking big-screen outings with“ancillary products” in the form of action figures and other commercial tie-ins.”

How The Film Business Has Changed The Packaging Industry

Once an after thought, merchandising is now a vital source of profits and revenues for film companies. Indeed, some movies are essentially gigantic ads for toys.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is perhaps the best-positioned franchise to challenge Star Wars’ merchandising throne. Yet MCU is, in many ways, Star Wars’ padawan (trainee Jedi). When Marvel Studios embarked on its adventure to bring the MCU to life, they decided to seek out some sage advice… from children.

Marvel Studios wanted to know which characters were most likely to move toys, so they brought kids in, showed them drawings of Marvel heroes, and asked which character they’d be most likely to play with at home? The answer? Iron Man. The first MCU movie ever made? Iron Man.

As Nick Evans writes in Cinema Blend post:

“It is truly fascinating that one of the key decisions in the genesis of a multi-billion dollar franchise was made in part based on a bunch of kids in a room picking out what hero they want to play with.”

Fascinating indeed. Now, movie franchises are pillars of modern culture. And big franchises allow brands to cut across demographics. For packaging experts, this presents an opportunity.

By tying up the right products with the right fictional worlds, packaging experts can appeal to abroad audience.

As Ted Mininni argues in his packaging post:

“There are a few behemoths that own huge mind-share with many consumer groups across social strata and around the globe. Among entertainment properties, Star Wars and the pantheons of Disney princesses and Marvel superheroes are great examples of this.”

Disney owns both Marvel and Star Wars, and these fictional worlds are deeply integrated into the company’s brand. Mininni’s packaging blog post put it this way:

“The brand seamlessly leverages the “magic” of its significant entertainment properties within its theme parks, movies, television, digital media, and its retail stores with visually compelling content and rich experiences that captivate kids and adults alike.”

These worlds are so rich, so engaging, that external brands can leverage them to tell their own brand story. However, you can’t simply slap a superhero or Jedi on your products and hope it sells. Storytelling goes much deeper than that.

Packaging Is Storytelling

Star Wars yogurts, mac and cheese, juices, and other themed foods have all graced tables at some point. You can find Star Wars themed camping equipment, suitcases, toothbrushes, and more. Before Star Wars, such direct tie-ins were not a thing.Now, when a blockbuster movie rolls around, companies will fight over merchandising rights.

Laura Zielinski writes in her Packaging Strategies post:

“Brands need to know the fan base well to avoid insulting devotees by slapping licensing on simply anything. They also need to be able to share the story through great design when there is a good fit.”

In other words, there needs to be synergy between the packaging and the story itself. For the packaging industry, movies and fiction offer an opportunity to turn regular products into story-telling devices that can unlock your imagination.

In another packaging post, Zielinski argues:

“Stories are not just a buzz concept: They are one of the most strategic success drivers behind some of the most legendary brands.”

Meanwhile, packaging offers the perfect stage for stories and brands alike. At first glance, StarWars themed Mac & Cheese or Iced Tea might not seem like a natural tie in, and yet it works. Kids are a vital element of Star Wars universal target audience, kids love Mac & Cheese.

For a child with her parents in the grocery store, Mac & Cheese wrapped in Star Wars packaging is immediately recognizable and sparks the imagination. Rather than boring cheese noodles, kids can hang out with Darth Vader or Yoda during their lunchtime snack.

The synergy between mac and cheese and Yoda is obvious. Food is fun, so too are great stories. Kids love using their imagination, so why not turn lunch into an adventure? Take the right branded packaging and the right story, and you’ve crafted a heck of an experience.


What does this have to do with executive recruiting? EVERYTHING! Your packaging tells a story. That story might not be Star Wars but no matter, you need to be a good storyteller. And we get that when we’re looking for marketing professionals for your brand. 

Chase & Associates 
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Psst! Did you catch the Easter Egg?

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