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?

Why Millennials Are Luke and Leia and Gen Xers Are Han Solo

Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant just published a new book When Millennials Take Over that details the processes and culture that businesses need to adapt. The book comes at a critical time. According to the authors, successful companies are moving to embrace the new work culture of the future (or the present, depending on your perspective) and drive business.

We thought it would be great to have a conversation with them at xPotomac on August 27th and discuss. To help prepare folks, I interviewed Jamie and Maddie last week in Georgetown. The interview is quite fun and even includes a funny reference to Star Wars as you will see. Don’t miss their session on August 27th (register today using the code “Geoff” and get 20% off).

Jamie Close-Up B+W
GL: Is GenX the lost generation?

MG: We’re not lost. I think we are purposefully the bridge. We have a foot in both places. Millennials don’t remember work before the Internet, but we do remember some of the old ways of working that still make sense. At the same time, we’re fully digital and we get that, too.

JN: Because we kind of invented all the Internet (laughs). We actually mention this at the very end of the book. It’s a little clichéd, but we’re all in this together. The millennials don’t actually take over. No one generation ever runs it all by themselves.

We use a Star Wars metaphor. Millennials are Luke and Leia. They’re the heroes.

Maddie Laughing B+W

GL: So does that make us OB1?

Both MG and JN: No, that’s the Baby Boomers.

JN: We’re Han Solo. Yes, we’re cynical, we’re independent, we’re all about taking care of ourselves, but we might save the day in the end.

GL: What is digital’s role in the millennial movement?

MG: The four key capacities that come out of our research — which is this intersection about millennials, what they like, how they operate, and awesome cultures – are digital, clear, fluid and fast.

Digital is the first one and we define digital as the digital mindset, which is about a relentless focus on the user experience. The user is the employee as well is the customer. It’s also about customization and personalization for the middle of the market as well as your top players. Then there’s continuous learning, continuous upgrades.

Millennials are used to having apps on their phone. Any kind of software that they use upgrades itself all the time. They want that in their work experience, their professional development.

GL: Have you seen Slack? Is Slack an example of that?

Maddie Close Up B+W

MG: Yes, we actually use Slack amongst the two of us. I am actually watching Slack pretty closely right now, and am fascinated by them. The reason it’s taking off is that acts in the same way that you can personalize your phones, every individual has a whole different library of apps based on what they want, need and use.

Slack acts in the same way, you connect all of your services, but at the heart of it is social, collaborative and chat, and the core of it is a chat stream. You can personalize your experience. It’s not about one ring to rule it all. It finds a middle way to connect.

JN: It’s just so pleasant to use. It follows what software designers should be doing right following an intense user experience. We argue in our book that you need that same intense user experience focus what it comes to your employees and you run your organization. Why are you not designing your organization with this radical emphasis on does this work for our employees?

The case study we use is a small nonprofit – they’ve only got 22 people – they designed the entire organization around the needs of the employee. Like most of the places we found for our case studies, employees say things like, “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.” Or, “I remember what it was like for XYZ company, and I’ll never go back again.”

When they have an opening they get applicants from the best tech companies in town. Not the other way around. Usually, nonprofits lose their best talent to the private sector.

They redesigned their office space and created it with the employee needs in mind, and not senior management. They put the boss out in front in a pod with everyone else, not in an office; because they found when everyone has senior access to senior managers they got their job done more quickly and effectively. There’s open space where they walk together, there’s a yoga room, they have a little coffee area, there’s wifi on the roof even though they are in Chicago. If it works for the employee, that’s what they do.

Their job descriptions are customized every year to the individual based on their career path. You could have two people in the same job with very different job descriptions because they are on different paths in their career. That’s harder work for the organization, but it’s better for the employee. It gets [the nonprofit] this kind of engagement that everyone is searching for in organizations, and they basically get more done than any of their peer organizations.

They put all of their content that they ever created for this association – The American Society for Surgery of the Hand – and put it online. They made it searchable across all platforms in an 18-month platform. It takes most associations 18 months to decide to do anything. They are faster and they get more done even thought they are only 22 people.

MG: Seven of their staff are full-time technology people.

JN: The average spend on technology in the association world is about 4%. They’ve got a third of just their personnel. They also have tablets and laptops and a database system. So they spend a lot more than that on technology.

That was one of our points in the book. You have to at least be on the right side of the technology curve. It’s still just an entry into the game.

GL: With technology today, would you say that we are in a constant stasis of change? How do people deal with that?

Focus on Maddie B+W

MG: This is one of the things that the millennial generation is very comfortable with. They are very comfortable with switching from one piece of software to the next.

GL: What do you think their secret is?

MG: I think it’s literally just based on social media and mobile apps. You have this tool in your pocket every single day, and it changes all the time based on when apps change. They live with this, they communicate with their friends with this, they play games, they do all of these things that continuously change. So they get to the workplace and they don’t understand why they are still using Sharepoint.

JN: I think of the word disruption, and there’s sort of constant disruption. Older generations define that as a problem. I don’t think that word disruption is as problematic for the younger generation.

What the millennial generation is more capacity to deal with the short term. There may be a downside to that; are they looking at the long term enough? But they are really good at dealing with short-term disruption: “This doesn’t work? That’s fine, we’ll just move to the next app.”

