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?

Will the Force Awaken or Sputter?

Last Friday saw the release of the first trailer of The Force Awakens, the first movie in the third Star Wars trilogy. It was met with great excitement, in large part because people love the overall narrative so much, in spite of Lucas’s mediocre second trilogy.

When it comes to the actual quality of Star Wars 7-9 (and dare we say beyond) color me hopeful, but cautious. I really don’t think we got anything out of the trailer other than vague teases. The lack of detail is typical for a J.J. Abrams production, but it didn’t encourage me.

Rare is the movie series that extends beyond two or three installments successfully. We are seeing that now as the second Middle Earth trilogy The Hobbit mercifully concludes this December. James Bond may be the only movie series to have survived multiple iterations successfully under the guidance of the Broccolis.

Most people believe the combination of Disney and J.J. Abrams will deliver a new series of awesome Star Wars movies. If Disney’s stewardship of the Marvel Studios series of films has been any kind of an indicator, then those hopes will be met with a great product.

Yet, there was the wretched Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Well, Disney is going to try again with its fictional/real? drunken Johnny Depp character in 2017, but perhaps this boat has already sailed.

Marketing, Experience and Stories

Star Wars

Star Wars is one of my favorite marketing case studies. It’s content, merchandising and social media encompasses a brilliant storytelling narrative that extends itself between entries in the main cannon. The deepest Star Wars fans get a complete experience, one they proudly share with their friends.

The transmedia type of storytelling found in the Star Wars lexicon creates its own word of mouth. People debate and inform each other on story lines. Loyalists binge watch animated episodes on Netflix, and read novels as soon as they are released. So story integrity is a big deal for this franchise, and it has been maintained religiously by LucasFilm.

The future of the Star Wars narrative has always been uncertain. While fully aware of the Star Wars past, George Lucas only sketched out ideas and notes for the future.

Can J.J. Abrams Build a Compelling Future?


To succeed, the new canvas painted by Abrams and Disney must build something that is lovable, not just mysterious. While Star Wars has always had an air of mystique to it as well as a plot turn or three, the reason why we love the story is its very human experiences. The narrative devices include the loss and restoration of a father, love found, coming of age, finding your sweet spot/or faith/or religion, evil versus good, and, of course, the trials of war.

Star Wars 1-3 failed in large part because they revolved around cute narrative, special effects, and lukewarm characters that weren’t imminently likable. Only the third movie was compelling enough to get 80% of critics to like it (according to Rotten Tomatoes).

I have mixed emotions about J.J. Abrams’ narrative devices. The first Star Trek reboot was very good, but I was less than impressed with Into Darkness. It was redundant and unemotional at best.

In addition, Lost was awesome for the first season, in large part because of its crazy plot twists. But I didn’t care enough about the characters, so after season one I found something else to amuse me.

So while many Star Trek fans were dismayed that Abrams was moving on to the bigger Star Wars franchise, I was kind of happy to see the third entry in the current series would be under the hands of a new director, Roberto Orci. I just question whether Abrams will be able to deliver a science fiction story in The Force Awakens that will compel us with real human emotion. We will see.

What do you think of the continuing Star Wars series? Will the Force Awaken?

Featured image from the Force Awakens Trailer.