“May the Fourth be with you”: What the “Star Wars” holiday can teach us about brand loyalty

Commercial mind control, or a beloved tradition?
Commercial mind control, or a beloved tradition?
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith
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May the Fourth be with you! Today is Star Wars Day, the fan-created international celebration of all things Jedi. (Fans of the Dark Side will have their turn tomorrow with their own day, “Revenge of the Fifth.”)

The pun-based holiday is only a few years old, but its vast fandom has already embraced the date with their own Star Wars-themed parties, movie showings, and contests. On the corporate side, Disney stores are hosting Star Wars ceremonies, storytimes, and droid-drawing tutorials, and the Star Wars website would like you to celebrate with some blue-milk lattes straight from Aunt Beru’s kitchen on Tatooine.

And, of course, there will be discounts on various Star Wars-themed merchandise, game access, and paraphernalia.

It’s easy to feel a bit cynical about the way the Walt Disney Corporation has taken advantage of the money-making potential behind a fan-created tradition. However, it’s important to remember that all fandom is inherently commercial. At the heart of almost every fandom lies a product or experience that can be accessed for cash—cash that in turn helps keep the fan object in existence. Acknowledging the commercial necessity doesn’t in any way negate the very real feelings that an object engenders in its fans or the important place it occupies in their lives. As long as Disney doesn’t push its luck, it’s unlikely that many celebrants will object to their use of a fan tradition for their own corporate gain.

When it comes to fan-created holidays and other movements with grassroots origins, Disney has been more successful than most. Target’s blog post about Pi day on March 14 is forced and awkward: “While mathematics is a worthy cause for celebration, I’m honestly more excited about an excuse to bake a pie,” the blogger gushes, before demonstrating how to use food coloring to paint a red target on a pie crust. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency used Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sept. 19 as an opportunity to discuss maritime safety; Krispy Kreme used it as an excuse to give out free donuts, despite the questionable partnership of seafaring linguistics and baked goods; and everyone from McDonalds to Luvs Diapers & Wipes has mined it for easy tweets and Facebook posts.

Such companies are often teased for their attempts to be culturally relevant in order to hawk their wares; there’s a fine line between relevancy and co-option. But then there are some organizations that don’t seem to know how to handle a fan-created event at all.

When an American expat living in Italy created World Nutella Day on Feb. 5, 2007, her only goal was to raise awareness of the sugary hazelnut chocolate spread for her friends back home. An unknown product in the US at the time, Sara Rosso’s fan-created holiday was the first introduction to Nutella for many people in the US (and around the world). But after the breakfast spread gained popularity, Nutella’s manufacturer, Ferroro, slapped Rosso with a cease-and-desist in 2013, demanding that she discontinue her celebrations on the grounds of copyright infringement.

Outrage ensued. Social media was flooded with angry comments like “Nutella…more nuts in company management than in every jar. Idiots.” The mainstream media were quick to cash in on the easy clickbait with headlines like “…STOP LIKING US SO MUCH!” and “Nutella Confounds Everyone.” Entire cases of Nutella were returned to stores in protest. It’s difficult to know what effect the onslaught had on Nutella’s North-American expansion, but it certainly didn’t help.

To keep fans happy and the cash registers chiming, more brands should take a cue from Disney’s attitude towards May the Fourth: embracing their fan-created events with opportunities and activities, cashing in—and then getting the heck out of the way.

So a very happy May the Fourth to you. But do go easy on that blue milk.