New ‘Star Wars’ movie awakens marketing memories for IU Kelley School faculty member

Paul Palmer Jr. II was a senior brand manager for Hasbro Inc. and its product line for episodes I and II of "Star Wars."

Paul Palmer Jr. II was a senior brand manager for Hasbro Inc. and its product line for episodes I and II of “Star Wars.”

Paul Palmer Jr. II admits that as a 10-year-old growing up on the west side of Indianapolis in 1977, he used to evade theater ushers so he could stay for multiple screenings of “Star Wars.”

Like so many people, including me, he would go back to see the movie anytime someone would take him.

“In the first month, I literally saw ‘Star Wars’ 30 times, at least,” said Palmer, a lecturer in marketing and an MBA diversity coach in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “Every time you saw it, something different blew your mind.”

Today, Palmer has a unique perspective on the Dec. 17 release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens“: He was a senior brand manager for Hasbro Inc. and its product line for episodes I and II of the classic science fiction franchise in from 1999 to 2003.

“It was crazy,” he said. “We had an opportunity to be a part of the rebirth, for the next chapter in truly an evergreen saga that resonates with fans and moviegoers across a broad spectrum around the world. It was exciting that I could be part of something that I was passionate about 20 years earlier.”

After earning an MBA in 1996 from the Kelley School, Palmer went to work for consumer products giant Procter & Gamble as a brand manager. The “big kid at heart” left for Hasbro two years later.

He initially worked on several special feature girls’ items — “anything that poops, pees and eats food” — including the McDonald’s Happy Meal Doll. He also worked on dolls and action figures for the movie “Titanic,” the Spice Girls, My Little Pony and Pokémon.

From My Little Pony to “Star Wars”

In spring 1999, a few weeks before “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” opened, Palmer was invited to join the team working on the franchise’s toys. He worked with “Star Wars” products until he left to explore other opportunities in another Hasbro division in 2003.

Palmer led the marketing and product plans while managing key licensor relationships with Lucasfilm, Walt Disney and Cartoon Network. As such, he had early access to storylines and initial film footage of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones,” to help decide what characters and items would be among the toys for young fans, those young at heart and collectors.

Palmer's team team created more than 60 action figures, including this one of Boba Fett, signed by the actor who played him.

Palmer’s team created more than 60 action figures, including this one of Boba Fett, signed by the actor who played him.

While working on products for “Episode II,” met with members of creator George Lucas’ team, particularly Howard Roffman, head of licensing for all Lucasfilm properties. Members of the team were on the set during filming to “make sure that we get good ideas from the movie that would turn into toys.”

His team created more than 60 action figures, lightsabers and vehicles. But its biggest success was an interactive toy version of the R2-D2 droid, which was named toy of the year in 2002.

“We looked at doing a C-3PO, but because of the way he’s physically structured and because of the gait by which a droid would have to walk, it was going to be difficult to execute that toy in the manner he needed to be,” Palmer said. “The technology didn’t exist and would be too costly, so we went with the R2-D2.”

They worked with a design team in England to develop the technology to bring the 18-inch R2-D2 replica to life.

In 2002, he returned to his hometown to participate in Celebration II, an official “Star Wars” convention at the Indiana Convention Center. There, he was joined by Carrie Fisher, who reprises her role as Princess Leia in the new movie; Peter Mayhew, better known as Chewbacca; Anthony Daniels, who is C-3PO; and Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”

Lessons for current Kelley students

In 2010, he returned to the Kelley School as a faculty member and serves as a mentor for students in the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. Students in his marketing classes appreciate his career anecdotes, but he doesn’t dwell too much on his experience with “Star Wars.”

Among the lessons Palmer shares is an appreciation that “Star Wars” is one of the few franchises that resonates today as much as it did 38 years ago. He noted that its popularity has “transcended” at least three generations: adults and their children who saw the original three movies, millennials who grew up with the second trilogy and young people who will travel to a “galaxy far, far away” next week. They include Palmer’s two children aged nine and 11, “who are excited.”

In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, a marriage of two marketers who appreciate the significance of fan experiences. “I tell students watch out, this has the opportunity to rewrite any of the records that exist — not only just first-week box office but total movie box office,” he said.

But the bar for satisfaction can be set so high that anything less than a blockbuster smash will seem like a failure. As compared to when he saw the initial “Star Wars” movie repeatedly as a child, because it was “so new and so fresh,” today’s audiences have been seeing previews and leaked photos for nearly a year.

“The expectation now is that this movie better be mind-blowing and take me to places where I’ve never gone before, or people will feel dissatisfied. It cannot be good; it has to be great,” Palmer said.

Palmer is concerned that the price points for many of the current “Star Wars” toys are higher than they should be, remembering the royalties and profit projections from Hasbro days. The fact that the new “Star Wars” video game, “Battlefront,” is available only on new Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles limits “the opportunity for people to engage in the saga and the fantasy” (There is a PC version, too.)

“We forget that times are still tough for many people in this country, so asking Mom and Dad to buy a new videogame platform and invest that deep in the franchise could be a stretch,” he said.

In between his time at Hasbro and when he returned to Kelley, Palmer led the alternative card business at American Greetings, where he was instrumental in developing a successful partnership with comedienne Ellen DeGeneres. That project was the grand winner of the 2007 American Greetings Chairman’s Awards for Innovation.

“I’m amazed at the direct impact that a faculty member can have on a student,” he said of his current role at Kelley. “To just see students learn and thrive and grow and come out of their shell and start understanding the potential that’s there never gets old.”

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