Star Wars: Force of the franchise awakens

With the seventh instalment set to hit cinemas, brands are at pains to ensure their promotional tie-ins fit customer objectives.

Star Wars robot

Tencent recently bought the exclusive rights to Star Wars in China

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not even in cinemas yet, but it is already smashing records.

The film, which opens on 17 December, sold a record 200,000-plus tickets in the UK within 24 hours of going on sale in October. By the end of November, it had broken all known records for advance ticket sales in the US, generating more than $50m (£33m) a month prior to its release. No wonder the bookies have slashed their odds on the film overtaking Avatar to become the highest grossing of all time.

It is also likely The Force Awakens will represent the biggest promotional marketing campaign in the history of cinema. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm – the studio behind Star Wars – for $4.05bn (£3bn) in 2012, it did so with the twin aims of making more films to extend the saga while maximising the franchise’s marketing potential.

Disney’s plan for promoting The Force Awakens has included an extensive pre-film merchandising push, numerous brand tie-ups and a carefully staged teaser campaign. All of these activities are intended to drive up fan excitement and commercial revenues simultaneously.

Lucasfilm announced in August that it had signed up seven global partners spanning the worlds of make-up, breakfast cereals, sandwiches and telecommunications for an “expansive, historic promotional campaign”. The brands involved – Procter & Gamble (via Covergirl and Max Factor), Duracell, car manufacturer FCA US, General Mills, HP, Subway and Verizon – have all created their own campaigns around the film that include advertising, video content and special promotions and giveaways.

The partnerships do not stop there either, as Disney has joined forces with multiple brands in local territories for further campaigns and promotions. Yet as Marketing Week’s columnist Mark Ritson pointed out last week, many of these tie-ups range from the tangential to the bizarreincluding Star Wars-branded nail varnish from Covergirl and a special edition ‘dark side’ laptop from HP. Ritson argues that such partnerships lead marketers to neglect their brand strategies in favour of short-term tactical activations.

How then, can marketers avoid falling into this trap and create promotions that stay true to their overall brand goals? Also, amid all this marketing noise, how is Disney ensuring that the force remains strong with the most popular film franchise of all time?

Disney’s ‘Force Friday’ kickstarted sales of Star Wars: The Force Awakens toys

Targeting segments

Sandwich chain Subway says it is focused on targeting specific segments of customers through its Star Wars promotions. The brand is using its association with the film to push its Kids’ Pak range of children’s meals, including an offer to collect six exclusive Star Wars: The Force Awakens messenger bags with every Kids’ Pak. The brand is using TV advertising to highlight the promotion, while limited edition ‘Stormtrooper’ paper cups and Star Wars-themed displays advertise it in-store.

Subway is also running a social media competition in which it is asking customers to submit photos of their best Star Wars pose. To enter, they have to strike a pose and snap themselves in a store, or using Subway branded items such as paper cups or straws, and then tag their entry with hashtags #SubWin and #TheForceAwakens. The top prize is a trip for two to Comic-Con Dubai next year, while other entrants can win a selection of Star Wars toys and merchandise.

Subway’s UK and Ireland head of marketing Roger Cusa says that its Star Wars-themed promotions will be the brand’s main traffic driver during the Christmas period. “This latest promotion builds upon the Subway brand’s very successful and long-standing relationship with Disney, which launched in 2012 with the release of the Disney/Pixar film Monsters University,” he notes.

“The build-up to the launch of The Force Awakens has touched everybody in the UK and Ireland. As such, it resonates with all our customers as it appeals to all ages and genders.”

Beyond the film’s global partners, several brands are creating localised campaigns in the UK. O2, for example, has opted to integrate its Star Wars promotions with its ‘Priority’ loyalty scheme, which covers the brand’s 25 million customers. This includes giving away 1,700 tickets to the film’s UK premiere and more than 250,000 pieces of merchandise such as LED lightsaber key rings, mini speakers and toys of the new droid character BB-8. O2 has also released an accompanying TV ad starring original Star Wars droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, as well as BB-8.

