When Star Wars Sold an Empty Box

Dec 17, 2019

Before Cabbage Patch Dolls, Tickle Me Elmo, Furbies and the Wii U, the must-have holiday gift was … an empty box.

In 1977, Star Wars was the number one movie at the box office and launched one of the most successful movie franchises ever into hyperspace. Kids (and quite a few adults) quickly became obsessed. But George Lucas and company weren’t prepared for just how popular the film would become in the months after its May release.

A toy manufacturer called Kenner secured exclusive rights to Star Wars toys. The company created an “Escape the Death Star” board game, plus a few posters and puzzles.

Kenner soon realized that wasn’t going to be nearly enough. Kids wanted action figures. But in the 70s, action figures were tough to produce and typically took more than a year to go from sculpture to store shelves. They wouldn’t be ready in time for the holidays.  

A Star Wars I.O.U.

The company knew it couldn’t lose out on a huge sales season. So Kenner shot first and stocked toy stores with “Early Bird Certificate Packages” — practically empty boxes containing just a Space Club membership card, a cardboard display, a few stickers and a postcard that could be mailed in for the action figures to be delivered by June 1, 1978.

Image via the Star Wars Collectors Archive

Rather than rush to sell an inferior product, Kenner counted on the power of delayed gratification. Just as importantly, it used TV spots and accurate packaging on the early bird sets to make sure customers understood just what would – and wouldn’t – be in the boxes come Christmas morning.

In today’s world of same-day delivery and toy releases planned so far in advance they constitute spoilers, it’s hard to imagine kids being happy with waiting six months for an action figure. But the gambit paid off and actually created a second round of excitement when the toys started being delivered.

Star Wars Merchandise Outsells Star Wars Films

With The Rise of Skywalker release this week, the Star Wars marketing juggernaut is stronger than ever. Star Wars licensed merchandise sales hit $262.9 billion in 2016. That’s more than all the movies made at the box office combined.

From Ewoks to Baby Yoda, the brand has always prioritized marketing tie-ins and characters that doubled as excellent toys. That all started with an empty box that now goes for $200 on eBay and was reissued in 2005.  

Long story short: Marketing can play an important role in navigating delays or unexpected demand. There’s power in creating anticipation for a product or launch, even if the delivery is far, far away.

Forward or do not forward. There is no try.

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