There are two difficulties with a roundup like this – Disney is massive and it’s often hard to disentangle product and marketing.
The company creates such strong stories/brands that all of its media can appear to work seamlessly.
Nevertheless, we’ve picked out some examples of what could be termed marketing expertise by the film juggernaut. Here are 10 of the best.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – content seeding
There are a number of blogs that have analysed the content marketing ahead of Disney’s first Star Wars in 2015.
Of course, the associated activity for a movie that grossed billions is massive, but here are just a few of the highlights.
Content marketing from Disney is hard to define but these seemingly off-the-cuff examples are likely expertly stage-managed.
A user-generated R2-D2
The first photo to be released from the set of the new film was a masterpiece in understanding the franchise’s audience (view it here).
Though it’s not the most exciting photo to you or I, Star Wars nuts were ecstactic to see that R2-D2 had returned, and got even more glassy-eyed when they saw this droid was built by two fans.
Here’s a tweet from the director, JJ Abrams. In case you aren’t up on your spaceships, that handwritten note is sitting on the Millennium Falcon’s snazzy, light-up chessboard.
Again, this was catnip for fans.
— Bad Robot (@bad_robot) June 4, 2014
“Chewie, we’re home”
The second teaser trailer for The Force Awakens was when the marketing campaign went into overdrive.
Though the first trailer hadn’t included clips of the old franchise stars, they featured heavily here. Harrison Ford’s closing line was so perfectly pitched, it became a meme.
Ahrefs points out that $2bn was added to Disney’s value by the success of this trailer alone. Type ‘Chewie, we’re home’ into Google, and you’ll see more than 2 million results (at time of writing).
A powerhouse of cross-promotion
ESPN and ABC (Disney companies) went to town in referencing the new movie. And when it came to commercials, the amount of co-branding that went on was staggering (see this AdWeek article).
2. #DreamBigPrincess campaign
Disney’s ‘princess culture’ has come under fire in recent years, with some calling out the stereotypical and outdated tropes of its most popular female characters. In response, Disney has taken steps to position its princesses in a more empowering light, using marketing campaigns like its #DreamBigPrincess initiative to do so.
The campaign involved 19 female photographers from 15 countries creating positive images of strong female role models, including a surfing champion from Brazil and the youngest female to speak at the UN. Disney also donated $1 to the UN’s ‘Girl Up’ campaign every time one of the images was shared on social.
As well as doing good, the campaign also allowed Disney to combat any negative stereotyping, and shine a light on the positive and strong characteristics of its princesses, like the feisty nature of Moana and the bravery of Merida.
3. Beauty & the Beast & Spotify hub
The live-action version of Beauty & the Beast was hotly anticipated, but Disney ramped up awareness in 2017 with a campaign created in partnership with Spotify.
It targeted free-tier users of the music platform with video ads, pointing them towards a Beauty & the Beast microsite. Here, Spotify analysed the user’s music tastes in order to link them to an associated room and a Disney playlist. Rooms included ‘Belle’s Room’ and ‘The Dining Room’, with each one exploring the themes of the movie as well as a wider selection of songs.
Combining personalisation and storytelling, it was a clever campaign that perfectly married the two brands (and their respective mediums of movies and music).
4. ‘Healthily Ever After’
Disney has so many great stories, but it’s not averse to running campaigns with a message.
2016’s ‘Healthily Ever After’ used Disney characters to inspire families and children to eat healthily and exercise more regularly.
For a decade, Disney has been using nutritional guidelines when choosing which partners to work with. It’s an effort that fits seamlessly into Disney’s marketing strategy, one that necessitates engagement with parents as much as it does children.
Hooking mums and dads into films and franchises, either through clever use of content or broader brand values, is the aim.
Check out the video below.
5. Annie Leibovitz ads
Disney Dream Portraits, to give them their proper name, were produced by Annie Leibovitz from 2007 to 2014.
These photographs of Hollywood stars in character as iconic Disney princesses, villains (etc) featured as print advertising, again appealing to parents and older fans.
They speak for themselves and add A-lister gloss to the brand, perhaps making dad rethink his decision about Disney World this year.
6. The Jungle Book reboot
Disney has a terrific ability to perfectly pitch its films. The 2016 Jungle Book reboot has a trailer that notably includes no songs, little Baloo, and yet does feature plenty of moody, scary moments.
Adding to this, stills and videos were created emphasising the actors that voiced the characters.
Targeting older audiences and parents in this way created a wide-ranging appeal that ensured three weeks at the top of the box office (before Captain America came along). A Super Bowl ad placement and a 3D preview in auditoria before the Star Wars movie helped, too.
7. Disney in the West End pop up
Disney productions like the Lion King and Aladdin have been mainstays in London’s theatreland for a number of years. In summer 2018, however, Disney launched a pop-up experience in the capital to drive renewed interest in the shows.
The ‘Disney in the West End’ pop up experience included a number of free daily events, such as performances from cast members, stage make-up masterclasses, and puppetry demonstrations. Visitors could also get up close to the Lion King masks and enter the Aladdin-themed ‘Cave of Wonders’.
The pop-up allowed both new and loyal fans to experience some Disney magic in a memorable way, ramping up anticipation for those with tickets, and prompting those without to go ahead and book.
8. Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday exhibit
To celebrate Mickey Mouse turning the grand old age of 90 in 2018, Disney launched a special immersive art exhibition in his honour. Located in New York City, the 16,000-square-foot interactive museum housed Mickey-themed artwork from both historic and contemporary artists, as well installations including a life-size steamboat and ice-cream shop.
To coincide with the exhibition, Disney also released a number of merchandise collaborations with fashion and footwear brands like Forever 21 and Vans, as well as a capsule collection in its own Disney stores.
An impressive and highly immersive experience, the pop-up capitalised on Mickey’s enduring popularity, and gave Disney fans something to remember.
9. Disney Eats
The Disney Digital Network – home to Oh My Disney and Babble – launched another digital brand in 2018 called Digital Eats. An online channel and editorial site, it is aimed at digital natives who are looking for informative and entertaining online video content related to food and cooking for their family. Disney Eats also produces content in partnership with Tastemade, which is another online network popular with millennial audiences.
Combining Disney with other lifestyle interests (not typically associated with the brand), Disney is clearly aiming to widen its reach and indeed its typical audience.
Frozen is the biggest animated movie of all time. What’s interesting is the way the film’s revenue grew throughout 2014, despite a 2013 release.
Some say Disney was caught on the hop by the film’s success, hence being late to the party with much of the merchandise and many of the tie-ups.
Indeed, many retailers put restrictions on merchandise, allowing customers to buy only one or two of certain toys, and therefore keeping demand sky high.
I’m including the film because of Disney’s genius in producing new products to fit a franchise. For Frozen this included a re-release of the movie, with subtitles for a singalong experience.
There’s also a karaoke app, a Broadway show no less, plenty of YouTube and ABC content, and the familiar toys, clothing etc. Frozen drove a 7% increase in merchandise revenue in 2014 (a year after the film released).
The franchise is now one of Disney’s top five most valuable and its tale of sisterhood and princesses without princes has shown how Disney can update the playbook and reap big returns.