Content Strategy Lessons from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the golden age of toys. Born just before the explosion of Star Wars into the world, I would experience some of the greatest content marketing projects of all time. The toymakers of the 1980’s such as Hasbro and Mattel would create a generation of toy fanatics by building a content universe around their products, capturing our hearts and minds in the process.
Over the last few years, I’ve delved into the basements and closets of my parents home and emerged with great relics of my childhood. With two young boys that have overlapping interests to mine, these tattered findings are real treasures. That said, something struck me while thumbing through a stack of Masters of the Universe comics a few weeks ago. These miniature comic magazines that accompanied each action figure sold by Mattel in the 1980’s were a genius act of content marketing.
For those unfamiliar with the legend of He-Man and the Masters of The Universe, I will provide a brief overview. Mattel initially introduced the first few action figures in the early eighties accompanied by a set of great mini-comics. He-Man was a warrior in the land of Eternia who is granted access to the magic of the mysterious Castle Greyskull and the Power Sword. He soon learns that both are coveted by an evil being known as Skeletor who sends his henchman after He-Man at every turn. The stories were very much drawn from classic sword-and-sorcery material but peppered with modern sci-fi weaponry and strange beings. It suggested this might be past or future, but definitely somewhere very different. For us kids, it was brilliant.
Little did we know that Mattel was feeling sore over having missed the boat when it declined to take on the Star Wars toy line that Hasbro was now reaping the rewards of. The concept of the He-Man toys was one designed to start with the outcome in mind: a set of action figures in every kid’s toy chest. Targeted at kids already enthused with fantasy and science fiction, the content strategy painted a larger picture that a wider group of parents and kids, boys and girls included, could latch onto. This strategy would drive the franchise into a long running animated television series, a DC comic book series and a full length motion picture (which if I remember was not very good). Along the way, I dare say they succeeded in driving quite a few toy sales; certainly enough to expand several years of expansions of the line and multiple reissues of the original characters.
Here are some of the characteristics I’ve observed about the franchise in retrospect.
They started with the product
Unlike Star Wars, this was not a film that led the charge and followed by the toys. The initial figures were these musclebound, 5-inch hulks, permanently molded into a squat stance that indicated they were “ready for battle”. They came with their weapons and a small comic that painted a slice of the mythology of the land of Eternia, its heroes and villains. I believe that the toys were on the market in toy-stores, relying on those comics and the word of mouth of fans to make the rounds with kids for a couple of years before they ventured into the animated television series.
They allowed the story to emerge over time
Each comic also revealed a few other pieces of the universe on the back cover: other action figures, vehicles and play sets. Some of these were revealed in the comics, but others were mysteriously omitted. It let you know there was a bigger story but also allowed you to create some of that narrative in your own imagination.
There was also a degree of ambiguity surrounding who was good and who was evil. In the first few issues, it was clear that many of the protagonists were themselves strangers, drawn together by some mystical forces. Often they would also have certain characters depicted in the shadows; you could recognize them by their silhouette, but their role could be construed as observer or participant.
They revised the narrative to speak to their broader audience
When the animated series hit the air, there were a few new elements introduced in order to make the story more accessible to a wider range of fans. He-Man now had an alter ego, Prince Adam, the royal ruler of the land of Eternia would be gifted his power sword by the feather clad Sorceress.
Signaling a desire to reach a broader audience than just the male fantasy geeks, the series introduced a number of new characters which would later be implemented as toys. These included several new female heroes and villains. The series also brought comedy into the fold by including a goofy wizard named Orko and even a cowering version of He-Man’s trusted Battle Cat that shivered in fear until emboldened by a blast of energy from the power sword.
They grounded themselves with influencers
Knowing that parents were ultimately the gatekeepers to getting their products adopted in the homes, the series creators began to articulate a moral lesson in the epilogue to each story. This was a helpful counterweight to justify watching a program that was filled with violence between battling factions. This would become a popular tactic in other series launched around this time, including the popular G.I. Joe.
A good run while it lasted
By the time the full length feature movie and DC comic series came out, I had outgrown the franchise. I remember seeing the film and hating it. Of course my opinion might have been colored by the fact that I was no longer playing with the toys, but I suspect it really was horrible. Let’s face it: it starred Dolph Lundgren who had previously played Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, another famous franchise “jump the shark” moment. That said, the films did not discolor my love of the original concept and characters.
On a final note, I am excited to have learned of a book written on the rise and fall of the He-Man toy empire by its creator. I’m looking forward to reading, Mastering the Universe by Robert Sweet. Apparently the toys sold more than 1 billion dollars worth in their time on the market!
I look forward to exploring the content marketing strategies behind some of my other favorite toy franchises in future posts as I unearth more of my childhood from the depths of my parents’ basement.
Also published on Medium.