Disney Is New to Streaming, but Its Marketing Is Unmatched


LOS ANGELES — Tom Bergeron, the host of the ABC reality show “Dancing With the Stars,” looked into the camera at the start of a recent Disney-themed episode and made a forceful sales pitch. Disney Plus, a new streaming service, was arriving on Nov. 12, he told the seven million people watching at home. With his voice rising, he added, “It’s available for you to pre-enroll right now!”

At that moment, Disney Plus employees, watching the live broadcast from Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif., broke into applause. By the end of the hourlong broadcast, they had sore hands. Mr. Bergeron plugged the service over and over again.

Anything for a corporate sibling: ABC, which is owned by Disney, has been blowing trumpets for Disney Plus as part of a kingdom-wide advertising offensive — one that Ricky Strauss, president for content and marketing at Disney Plus, has described as “a synergy campaign of a magnitude that is unprecedented in the history of the Walt Disney Company.” That is quite a statement given the gusto with which Disney typically approaches cross-promotions. But the streaming wars are escalating. Now is not the time for subtlety.

Two years ago, when Disney unveiled plans for a Netflix-style video platform, Robert A. Iger, the chief executive, made a bold proclamation: “We’re going to launch big, and we’re going to launch hot,” he said. Netflix, Amazon Prime and even a few of Disney’s traditional competitors snickered. What did Disney know about streaming and the complex technology needed to pull off that kind of service?

Whether Disney has surmounted the tech hurdles remains to be seen. But no one is underestimating Disney Plus anymore, in part because the company has started to exercise its unrivaled marketing power, including in areas that Silicon Valley and Hollywood often overlook.

Walt Disney World in Florida has more buses (many of which are being wrapped in Disney Plus ads) than the city of St. Louis. Disney Cruise Line carries more than 12,000 passengers at any given moment, and sneak-peek screenings of the Disney Plus show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” are being offered onboard. Disney Store locations, which still number in the hundreds, will host “pep rallies” for the series. Starting on Nov. 12, more than 7,000 of Disney’s retail employees will be wearing lanyards emblazoned with a QR code; shoppers can scan the code with their smartphones and connect directly to a Disney Plus sign-up page.

“Think of Disney like a giant pinball machine, with content and initiatives pinging between divisions in an effort to drive up the ultimate score,” said Gene Del Vecchio, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

Consider what Mr. Strauss and Joe Earley, executive vice president for marketing and operations, have planned for Monday. They are calling it “blitz day.”

Mr. Strauss and Mr. Earley may have an enviable array of resources, but the Disney brand also presents challenges. The company does not want people to think that Disney Plus is only for families. So marketing materials need to make it clear that there will be something for everyone, even A.W.O.C.s, which is how some people at Disney refer to Adults Without Children.

“We need to educate consumers and explain that this is not the Disney Channel app,” Mr. Earley said. “People also may or may not know that Disney owns Marvel and Lucasfilm and National Geographic. So we are having to do a lot of positioning in a very short amount of time.”

To show that Disney Plus is not just for young viewers, marketers for the service are playing up one original offering in particular: “The Mandelorian,” a live-action “Star Wars” series (the first ever) that follows a gunfighter on the edge of the galaxy. The series, created by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), cost an estimated $15 million an episode to make and stars Pedro Pascal, perhaps best known for his role as Oberyn Martell on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“The Mandelorian,” which contains a dramatic “Star Wars”-universe spoiler in the first episode and will be available the moment Disney Plus starts, has been as heavily promoted as a traditional feature film, with billboards, 30-second television commercials, radio spots and digital ads. Disneyland and Disney World, both of which opened monumental “Star Wars” lands this year, have also been promoting the show.



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