Head of O2 Priority Chris Arrowsmith claims the brand has generated huge levels of excitement – and even queues outside some stores – with its merchandise giveaways. It has so far received over one million entries from customers for its Star Wars competitions, including 600,000 entries for the BB-8 offer. The toy, made by Sphero, is controllable via an app and is likely to be a top-selling gift this Christmas.

“O2 Priority is all about connecting our customers to the things that they love and we know film is a huge passion point – that’s why we’ve got a long and proud history of giving our customers exclusive access and discounts to a range of movies,” says Arrowsmith. “By connecting them to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in so many different and exclusive ways, we want to continue to reward them for being O2 customers.”

‘Event’ cinema

With advance ticket sales already breaking records, cinema chains are gearing up their marketing and promotions to ensure they derive maximum commercial value from The Force Awakens. However, the UK Cinema Association’s CEO Phil Clapp also points out that cinema chains can derive longer-term benefits from the film if they use it as an opportunity to engage people who rarely visit the cinema.

“The average UK cinema attendance is about 2.5 times a year per head,” he says. “The hope and expectation with films like Star Wars is that it will get people into the cinema who haven’t been for a very long time. Hopefully, if they find the experience a pleasing one in terms of the quality of the film, the physical environment and the customer service, they’ll think about coming back. So there’s that expectation of a halo effect around films of this size.”

Subway is one of seven global partners with Lucasfilm for the latest Star Wars film

Clapp also notes that The Force Awakens will enjoy a longer run at the cinemas than most other films and that many fans will go to see it several times on the big screen. This presents cinema operators with more opportunities to engage people with different promotions, including competitions and one-off screenings.

“Anything that adds to the general air of excitement – costume nights, midnight screenings – will extend the buzz, reach and impact of the film and I’m sure a number of sites are looking at things like that,” he says.

Commercial director at Odeon Andy Edge says his chain is looking at the latest Star Wars instalment in a broader strategic sense, including how it can target different demographics. “The audience is going to be very cross-generational,” he says. “People who went to see Star Wars when they were kids are now taking their own kids to see it. We’re coming up with campaigns to target specific segments, not just one.”

In terms of promotional activations, Edge says that theme nights and all-night screenings are among the options that Odeon is considering in its marketing plan for The Force Awakens. This will also include new Star Wars-themed offers on food and drink and revamped point-of sale displays within cinema foyers aimed at capturing fans’ imagination.

The Disney effect

Disney, with its huge corporate machine and retail network, has proved adept at steadily building excitement around The Force Awakens in the three years since it acquired Lucasfilm. Its campaign has featured all types of activations and media channels including exclusive fan events, video teasers and social campaigns, all geared towards generating as much publicity as possible for the film (see timeline, below).

Notable among these was ‘Force Friday’, a global merchandising event held on 4 September that aimed to kickstart sales of merchandise and toys for the film. The event saw Disney present an 18-hour live stream of fans unboxing Star Wars merchandise on YouTube.

In addition, Disney held events at its own stores, as well as at partner retailers such as Toys R Us, Target and Walmart in the US, and Smyths and Forbidden Planet in the UK, where fans could get an exclusive first look at the new toys. The retailers opened their doors at midnight and customers were encouraged to share their experiences on social media using the hashtags #ForceFriday and #MidnightMadness.

Just as partner brands must carefully consider their strategic aims, Disney will need to walk a fine line to ensure its promotional activities remain compelling, rather than off-putting, to fans that love the films but are suspicious of commercial influences. With two more Star Wars films planned for 2017 and 2019, it certainly seems that Disney’s marketing plan for The Force Awakens will provide the blueprint for much more Star Wars-themed promotional activity in the years to come.

Leslie Ferraro, president of Disney consumer products, declares: “We’ve been working closely with the filmmakers to bring the characters and storylines to life through an exciting array of products, and we’re thrilled to share them with fans around the world.”