– By Katherine Sanderson –
This is the fourth article in a six-part series (The first and second covered ‘Marvel’ while the fifth and sixth will cover ‘Harry Potter’). For each brand, the first article will cover the corporate strategy that initially launched them, and the second will cover how they expanded the brand, with marketing partnerships, consumer products, and themed entertainment.
Click here if you missed How Star Wars Became a Global Brand – Part 1
Since its inception, Star Wars has been a global phenomenon, so to say it has suddenly become a global brand seems redundant. It has been a global brand since a long, long, time ago… (see what I did there..?)
Lucasfilm itself has had immense growth (apart from the Disney acquisition). Lucasfilm now has various subsidiaries such as Skywalker Sound (post-production sound editing, Industrial Light & Magic (special effects), Lucas Licensing (licensing and merchandising), Lucas Learning (educational materials) Lucas Books (book publishing) LucasArts (video and computer games) and Lucasfilm Animation. But to keep both domestic and foreign audiences, Lucasfilm and Disney have had to look at the international marketplace and see what would thrill both young and old fans of the brand. As consumer products and movie tickets see a decline in sales, it seems that they have set their sights on immersive experiences via hotels, rides, and even airline travel.
As I said in my previous articles, there are four major areas of business that I believe every film franchise must conquer to become a global brand: 1. Corporate Strategy 2. Marketing Strategy + Partnerships 3. Consumer Products and 4. Themed Entertainment (i.e. Theme Parks).
In my first article about Star Wars, we covered the early corporate strategy Star Wars set up with their first trilogy in the 1970s and 1980s. In this article, we will cover how Star Wars expanded as a brand using 2. Marketing Partnerships 3. Consumer Products and 4. Themed Entertainment
Consumer Products (i.e. Toys)
We spent a lot of the last article talking about the merchandise… and honestly, we could spend this entire article talking about all the Star Wars merchandise. But for clarity, let’s mainly focus on the toys. As we talked about in the last article, Star Wars was the first feature film to have incredible success in toys and merchandise. According to the Netflix series The Toys That Made Us, as of 2017, the Star Wars films had brought in roughly $7 billion at the box office, but the toys have made double that with $14 billion in revenue. Their consumer products in general have brought in more than $32 billion. Back in 1999, when the second Star Wars trilogy was released, sales of the franchise’s licensed merchandise increased 400 percent over the course of a few months. With a history like that, it makes sense to stand by that stream of revenue. And that all began with Star Wars, so it make sense that they would hold on the tightest to this tactic.
In 2015, recognizing that the toy market had significantly changed since 1999, Disney did try some new tactics for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. These new Star Wars toys were unveiled on YouTube during an 18-hour event on a Thursday, followed by a ‘Force Friday’ at midnight local time, where retailers like Toys R Us and Wal-Mart hosted exclusive events and giveaways to celebrate the launch in September, three whole months ahead of the films release date. By the end of 2015, Star Wars toys had generated $700 million in sales, leading overall US toys sales to a 6.7% increase. Unfortunately, Hasbro admittedly made a mistake last year, following their same campaign schedule as before, launching The Last Jedi toys three months prior to the film release. But this time there wasn’t a decade of building anticipation… so merchandise sales didn’t match expectations. Many adult collectors came out to add to their collection, but not as many kids. But it is worth to note that at the end of 2017, Disney made a statement saying “Star Wars is a force to be reckoned with in the toy industry…It remains the leading film-driven property for the entire year.”
What Star Wars is currently suffering from is what we may call “movie fatigue,” according to Gerrick Johnson, an analyst for BMO Capital Markets. Johnson said in an interview that “Hollywood and toymakers have fixated on toy-friendly films at a time when kids are increasingly turning to YouTube, Netflix and social media for entertainment…There is a new paradigm. Just because there is a movie with a toy tie-in doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work. It used to mean it would work.” With the bankruptcy of Toys R Us, this change in consumer demands is affecting the entire toy industry. Toymaker stocks at the beginning of this year saw a decline, with Hasbro (who is the primary licensee for Star Wars merchandise) saw their stocks falling as much as 3.6 percent. What does this mean for Star Wars merchandise? It may mean that their heyday as a toy empire is coming to an end.