In the old world, the scenario would be we spent six months learning this app. We have to use it for another 18 months otherwise there is no ROI on it. [Millennials} say no it doesn’t work anymore, even though six months ago I thought it would, so we’ll just use something new.

MG: This is where the generational difference is in the workplace. A boomer IT manager who is in charge of the budget doesn’t want to buy a new thing every six months. You have to articulate why it is actually good to be flexible in the software you buy. You have to buy it with the understanding that it might not work in six months despite the money and they training you just put everyone through.

GL: Is there one thing you would like impart on today’s Xers and Baby Boomers?

Focus on Jamie B+W

JN: Most senior leaders need to radically shift their focus to their internal culture. Millennials care much more about culture than previous generations did. They literally ask them what matters most when it comes to a job, and culture comes first. Salary comes fourth. That’s not traditionally been how we focus on an inside organization.

So if you aren’t building cultures that make sense to millennials, you are going to lose for a long time. They are going to be your customers and your employees for the next 20 years.

They are the kind of generation that says if you are not doing it for me, I am going to go do it myself. That’s what they grew up with is the ability to do that because they have the social Internet. A lot of organizations say well if I don’t hire you, you’re going to have to go home and live with Mom. And [millennials] say, OK I’ll go home and I’ll start something.

Selecting Media Venues

When you are considering media outlets to deploy a story, there are so many choices. How do you know which digital and traditional media venues are the right ones, and how do you prioritize them? The following is a short primer providing a method to select media venues to distribute content in an outreach campaign or a larger initiative. It is based off a presentation I gave last week at the International PRSA Conference.

First, let’s assume you have a message, and that your customers or intended audience will actually care about it. Let’s say the media is unlikely to pick up the story or concept, at least until the market validates it. So your organization elects to use its own content to communicate the concept with customers.

You need to determine your primary distribution point. It’s critical to have a focus. Too many people make the mistake of using every media possible to publish a major piece of content.

Every group of customers have a primary venue or medium they prefer to receive content. Hopefully, your customer data is deep enough to help easily determine your customers’ primary media channels. Using analytics, you can identify those channels and determine what type of content will work.

Your website is unlikely to be that choice, particularly if you are not an actual media company (Red Bull aside). Instead, your website is home base and it should include owned content, but it is unlikely to be the primary communications point that your customers frequent.

Let’s consider Star Wars.com as an example. StarWars.com extends an incredible media universe, as you can see from the many options on their site.

However, we know that movies are the primary Star Wars vehicle. Every other media property dovetails back to the movies, and the movies drive interest in the other media properties. No other Star Wars media property is viewed by as many people as the movies are.

Dovetailing Back to the Primary Asset

StarWarsMediaChoices

Some people choose to post their media across different properties. But more and more brands are looking to differentiate content across media channels by extending their story. They use secondary media choices to amplify and extend the experience. This is called transmedia storytelling in academic circles.

Consider the above chart and how Star Wars uses its many secondary outlets to continue the story. The Star Wars franchise supports itself between movies with unique stories that offer its most enthusiastic customers an extended experience. Each piece can stand alone, but in the end the work around the narrative proposed in the movies.

Disney manages the Star Wars narrative closely so there are no conflicts. In fact, Leland Chee, the Keeper of the Holocron, is an employee whose sole job is to maintain story integrity.

Disney invests in the media platforms that are most likely to be used. You can see the website promotes all of these properties.

In areas that are not as well viewed or consumed, Disney allows third parties like Lego and publishers/novel writers to license the brand, and extend it. While not directly promoted on the Star Wars home page, these properties are also managed by Leland Chee and fit in the master narrative.

This is distributed storytelling at its finest, creating a cascading effect across a wide variety of media.

Applied to Corporate Content

Brian Solis Keynote

The same principles used by Star Wars franchise can be applied to any serious content initiative. Of course, none of them will have the budget of Star Wars, but even a small campaign can make use of transmedia channel selection methods.

Consider the recent Vocus (now Cision) Brian Solis/Gapingvoid eBook my company helped produce and promote. What If PR Stood for People and Relationships was distributed on SlideShare as the primary medium.

Secondary choices included select social networks, a live event at Google HQ that extended the SlideShare presentation, blogs that extended the book’s logic, and native ads. These were the channels that Cision/Vocus customers usually interact on. Each of these content choices featured different takes on the book, from analysis and live commentary to quotes.

FutureMedia

Tertiary choices included a fantastic Canva user -enerated contest that had more than 60 entries. I had my doubts about this, but Cision Community Manager Adrienne Sheares stuck to her guns, and this turned out to be a very good content extension. I included this and influencer blogs as tertiary as they were content pieces that were beyond our control.

Tertiary media choices are tough. You don’t know what you will get, but investing them is important. Many times they can take an effort to a new level. At the same time, if unsuccessful tertiary efforts can just burn resources. I like to use tertiary choices as acknowledged risks and to experiment, as Cision/Vocus did with its successful Canva effort.

It’s important to experiment. You learn what your true brand advocates enjoy. Test new media and see how they can benefit your relationships and overall storytelling capabilities.

How do you approach media selection?

You may also like “Transmedia Writing” and “Transmedia: Multichannel Storytelling Transcends Platforms.”