The front of a silver aston martin car

Do you expect me to talk? No Mr Bond, I expect to teach you product strategy.

innovation product strategy Feb 01, 2022

The screen is black. A small circle of white appears. The staccato orchestra shocks us awake before the familiar  guitar chords kick in. And with that, James Bond, the world’s most famous spy, is back. This time his mission is not just to save the world, but to refill cinemas as quickly as covid emptied them. After one week the film has already made over $300m globally, which is a promising start. This is the 25th Bond film (apparently we must include Die Another Day in the canon), proving that in cinematic terms, nobody does it better. These films are also products: they are created, distributed and marketed. Perhaps Team Bond can teach us something about product strategy as well as how to mix a martini...

The vast majority of films are niche products. They are designed as one-offs, telling a particular story and trying to maximise the audience for it. There can only be one Titanic. Some of these films are so popular they create enough demand for a sequel, or even a number of sequels, which in time are called a series. Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Godfather fit this mould. Some niche films struggled to reconnect with their original audiences, such as The Two Jakes following Chinatown, although this was less demand-driven (it was a generation later) than an attempt by the creative team to revive flagging careers. Niche strategies will resonate with start-ups: create a discrete product, sell it and, if it goes well, make something else to sell to the same audience. This approach can sell everything from Walther PPKs to Slack subscriptions. It can also ensure quality delivery: 98 of the British Film Institute’s Greatest 100 films of all time are the result of this niche strategy.

But it is not the only one a producer or studio can follow. There is the cyclical approach, where the first story is just the first part of a planned cycle. Usually this mirrors the source material, such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings cycles. But original films can follow this path as well. Look at Star Wars, which George Lucas intended to be three sets of three cycles of films. The idea here is that each film necessarily leads us to the next in the cycle. Stories can be linked and character arcs unfold over several films. When the cycle is complete then interest seeps away (compare the initial success of the Jason Bourne trilogy with later attempts to exploit it). It doesn’t always work - The Golden Compass was intended to kick start a His Dark Materials cycle, but poor box office performance killed it. This cyclical strategy is good for tailors supplying complete wardrobes for MI6 agents, or software companies offering related products. Think Microsoft and its original Office programmes (sold separately), or the way its latest Suite leads logically to MS cloud products.

There is another strategy, which is to create a film universe. This is the approach taken by Marvel since 2007, with 25 films all rooted in the same universe, and another 9 in development. This is also Disney’s strategy for Star Wars: create a series of cycles, introducing new characters who in turn spin off into their own cycles. The genius of this strategy is to establish links between them. Characters who we would expect to be stars in their own films, form part of a wider ensemble cast in meta-films, the best example being the Avengers. This strategy feels new but is how cinema began, where a limited number of characters and a lot of films combined to immerse us in their worlds (Charlie Chaplin – 28 films, Laurel and Hardy – 19 films). Universe products go far beyond the concept of a series of sequels or a carefully crafted cycle. They seek to immerse audiences in the worlds they create, presenting more and more interlinked options. In commercial language, this an ecosystem strategy. Think of all those interoperable Q gadgets or the manifold offerings of Amazon and Apple. These companies are as intent on building bespoke universes as Marvel, knowing that we are likely to be happy as captive consumers within them.

Which brings us back to Bond. Which product strategy does the Broccoli family’s EON company, which owns the rights to the Bond character, follow? There are elements of all three. Most films have been standalone and so are niche products. Rooted both in Ian Fleming’s works and their own cinematic traditions, together they resemble a cycle, not least because of the regularity of their creation. The survival of common characters, elements and traditions, which cumulatively define a Bond film’s DNA, suggests they are also part of a universe. Certainly product placement, wider merchandising and the licensing of everything from jigsaws to computer games creates a universal feel. But on closer examination, they appear to be doing something much cleverer, which explains why this 50 year cycle and/or universe is still relevant to us today.

EON appears to be following the concept of dynamic states from entrepreneur theory. Dynamic state theory relates to businesses strategy rather than product strategy, but some products (e.g. Zoom or Bond films) are inseparable and indistinguishable from the wider business, because they don’t do anything else. Businesses only exist for us as products. They rise and fall together based on how well the product is received. Dynamic theory says that at any given time a business exists in a dynamic configuration of various elements: the dominant logic of the founders, the opportunity tension (how much opportunity exists and how willing founders are to seize it), the business model and the value that is created as a result of the business model. This configuration changes all the time in response to internal and external stimuli. Knowing what dynamic state configuration you are in, how it is changing, and how to control and respond to that change are the determinants of entrepreneurial success. This strategy is useful for selling Aston Martins and other involved products, that are designed to be relaunched every few years with ever more technology and functional richness to entice customers to upgrade. 

Let’s see how this works in practice. The dominant logic of EON is to bring James Bond to the screen and keep the character alive forever. This is its overarching ambition. Its plays the long game. The Broccolis are masters at managing the opportunity tension. They know there is only so much Bond cinema audiences want. Since Thunderball, EON has averaged one film every 2.7 years. In cinematic terms that is as scarce as knife-throwing clown or fake Fabergé egg. Imagine if Disney owned the rights: Bond would be on our screens constantly.

The Bond business model has been well-honed over six decades: familiar returning characters; a nefarious baddie bent on world domination; a glamorous and celebrity cast; outlandish plots with unbelievable escapes; clever gadgets and thrilling stunts; contemporary theme songs; mass global distribution; a common release window; shock and awe marketing. But this business model never remains static, it is constantly reconfigured by zeitgeist popular culture and shifting values. Bond films of the 60s reflected the swagger the UK felt as the baby boomers started to boom after the austerity of the 1950s. Live and Let Die tapped into the explosion of black culture. Casino Royale made Bond relevant to a modern, fragmented and impatient world fuelled by Red Bull. Look at how desperate the latest cast have been to associate themselves with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her unique brand of modern feminism. Bond may defeat Blofeld’s Spectre but he must bow to the shrine of Fleabag.

The result of this dynamic state strategy is an unbroken chain of memorable films (the value) and commercial success. It is estimated that 20% of the world has seen a Bond film. In 2018, 47% of US adults had seen one film, 27% had seen them all. At times the configuration has not been dynamic enough, let down by a poor script or an aged Bond star carrying on too long. But even the poor films are entertaining and feed popular debate.

Bonds are good business. Before No Time To Die opened, the franchise had generated $7bn in box office sales, an ROI of 4.5 times (on the cost of making them). Not every film has done huge box office. Adjusted for inflation, it wasn’t until Skyfall that they reached the highs of Live and Let Die, which itself was well short of the records set by Goldfinger and Thunderball.  But EON has consistently achieved its objectives: Bond continues to endure our screens.

In a world where 80-85% product launches fail, we should try to learn from what EON has been doing right for so long. Every business can utilise the simple dynamic state framework: nail your purpose; assess the opportunity; create not just a great product but an effective business model to distribute and market it; measure the value you create; and, crucially, never forget that this configuration is constantly evolving. 

If Bond fails to endure it will be because EON depart from a winning strategy. In the Daniel Craig years, producers mixed dynamic state and cyclical strategies, linking plot lines and character arcs. This may work for Marvel and its iconic superheroes, but is unlikely to work for Bond, where the long delays between films and bafflingly convoluted plots make prolonged connection with minor characters and storylines neurologically impossible. By ending the cycle to coincide with the star’s retirement, A Time To Die has also subverted several elements and traditions that underpin the business model and its popular appeal. Let’s hope this is a temporary blip, and James Bond will be back, re-configured and ready to entertain and save us all again.


Further reading and watching:

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