Marketing Strategy (i.e. Partnerships + Promotional Stunts)
With forty years of marketing behind them, the Star Wars franchise has implemented many different tactics in their advertising and overall marketing. With The Force Awakens in 2015, they utilized nostalgia and the new comraderie of the cast on social media to draw in worldwide audiences early on. Those efforts paid off: The film beat that summer’s blockbuster Jurassic World to become the fastest movie to cross the billion dollar threshold (at the time), hitting $1.09 billion in just 12 days, as well as the biggest Christmas day box office in history, biggest domestic opening weekend, and biggest worldwide opening (at the time). But recently, with Disney releasing four Star Wars films in only three years’ time (and their latest Solo: A Star Wars Story bombing last week in its first weekend at the box office) their brand is arguably risking over-saturation. And part of that problem has been that Disney had assumed that like their consumer products, the films would just sell themselves, like they had in past decades. Unfortunately, that is not the case, so they have been forced to get more creative (and following this weekend… may need to get more creative!)
But it takes more than that to get people into seats in our modern entertainment environment. What Disney tried with Solo was to publicize the stars’ names, not just the characters, creating the first Star Wars poster that clearly promoting the big names stars on top like Emilia Clarke and Donald Glover. Along with print ads and trailers for advertising, they have marketing partnerships with multiple promotional partners. For their most recent film Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disney partnered with Solo cups (ha ha) as well as Denny’s, which used the partnership as an opportunity to revitalize their menu (at least temporarily). They have also partnered with Snapchat, Google and many others. For their previous spinoff film, they partnered with Nissan to cross-promote the Nissan Rogue with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But Star Wars has also been criticized for years for having, perhaps, too many partnerships, having their logo on everything from makeup, to coffee creamer, to fresh fruits.
They have also taken advantage of promotional stunts, one of my favorite being their recent partnership with ANA Airlines in Japan. ANA began their stunt in 2015, the same year The Force Awakens came to theaters, painting one of their new Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” jets to look like the famous droid R2-D2, which had stormtroopers onboard, and flight attendants using lightsabers for safety announcement demonstrations. Following the success of this, the airline painted three of its other jets to look like droids BB-8 and C-3PO, and another simply ‘The Star Wars Jet’ which features movie branding and likeness of two different droids. Over the last year, they have had Anthony Daniels (the voice of C-3PO) record the flight announcements, and as of this year have all nine Star Wars movies offered inflight service. The long-term promotion seems to be doing really well (check out their awesome site here!) so we may see more themed airline jets in the future!
So with merchandise sales falling, and marketing doing little to get people to buy theatre tickets, one might be worried about the future of the Star Wars brand. But have no fear. Their themed entertainment will surely bring those fans in.
Basing theme park attractions on feature films all began with Disney and their animated features, but by the 1990s, other major live-action franchises were being featured at parks like Universal Studios. It took Disney two years after their original acquisition of Lucasfilm to announce in August 2014 that they did intend to use Star Wars properties at their park. Why? I expect they were meticulous planning how to implement this powerful franchise. In 2015, Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger formally announced a 14-acre Star Wars-themed land expansion at the D23 Expo for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, both set to open in 2019. These lands will be the largest expansion Disney parks have ever seen, and include exclusive merchandise for sale. It will feature two new rides, one on the Millenium Falcon and one in the midst of a battle.
But as you may know, this isn’t the first time Star Wars had been featured at Disney parks. Since 1987, the park has hosted the popular simulator ride ‘Star Tours’ in their American parks, as well as in Paris and Tokyo. From 1997 to 2015, Disney’s Hollywood Studios park hosted Star Wars Weekends during specific dates in the months of May and June. Since 2007, the parks include the live show Jedi Training where children are selected to learn the teachings of the Jedi Knights, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and at the Tomorrowland Terrace at Disneyland. And for the 2015 release of The Force Awakens, they fitted their iconic Space Mountain with Star Wars theme music and visual effects. So Disney has gradually learned what works at theme parks.
There is also a Star Wars Hotel that has been proposed for the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, which will be a Star Wars-themed luxury hotel to be built near Disney’s Hollywood Studios, intended to accompany the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed area, which is currently under-construction. And if you’ve ever been to a themed hotel created by Disney, you know this will be a fan favorite. According to a press release, guests will immediately become “active citizens of the galaxy” and be given the opportunity to dress in provided outer space attire. Every resort window will also have a view into space (not sure how this will work, but excited to see how!) The resort will also be directly connected to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The Disney take-over hasn’t necessarily been an easy one, and they have had their stumbles, but overall it seems that they are giving the brand a new life. Whether theme parks attractions, hotels, or airplanes, Disney is recognizing they need to go big to get the attention of audiences, and allow fans to have immersive experiences with the Star Wars brand. And with those theme park ticket prices… they may not even need to make any more films!
About the Author
Katherine Sanderson currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. Originally from Colorado, she graduated with a BA in English from Santa Clara University in 2014, and is an alumna of the JPCatholic MBA program (Class of 2016). Her professional aspirations are in children/family entertainment, especially animation.
Image Credit: Marvel