The Marketing Potential of Witchcraft
- Popular brands often use heroic archetypes in their marketing strategies
- In Western culture these have traditionally focused on heterosexual white male identities
- But, a growing consumer base is being attracted to other cultural identities, such as the increasing market for witchcraft-related goods
Halloween is the time of year most people associate with spookery, yet there is a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories. Between Jacob Marley and the Krampus, witches get very little look-in, though presumably Mrs Claus is no stranger to dabbling in the occult, given how many mince pies she bakes in one day.
Discerning marketing executives might see a rebranding opportunity here. Indeed, making witches a festive staple alongside elves and spirits would not be the first, nor the most significant, reframing of this cultural icon in the last three centuries.
Dr. Maria Carolina Zanette, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NEOMA Business School, published research tracking the progression of cultural depictions of witchcraft, from Medea to Hermione Granger, explaining how this journey has commercial implications which make it a useful example for marketing professionals.
“Businesses and markets have to operate within a cultural landscape. Marketing practices often use cultural motifs and archetypes, such as the ‘bad boy’ or ‘mountain man’ in US society, to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions,” says Zanette.
She explains that marketplace myths associate certain commercial activities with positive or negative characters and narratives. Consumers, popular brands, and the media all play a part in creating or evolving these myths.
Frequently, targeted consumer choices are encouraged by adding a heroic subtext: your purchase history creates a story, as you overcame obstacles, discovered more about yourself, or even contributed to societal change. One need not ponder at length why a well-known sportswear brand would name itself after the Ancient Greek goddess of victory.
Similarly, you can imagine the reaction to a marketing campaign using witch-related imagery or slogans to promote beauty products in the 1930s, when classic films like Disney’s Snow White and The Wizard of Oz portrayed witches (with rare exceptions) as hideous and evil. The idea of looking “bewitching,” would probably have come across rather differently.
Zanette reveals that Western societies have historically focused heroic ideals on white, heterosexual male identities. The term ‘witch’ was applied pejoratively to powerful women, and minority spiritual traditions could be easily stigmatised as ‘witchcraft’.
We won’t delve into the grisly details of what ensued. Suffice to say that historical prejudices against perceived witches were based on the idea that they were wicked, self-deluded or charlatans. Modern reinterpretations of these myths have been inspired by the feminist movement and portray witches as priestesses of pre-Christian religions with a close relationship to nature, rebels against patriarchy, or both.
The witch is on a journey from being seen as evil to empowering. In the 21st century, an increasing number of women and people from racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual minority communities have come to self-identify as witches, Zanette observes.
And witches are increasingly popular. More than 8.8 million Instagram posts feature #witchesofinstagram, and over 29 billion pieces of TikTok content fall under #WitchTok. Media portrayals of witches have ceased to be wholly malevolent, from movies like Bedknobs and Broomsticks to novels such as the Harry Potter series. A degree of ambiguity has also been added to the term, making its meaning no longer so clear-cut. Are you referring to one of Satan’s minions or Angela Lansbury?
From conducting interviews with self-identifying witches, Zanette finds that people make lifestyle changes in order to more accurately present externally how they see themselves. For instance, they might choose to dress in ritual attire or adopt fashion styles that evoke popular depictions of witches. People often come to self-identify as witches after feeling a strong connection with portrayals of witches in the media. They describe a coming out process, usually first to loved ones or members of the ‘witch community’. This highlights the role of mainstream media outlets and prominent brands in reimagining historically negative identities, says Zanette.
Whether in communities or by themselves, many witches engage in ritual practices like crafting spells. This has political implications (some will remember the pin-riddled effigies of Donald Trump following the 2016 US presidential election) and also marketing implications.
Several self-identified witches have established themselves as ‘influencers’, harnessing the power of social media to disseminate information about ritual practices. Followers are able to ask questions in exchange for paying a monthly membership fee to platforms such as Patreon. Consumer demand for witchcraft-related items has arguably existed since before the 1930s, but the internet has caused the market to undergo rapid expansion.
While monetisation has led some witches to accuse others of commercialising their spiritual practices, Zanette suggests businesses should not overlook the fact that curiosity towards witchcraft has built a sizeable consumer base of people who feel less connection with traditionally heroic archetypes. The sale of witchcraft-related products and services is expanding in its commercial potential.
We also love an underdog. Consider Disney’s attempts with films like Maleficent and Cruella to flesh out former one-dimensional female villains, or more recently, the Christmas release of Disenchanted, which turns the angelic damsel in distress into the villain (before swiftly switching her back) and explores the motivations behind why the characters might have become evil. If popular brands are wise, they will continue to emphasise heroic, or at least nuanced, interpretations of witches. After all, we know that taking the time for spirituality in business can hold a considerable benefit. Embracing witchcraft could hold a similar appeal, depending on how your business operates.
The evolution of the witch as a cultural figure in the last century is a tale of demand, not the damned.