Lessons for Brands from Dreamworks’ “How To Train Your Dragon” series

As more Brands venture into the brave, new world of Content Marketing, they should keep an eye fixed on Hollywood and the modern entertainment industry.

This month sees the release of Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third film in the trilogy. The films, based on a series of children’s books by British author Cressida Cowell, have already brought in over a billion dollars at the box office for its first two installments. They have also spawned a video series on television, direct-to-video and streaming, as well as numerous books, video games and merchandising.

Dragons also provides Brands a number of important lessons to consider for their own branded content, whether in the form of short video, blogs or other formats.

1 Stick to familiar, universal story themes

It’s always tempting for writers to attempt complicated stories, unexpected plot twists and multiple subplots. While there’s inherently nothing wrong with having a story that has multiple layers, at its core all great stories have a simple theme that its readers or viewers can relate to or find familiar.

While Dragons may have all the trappings of a sweeping fantasy adventure, its fan base goes well beyond lovers of fantasy fiction. That’s because once you strip away the breathtaking action sequences and the splendor of its expansive CGI-rendered story world, at the heart of this epic tale are central protagonist Hiccup and the dragon Toothless.

In short, the universal charm of Dragons is that it’s really about the special bond between a boy and his dog.

Find a universal story or theme in which your brand has a role to play and tell that story.

2 Write for your Super Fans

While not in the league of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, Dreamworks’ Dragons franchise has built its own passionate fan base. The property has, after all, endured for over nine years since the very first film was released in 2010.

Talk to the 10 year-old boy (or for that matter, the 50 year-old marketing executive) who is a fan of the Dragons series and you are likely to get a deluge of information about dragon names, classes and sub-classes, Viking lore and details on the relationships between its many characters.

These tiny details are the result of nearly 10 years of storytelling across various media, all of which have been happily absorbed by the series’ most fervent fans. While the story is designed to appeal to the casual moviegoer, each Dragons installment is written to be loved by its biggest fans.
(Search for “Hiccstrid” in YouTube and you will find over 45,000 videos dedicated to the love story between hero Hiccup and love interest Astrid alone.)

This is why the screenplay of the latest installment in the series, The Hidden World, is peppered with little references and nods (sometimes referred to as “easter eggs”) that only the series’ most devoted fans can identify.

All successful brands have a core base of advocates. Focus your efforts on super-serving your super fans and success will follow.

3 Tell a Transmedia Story

One important strategy entertainment companies like Disney and Marvel have mastered is transmedia storytelling. Not to be confused with multimedia (that is, telling the same story in different formats), transmedia is the method of building new story arcs, settings and the story universe itself across different media platforms. Think of how the Marvel Cinematic Universe has managed to build a shared story universe across 19 films, television and streaming video, where the laws of the world are consistent and character arcs intertwine.

The story universe of Dragons cuts across film, TV and streaming video

After the first How to Train Your Dragon film in 2010 came the 20-episode series Riders of Berk on The Cartoon Network in 2012, followed by 20 more episodes of Defenders of Berk in 2013. After the movie sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2 came the Netflix series Race to the Edge with 78 additional episodes. (Note that this series was actually set in between the first and second movies, demonstrating how story worlds need not be restricted by linear time.)

Through these many video series, new dragons were introduced, character arcs were further explored and the world itself was expanded. The result is a story universe that feels lived in, densely populated and rich in story potential.

The challenge for brands is to consider how content across media platforms are consistent in message, complimentary in scope and offer entry points into other media platforms. Plan for how your content intertwines across YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn or even your email newsletter. This not only increases the chance of finding a larger audience but also offers that audience the chance to be fully immersed in the content you’ve created.

One final word: if you haven’t seen How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World…go see it! If you haven’t watched any of the previous films, make sure you see them first in order to fully appreciate the series. (You can find them on Netflix or at video stores everywhere.)

I help brands develop their Content Marketing strategies. I also run storytelling masterclasses for executives called “Content Marketing Lessons from Hollywood.” To learn more, visit www.miguelbernas.com.

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