Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Brand Awakens: Strategy Lessons From Disney

Brand is probably one of the most complex (and overlooked) assets to manage in a business. At its essence, brand is your reputation, built on past customer engagements, that you channel into an advantageous narrative.  It's hard to build, difficult to measure and always evolving. Having been involved with strategy and brand at several large companies, I appreciative how difficult it is to shepherd the brand in support of strategy.  .

When I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently, I was quite interested in how Disney would treat what is arguably one of the most valuable brands of all time. Having been involved with significant branding efforts, I know the levers to pull and pitfalls to avoid when planning a strategy.  Although it is easier to manage the brand around a creative property that is owned (i.e., Star Wars) vs the brand for a company which is more amorphous, Disney's effort hit all the right levers. Consider:

1. Know who you are. Many companies try and change their brand. The reality is that you can only change in a very narrow band because it has to be based on reality. Disney clearly embraced the space adventure, family drama and humor of what Star Wars is supposed to be. Contrast that with the earlier prequels which seemed to dabble between political complications and other new themes.

2. Know your customers and segment their needs.  Star Wars has many different targeted segments, but it essentially boils down to devotees, casual consumers and new customers. They have plans to continue to build with all three of these segments.  You see it quite clearly in their decision to have both new trilogy movies and stand alone movies.  

3. Create content based on who you are and what your customer segments want. Some people have complained the movie is a little derivative and seems somewhat manufactured. In fact, it was likely manufactured so that it would have specific pieces that appeal to devotees, casual consumers and new customers. 

4. Build excitement. You need to launch any new branding effort with excitement to separate from the herd. Disney mastered this with planned leaks, a stream of information and a genuine sense of enjoyment. 

5. Curate the experience. A company need to guide its brand and not let others control the narrative (as much as you can do that these days). Disney did this by getting control of its creative properties, laying out a timeline and giving fans a swim lane to understand where Star Wars exists. 

6. Drive awareness. People have to be aware of the brand relaunch for it to be successful.  Disney had a marketing blitz with product tie-ins, late night coverage and dedicated promotions and displays in major retailers. Although it went close to the line of over saturation, it did this in a way that seemed to curate the experience as discussed above.  

7. Live the brand. You see it all the time. A company says it is one thing, but you see it doing something different. Disney seems to have embraced Star Wars beyond the marketing.  The stars are likeable, they kept an amicable relationship with the old guard (e.g, George Lucas and several senior hires) and crowd sourced some of the props to keep the fans engaged. 

8. Manage backlash. There are always naysayers. People complained the movie was didn’t advance the story, etc. Disney essentially addressed some of these points straight out through director interviews or said they would address in the many movies to come in the future. The one area of bigger backlash among some fans was around past content.  Disney determined that large swaths of Star Wars material was not "canon".  Disney approached this by being straight forward about its decisions and making nods to this past material.  

9. Maintain momentum and adjust course. Disney has already moved into promoting the next movies while this one is just coming out on DVD. It is likely they will adjust scripts based on feedback and by having a stable of different directors they will keep ideas fresh.  

Some would argue that Disney didn't have to do much to deliver a hit . They may be right for a one off effort, but more was required to build the foundation for a lasting effort.  Looked at through the lens of a brand strategy, their effort was a master class for how to pull all the levers in the right way.  Their work will get a more difficult with a host of sub brands and a complicated slate of movie and games but they have laid that strong foundation.