How Disney is Making Sure You’ll Never Be Able to Escape Star Wars

The following story, posted today on Wired Magazine’s website, was written by Julia Greenberg and focuses on Disney synergy.  As the author of the book “Inside the Disney Marketing Machine,” I was interviewed (along with others) for the story and one of my quotes was used.  

With ABC, ESPN, and Lucasfilm, Disney’s reach goes far beyond its animated characters. Here’s a look at some of the company’s major divisions and products that shows how franchises like Star Wars are promoted across the Disney empire.

WDC structure 2015

When it comes to marketing, Disney has it almost too easy.

Just consider the past few weeks. The entertainment giant launched a Pixar clip where the characters personifying emotions in Inside Out react to the Star Wars trailer. (“I love this trailer!” Joy says.) On Disney-owned ABC, Good Morning America’s anchors revealed new Star Wars toys and dressed up as Star Wars characters with their very own recreated trailer. (“This is awesomeeee!” Jesse Palmer shouts.) The company has also released Star Wars clips during evening programming on ABC and ESPN.

For Disney, such cross-promotion—known in corporate-speak as synergy, where two or more divisions of a company increase value by working together—is business as usual. After all, the company owns not only one of the biggest film franchises ever but a major sports network and a major broadcast network, not to mention Pixar, which has made some of the most popular movies. With so many outlets available for promoting Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the question isn’t “Where can I see more Star Wars?” but “Where can I not?”

Such synergy-driven advantage isn’t new, and Disney is far from alone in exploiting it. Universal, for example, aggressively promoted Jurassic World—Chris Pratt appeared on NBC’s The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, whose voice is heard in the film providing instructions to park-goers. (NBC and Universal are owned by Comcast.)

And, yes, Disney also gets an enormous boost from media coverage of the upcoming Star Wars film, including WIRED’s latest cover. Fans on social media also play a role in fueling the growing hype.

But the unending promotion of Star Wars on Disney’s platforms is a deliberate strategy by the company itself. In fact, Disney may well be the master of cross-promotion, a skill it honed with its iconic, family-friendly characters. Now its many corporate arms reach a uniquely vast array of audiences across the US and around the world. Even as upstarts like Netflix and BuzzFeed try to change how we consume entertainment, such traditional media power is hard to ignore—literally.

They Were Pioneers

For Disney, this kind of marketing has long contributed to its business success. “The company was historically synergistic going back to Walt Disney himself,” says Lorraine Santoli, a former director of corporate synergy at Disney who wrote Inside the Disney Marketing Machine.

Founded in the 1920s, Disney almost immediately licensed Mickey Mouse’s image for school supplies and other items. In the late ’30s, the company saw tremendous success with its first animated feature Snow White. “No one had done an animated feature prior to that, but what most people don’t know is that that was the biggest soundtrack of the time, as well,” says Linden Dalecki, a professor of marketing at Pittsburg State University. “It was super pioneering, they were super innovators.”

For Disney, licensing for products and cross-promotion across divisions has only become more important as the company—and its divisions—have grown to include those of Pixar, Marvel, and, of course, Lucasfilm. Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner has famously touted the benefits of synergy, saying, “One plus one will add up to four,” when Disney bought ABC in 1995. Star Wars isn’t just about the movie, in other words: it’s also about the TV shows, toys, video games, books, soundtracks, and theme park rides, all of which bring in revenue and will help fuel interest in this film (and the next one).

“While the way that Disney is handling the Star Wars promotion may seem over the top, they’ve consistently used similar strategies with other properties. It may be more obvious because this time, it’s Star Wars,” says Janet Wasko, a professor of media studies at Oregon University whose work has focused on the film industry. “However, this is old hat for Disney, the company that has been the most successful Hollywood major in employing synergy as a strategy to maximize revenues.”


Why Disney Is Uniquely Positioned

This kind of cross-platform, cross-division, super-charged marketing is the norm these days. “Similar to other entertainment companies, Disney promotes its products across its various divisions to maximize impact and revenues,” Wasko says. Like NBCUniversal, the company has teams of people tasked with figuring out how to best cross-promote products and franchises across everything from TV to theme parks.

Nonetheless, cross-promotion doesn’t always mean wild success. “Sometimes it doesn’t work,” Wasko says, explaining that certain films fit the model better than others. “But rather than negative reactions to these synergistic strategies, it seems obvious that the promotion of this Star Wars film has heightened the anticipation and excitement about the film, as well as promoting other Star Wars and Disney products.”

Disney, after all, remains a master of the art. As film franchises become increasingly important to the film industry’s bottom line, Disney touts a number of family-friendly properites, as well as iconic characters for all ages. The company is able to appeal to different audiences with its different divisions—say Star Wars comic books for super fans, Lego toys for kids, and a trailer for the more causal viewer that comes out during Monday Night Football.

All of which demonstrates how even as major entertainment conglomerates worry about cord-cutters affecting their bottom line (and future), big media companies still matter a whole lot. For all its expansion into entertainment, BuzzFeed, for example, can’t compete with the mass market scope that Disney has (even if its listicles on Disney princesses remain popular). But media consolidation has long been a trend, and upstarts such as VICE and BuzzFeed may look more and more tempting to old media conglomerates, following in the trend of the recent acquisition of Business Insider by German publishing giant Axel Springer.

In other words, new media may have cachet and an ability to capture our eyeballs during our lunch breaks or standing in line for coffee. But as we’ll see over the next month during the run-up to the theatrical release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the old guard has not lost its might. When it comes to the big stuff, Disney can still command our collective attention in a way few other companies can.





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