What Marketers Can Learn From Disney’s Approach to Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In the fast-paced digital age, whether you’re launching a singular product or re-launching an iconic global franchise, traditional marketing principles are still a Force to be reckoned with. (and that’s...


You don’t need the Force to know this movie is going to be huge.

The mega-hype train left the station the moment Han Solo and Chewbacca faded on screen at the end of the second teaser trailer, with he-who-shot-first (then, sadly, second) stating, “Chewie, we’re home.” But interestingly enough, the outlook for The Force Awakens wasn’t always bordering on euphoric. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm on October 30, 2012 and a new slate of Star Wars movies was announced, opinions and emotions varied—from excitement to cautious optimism to downright foolishness. Many fans feared the “Mouse House” was going to forever ruin their precious franchise…well, I guess even more so than George Lucas attempted to with his misbegotten prequel trilogy…?

But the creative brain trust at Lucasfilm and Disney were aware of the potential hurdles and pain points and went about carefully developing, and methodically promoting The Force Awakens for over a year. Now, chances are you don’t have the resources (financial or otherwise) that power Disney’s efforts. Understood. But looking back at their approach, several themes emerge that marketers can leverage when launching or reintroducing a product or brand.

Even one that doesn’t come with a super cool lightsaber.

Know your audience

In the early months of production for The Force Awakens, writer/director JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy were emphasizing the use of more practical effects, more on-location shoots, and less reliance on CGI and green screens. Many people (super fans, casual observers, and industry professionals) felt the prequel trilogy of the late 90’s/early 2000s was adversely affected by too much CGI, causing the films to look fake, almost video game-like, while also hurting actors’ performances. This ultimately laddered up to older fans longing for a return to “their” Star Wars—the original trilogy of the late 70’s/early 1980s. In part, that’s why trailers and commercials have been showing Han, Leia, TIE fighters, X-wings, and other familiar elements. In this case, nostalgia was synonymous with “what fans wanted.”

So what can this mean for you? Quite simply, when your customers speak, take notice. But truly listen. No matter how attached you or your team may be to an idea or an approach, remember—you’ve created this fantastic product for a particular person and to fill a specific need. If you’re conducting marketing research, forego quantitative methods—they’re really only used as an “I checked that box” item—and invest more in qualitative conversations. Then, listen.

The story, and characters, matter

For projects like a book or movie, it’s safe to say the story and its characters are instrumental to that projects’ success. Some movie franchises, Star Wars chief among them, are not only critic proof, but can basically print money even if it fails to deliver on these basic storytelling tenets. In fact, the Star Wars movie that grossed the least domestically was Attack of the Clones (Episode 2), which still brought in a hefty $310MM. So essentially, Disney could’ve “mailed it in” creatively and still produced a profitable Star Wars movie. And quickly. Instead, The Force Awakens was delayed by 7 months until the creative brain trust was happy with the script. And since this movie is a sequel that takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi (Episode 6), there was a lot of story, and back story, to get right.

So what can this mean for you? As consumers, our perception and relationship with a product or brand is a curious thing. We draw an almost instantaneous reaction based on branding, packaging, or what we’re told about the product. In part, that’s because we want to have a connection with what we’re choosing. What many marketers sometimes ignore is that they’re providing something rational and tangible to satisfy something emotional. So your “brand story”, or positioning if you prefer, matters in the most fundamental, yet universal of ways and should be reflected in all aspects of your brand, including messaging and benefit statements.

Kick prelaunch into hyperdrive

Production for The Force Awakens began in April of 2014 and from the start Disney and JJ Abrams (he of the infamous Mystery Box) were keeping movie details under wraps. But there was certainly a strategy regarding what became public facing and when. The first teaser trailer launched November 28, 2014 (black Friday), while the second teaser was introduced at Star Wars Celebration: Anaheim on April 16, 2015 to those in person, but also streamed live via starwars.com. Then came the “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens” multimedia initiative, which kicked off on “Force Friday” (September 4, 2015) and included more than 20 books (novels, young adult, comics), console and social-based video games, apparel, and toys. Oh yeah, there was a live-stream unboxing event for some of the toys via YouTube as well. The initiative concluded with TV spots and 3 final trailers (1 for the US, 2 international) running in November and December and a few select books (namely, The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the movie’s novelization) only being made available the day the movie premiers.

So what can this mean for you? No doubt, Disney is making as many people aware, in as many ways possible, to generate interest in The Force Awakens. While some of the chosen vehicles and mediums may be cost prohibitive for you, this was ultimately meant to illustrate a “surround sound” approach, which can always be tailored to fit your situation. Let your customers know your product is coming, then be smart and have fun with how you roll it out. Remember, there’s more than just print, or traditional digital for that matter. Be more experiential and environmental. Know where your customers are, and if not, seek them out. Make a splash at generally dry conventions. Cut through the clutter but fully utilize the appropriate channels available. Because there’s always someone on the other end.

It takes a village

Well, maybe not a village like on the planet Jakku from The Force Awakens. Based on the trailers and commercials, bad things happen there! And bad things also tend to happen through a lack of collaboration. What many people don’t realize is that the prequel trilogy (Episodes 1-3) was basically a set of independent films that George Lucas funded. There was no studio oversight and no other decision makers were part of the creative development process. Sure, many people at Lucasfilm worked on the films, but they were essentially glorified “yes people.” Since it was Lucas’ money, he would be staying true to his vision, his way—which meant it was his script, his dialogue, and his direction to actors, all of which were subpar. And the world noticed. That why JJ Abrams co-wrote The Force Awakens with Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan with creative consultation from Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, the Lucasfilm Star Wars story group, Disney executives, and a host of others. And yes, the world has noticed that, too.

So what can this mean for you? Believe in your ideas, but don’t always assume you have all the answers. And don’t become complacent, it’s very easy and comfortable to say, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.” What worked once before may not again—market dynamics are fluid and the only constant is change. Surround yourself with a smart and talented team and make time to converse with them about their ideas and suggestions. Staying open minded and promoting collaboration breeds a culture of success. Remember, a wise Jedi once said, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Don’t cling too strongly to your personal truths, other points of view can help you, “take your first steps into a larger world.” Yes, another Jedi adage.

That’s a wrap! (not, It’s a trap!)

I hope you enjoyed a timely infusion of Star Wars learnings, masquerading as a pseudo marketing case study. Disney has a lot invested in Lucasfilm and Star Wars, $4BB to be exact, and The Force Awakens is the jumping off point for at least 5 more movies along with countless books, toys, games, apparel, and more. The question is not IF Disney will break even, but how quickly the acquisition will prove profitable. And Disney’s approach to marketing, while robust and certainly costly, employs themes that can translate to any industry, any brand, any product.

But if you choose the dark side, and eschew the advice and examples stated above…well, then May the Force Be With You.


(c’mon, I had to)


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