How Disney gave the Star Wars brand the Marvel treatment

Since Disney’s $4bn acquisition of Star Wars in 2012 the blockbuster franchise has been on the receiving end of the “Marvel” treatment, as the media giant looks to build a narrative around the release of The Force Awakens across many mediums.

Marketers at the media giant are about to feel the force of the blockbuster franchise with its latest entry tipped to make $500m in merchandising revenues alone in 12 months following its debut. Box office projections for the latest film are so dizzyingly high that even if it were a critical failure it would most certainly not be a commercial one - as the widely abhorred prequels prove.

Its status as a cash cow is a testament to the power of the brand but also to the ruthlessly efficient way Disney pulled the Star Wars franchise together with one coherent content plan that’s miles apart from the schism it had become under Lucasfilm. To date, there are five movies scheduled to be released in the next four years.

Disney has taken what it learned from the Marvel franchise and upped the ante. Upon its initial $4bn investment in 2009, Disney has built the Marvel Cinematic Universe, connecting each Marvel movie giving viewers a sense of familiarity with characters and allowing substantial tie-ins like that of the Avengers.

The bold move has proved greatly profitable. In the first half of 2015, Disney generated over $8bn from Marvel-related movies and TV shows alone, excluding merchandising and partnerships. Similarly, it has leveraged the power of Star Wars to build a great degree of hype with subtle trailers and a cast and director passionate about the series.

Jacques de Cock, a faculty member at London School of Marketing, told The Drum that Disney’s ‘Marvel Treatment’ of Star Wars will see “content delivered across a diverse portfolio of businesses including movies, television, consumer products, games and theme parks”.

He said that the wider utilisation of the movies means that them, "their characters, objects and events are based on overall appeal not simply on story and film requirements".

"If that makes for good movies or not is unclear but now the film is both the object of, and also part of, the marketing plan. This is the genius of Disney.”

Disney’s experience in product marketing will give it a foot up on LucasFilm’s previous marketing efforts he argued claiming its extensive ‘in house’ force helps it “keep more of the revenue through its own toys, shops, theme parks and more”.

The commercial partnerships are too numerous to fully document but here’s a taster of just some of the brands on board: Fiat Chrysler, General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Kraft,Walmart, HP, Toys R Us, Duracell, Sphero, Lego, Unicef, Air Hogs, Monopoly, Coffee-Mate, Duck Tape, Subway, Verizon, Google, Target, EA Games, NBA, PS4, ESPN and Waze.

The force flows through products in almost every imaginable sector as Disney looks to bombard the public with its newly launched franchise. De Cock argues that the extensive bond with top brands actually “enhances the Star Wars brand” as it is “tightly controlled”.

However, Chris Hassell, founder of Ralph disagrees with De Cock to an extent. He claims that Disney has “gone pretty crazy” with the sheer number of partnerships it has established.

“Star Wars practically invented film merchandising and this is where Lucas really made his cash. The Force Awakens has obviously got all the merchandising across all types of products, some good, some rubbish.

“Marketing directors are now the age of true Star Wars fandom so that probably helps get this stuff signed off, but apparently you can get Star Wars oranges in a major supermarket, perhaps a bit too far.”

The buzz permeates into cinema ad-roll too with Davina Barker, head of agency sales at Digital Cinema Media telling The Drum that Star Wars will represent “DCM’s busiest [launch] yet, with a record number of playlists scheduled – nearly 10,000 for the day of release alone".

During launch week in the UK, from 18 December, over 180 campaigns are scheduled, with almost 100,000 playlists across all films.

She concluded: “Several global brand partners already associated with the film have chosen to feature in the Star Wars ad-reel, however there’s a whole range of other brands booked into the film, who are looking to engage Star Wars super fans.”

"The franchise’s appeal has snapped up brands in the automotive, financial, retail and entertainment sectors in addition to bringing “several new advertisers to the big screen.”

The film’s launch spotlights the shifting grounds in movie marketing as studio bosses grapple with the costs associated with promoting their new releases while box office revenues are flat. Consequenlty, the lifespan of a property and its potential to make money beyond theatrical windows is something that’s very much on the mind of movie makers with The Force Awakens being the latest blockbuster to ditch the trailer as the place to start kick off the marketing plan.

“Star Wars fans are going to see The Force Awakens no matter what and so the job of advertising is to bring new people to the franchise,” said Jason Harrison, worldwide chief executive of marketing foresight consultancy Gain Theory.

“There’s a whole populace of people for whom it’s difficult to get to the theatre to consumer the product but that what studios can count on is digital consumers. The thing they’re playing with now is the window between theatrical release and digital release.

Will Star Wars maintain its magnetic draw to advertisers with an annual movie entry? It's likely, but The Force Awakens will have to dodge the pitfalls George Lucas' ill-fated prequels fell into first.

Earlier this month, The Drum editor Stephen Lepitak caught up with Charles Lippincott, the man who originally marketed the original Star Wars movie in 1977 in addition to other science fiction classics such as Alien, Judge Dredd and Flash Gordon.

Words by Tony Connelly and John McCarthy.

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