How Disney Revved Up the Star Wars Marketing Engine

Co-authored by Jason Mollica.

Do you have kids? Are they pining for new Star Wars: The Force Awakens toys? The new merchandise initiative known as “The Force Friday” brought a brilliant ignition point to what had already been a smoldering word of mouth campaign for the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie this winter.

Until the Force Friday brought Star Wars joy or envy to every child across America, buzz had largely been fueled by trailers, social media posts across diverse networks, and the release of the previous six movies. Now a brand new and perhaps the most powerful group of word of mouth agents have been unleashed, kids under the age of 12.

Youth success with Generation Z could create an unconquerable tidal wave for Disney’s Star Wars franchise. Heretofore, Star Wars had been a smash hit with Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, the generations fortunate to have been adults and kids during the original trilogy (1977-1983). Millennials are also familiar with Star Wars, but through the less successful and critically challenged prequels (1999-2005).

Overcoming the Prequels

Star Wars Site

Let’s be fair. Great excitement existed for the new franchise before the Force Friday– in large part because of Disney’s stewardship and the hiring of J.J. Abrams to direct the first movie. Social media buzz was high, and a virtual cheer was felt across the Internet when Harrison Ford made his appearance in the second trailer for The Force Awakens.

But doubt remained. We have been let down before by the prequels. Even though the third movie in that ill-received (though lucrative) trilogy — Revenge of the Sith — was arguably close to the same quality as the original trilogy, the damage had been done.

In fact, when the third trilogy was announced the great excitement was largely inspired by George Lucas selling the franchise to Disney. Successes with both Marvel Studios and Pixar have shown Disney is good steward to other creative visions. Adding J.J. Abrams as director was the coup de grace. Abrams had already successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise.

Star Wars could be reborn. Indeed, a new hope (pun intended) was felt amongst prior fans, and even millennials who had been burned with their generation’s installment. But doubt remained and soft debates occurred at cafeterias and bars across America.

It doesn’t matter now. Kids across America are demanding the toys. They want to see the old movies. They want comic books and novels. They will want to see the new movie, too. Parents and grandparents are obliging them, and in doing so are reintroducing themselves to the Star Wars Universe.

At this point, the only thing that could ruin the tsunami of Star Wars hype is a bad movie.

The Great Tease

Soleil Skywalker

The lack of knowledge about The Force Awakens and its storyline — a hallmark of J.J. Abrams productions — is fueling speculation. Part of Disney’s strategy to create word of mouth is the great tease. Every new trailer and now the new toys reveals a character or a new look to a familiar subject (including geriatric heroes).

People go crazy about what each new wrinkle means. Heck, even reporters are documenting changes that have occurred in Han Solo’s trusty vessel, the Millenium Falcon.

You have to give Disney credit, they have done a masterful job of inspiring conversations with the general public. Each moment creates incredible amounts of word of mouth marketing for the film, and all of its secondary and ancillary merchandise.

The merchandising move is one straight out of the Lucasfilm bag of tricks. Before selling to Disney, Lucasfilms had garnered $20 billion in sales of official Star Wars merchandise with the company getting a cut of every transaction.

The overall excitement may even exceed the hype that preceded the first prequel, the Phantom Menace, in 1999. People waited in line for day, literally camping out, just to be the first to see the new movie. Unfortunately for them, the faux reggae alien Jar Jar Binks and wooden acting from the rest of the cast foiled the party.

Unlike the prequels, Disney probably won’t get a second, third or fourth chance to get the rebooted Star Wars narrative right. The product had better meet the hype or taxed fans who have been willing to forgive may simply move on.

An Omnipresent Transmedia Experience

Have you visited the graphic novel section of Barnes & Noble recently? If you do, you’ll find Marvel’s new Star Wars series tucked into the stacks right before Superman. It’s just part of the onslaught of toys, costumes, movies and books that you’ll find at the super store.

It’s hard not to go anywhere and not see or hear about Star Wars today. Merchandise, media, Star Wars events at baseball stadiums, and friends alike are abuzz with Star Wars or are trying to push it. Disney’s fans and marketing partners are doing as more to promote the movie than the studio itself.

This combination of word of mouth, partner advertising, and studio PR and social media is amazing. Disney has achieved marketing nirvana, a perfect storm of pre-release hype. Here is a list of several marketing initiative that we have noticed. Please feel free to add your own in the comments section:

  • Trailers (duh).
  • Comic-con appearances by the original series heroes
  • Media coverage.
  • Toys everywhere!
  • Omnipresent social media activation with trivia and content across most major social networks.
  • Kids and adult T-shirts.
  • Halloween costumes.
  • Guerilla marketing in NYC with Stormtrooper mobiles
  • Limited edition Star Wars cereal products in supermarkets
  • TV shows.
  • MLB team-sponsored Star Wars events.

As communicators, we dream of having big budgets to execute massive campaigns. Even with such a budget, we could only dream of the successes that Disney is enjoying this year with Star Wars. Our hats our off to their marketing team.

What do you think about all of the Force Awakens hype?

  • Andrea Bona

    Great points. Disney is a marketing machine, and its influence starts at a very early age. You just have to look at the programing on the Disney channel, which all has massive amounts of merchandise related to the programing; my 2 year old granddaughter loves Princess Sophia and even I know how to do the hotdog dance (don’t judge). It really is brilliant. So add in the social influence and chatter of 12 year olds and it just gets better for Disney.

    • geofflivingston

      It’s really quite amazing, though they could do a better job of making Star Wars clothes available to women beyond Princess Leia.

      • Cece Salomon-Lee

        The other one they have is Rey (spelling?). The new character they’re introducing. But, yes, they should have more.

  • Cece Salomon-Lee

    Disney has created a marketing machine that even surprises me with the upcoming movie. Tie ins to add include BuildABear (with more themed “bears” coming in a few weeks) and the ANA fleet of planes wrapped in Stars Wars theme.

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