7 Epic Branding Lessons From the Disney Universe in 2020

A little over a year ago, our lives were overtaken by a virus whose name we could barely pronounce. We went to sleep one night and woke up the next morning with our lives turned upside down.

Much like Luke Skywalker found himself as he stirred to consciousness inside a wompa’s icy cave on Hoth’s frozen tundra. But like Skywalker, we found our footing and fought on. Over the course of the year, brands and businesses shifted their marketing, sales and distribution strategies. 

Some even altered their operations and began producing new goods. Many more started offering new services. With theaters shuttered, Hollywood turned to streaming to get content to a nation of homebodies ravenous for distraction, connection and hope. That tactic worked well for Disney, which saw its subscriber base for its new streaming service, Disney+, swell to 100 million in its first 16 months, and its stock price nearly double to $196.

As we begin the steady climb to a post-pandemic normal, it’s worth taking a moment to look to those production companies that have become such a big part of our lives over the last 12 months. Within the success of brands like Disney, Marvel and Star Wars lie more than entertainment; branding lessons about how to pivot toward profitability during a pandemic can be applied to any industry in any era.

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Branding on the Brink of Bankruptcy

In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy, and sold off X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spiderman to keep its doors open.

About 10 years later, Marvel made another leap. It was struggling to maintain relevancy and compete with content from rival DC Comics. So, it put all of its remaining intellectual properties on the line (i.e., “Black Panther,” “The Avengers,” “Captain America” and more). The company used these properties as capital to secure a $525 million deal. This deal allowed Marvel to create its own studio, produce content in-house and keep all the profit.

It was a gutsy move that paid off when it was bought by Disney four years later for $4 billion. The House of Mouse offers manifold brand strategy lessons, not the least of which is that in the magical world of branding, content is king. 


7 Branding Lessons From the Marvel Star Wars Disney Universe

With three iconic franchises (i.e., Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars) in its house of brands, Disney has managed to corner the market, not just on animation, but fantasy content as well. While entire novels could be (and have been) written about branding the Disney way, seven magical lessons are shared here.  

Whether you’re a C-suite executive overseeing a rebranding effort, a CMO managing multiple, integrated campaigns, or a content strategy specialist outlining your master plan for the year ahead, you will benefit from these seven branding insights gleaned from a cinematic universe that’s much closer than you think. 

Along the way, examples from three marketing juggernauts (i.e., Disney, Marvel and Star Wars) will reveal insights you can use to make your content marketing shine and build your branding effort from the inside out — whether you’re selling insurance or potato chips.


#1: Tell a compelling story.

When George Lucas’ “Star Wars” hit theaters in 1977, no one expected much. The expansive space opera seemed doomed from the start. But Lucas knew he had something attractive — a timeless story that fulfilled every one of the 12 steps of the hero’s journey.

He consulted with mythology experts and became personally steeped in history and political perspective. Through these experiences, Lucas knew the culture was yearning for something hopeful. After Watergate, Vietnam and the rampant inflation of the 1970s, moviegoers were hungry for a hero they could believe in. They wanted someone to root for and relate to. Luke Skywalker was that hero and 41 unimaginable years later, his story was finally complete. An arc that spanned three generations remains relevant today. 

So, what’s the lesson? Why does “Star Wars” (and all the Marvel movies for that matter) work? Why does a genre routinely snubbed by Hollywood elites occupy five spots on the top ten highest-grossing movies of all time

It’s because Disney continues to bring the right team of creative talent together to craft narratives that resonate deeply with people.

Creative people are telling good stories.

Stories people can relate to, connect with and enjoy seeing themselves in. Longtime Lucasfilm producer and director Dave Filoni shared part of the reason for “Star Wars’” success in a roundtable discussion with the crew behind Disney’s hit TV series, The Mandalorian — family.

At its core, “Star Wars” is a movie about family. It’s a tale about a boy without a father who falls into corruption and is eventually redeemed by his own son. This nugget was wrapped up in space lasers and cosmic battles. Still, at its core, “Star Wars” was always a family drama.

Branding Connection: What is your brand’s story? Before embarking on any branding or rebranding effort, be crystal clear about your brand identity and be faithful to it in your marketing campaigns. While you build your content strategy around your audiences’ needs and interests, identify connection points between your story and its relevance to their lives.


#2: Create something people want to be part of.

As with any profitable branding exercise, story is the foundation of the success achieved by Star Wars, Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Without compelling content, your marketing strategy will fall flat.  

While good content will carry you far, profit comes in layering successful marketing tactics on top of it. With Marvel and Star Wars, this has meant expanding characters and stories into the print, retail, merchandising and live event arenas. 

From branded boxes of Kraft Mac n’ Cheese to steady Comic Con appearances in cities around the world, parties, panels, autographs, and social media content give audiences tangible ways to connect with the storied brands.  

Product marketing tie-ins at varying price points give fans ample opportunity to connect with the brand and expand its reach. Like Sith Lord Sheev Palpatine, Star Wars has done a masterful job of casting its threads into every corner of the retail universe. The company has clothing and merchandise that span an array of price points. Additionally, this merchandise is available for purchase at big box chains like Walmart and Target as well as online through boutique shops like Loungefly and Pandora. Plus, licensing deals with popular brands like LEGO and Hasbro expand the reach of the brand. These deals boost its influence and staying power.   

Disney theme parks create the ultimate advantage in providing immersive experiences. These parks allow fans to literally step into the worlds they create on screen. In Galaxy’s Edge, guests can fly the Millennium Falcon or fight the First Order in Rise of the Resistance. They can also drink blue milk and build their own lightsabers. With a Marvel-themed lands in the works, Disney has unlimited opportunities to draw the connection fans start with its content on screen into the real world.

Still, what makes Star Wars’ marketing strategy so profitable is the content it promotes. The storylines are attractive, the characters are relatable and the off-screen opportunities make these movies something people want to attach themselves to. 

Branding Connection: Incorporate tactics into your content marketing strategy that give your ideal audiences ways to connect with your brand and make it part of their life. Instead of talking about yourself and your products, focus on messaging that invites your audiences into your story to interact with it dynamically, alter it and make it their own.


#3: Allow your brand to take on a life of its own. 

This principle is one of the most challenging to apply. Brand stewards mistake control for consistency and squelch the life out of their stories. Consistency is critical (so much so that it’s our next point), but so is freedom.  

When you release your brand into the wild world of social media, you can’t control what fans will do with it. If you’re engaging correctly, a beautiful symbiosis will evolve. Over time, your ideal audiences will shape your brand as much as it shapes them. Nurturing this relationship requires consistent, relevant content and reliable social listening.  

It requires real people. People who are intimately familiar with the brand. People who engage with followers online day-in and day-out, stoking conversation and responding to the ideas that pour forth.  

When fans opined online about their desire to see Rosario Dawson portray the live action version of the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated Togruta padawan, Ahsoka Tano, the actress (who was a huge fan of Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice) bit. Eventually, showrunners cast her for an appearance in season two of The Mandalorian and her own spinoff series.  

It was a beautiful example of a brand engaging followers in its story and those fans engaging the story right back.  

Branding Connection: Engage your target audiences everywhere they’re active. While you’re doing so, don’t just monitor what they’re saying — listen and respond. Be discerning as you evaluate feedback. But when you receive a suggestion that rings true with your brand identity and unique story and fits within your content marketing strategy, don’t ignore it.


#4: Be consistent. 

The other side of the coin (of giving your brand room to breathe) is safeguarding its integrity with consistent brand messaging. Disney is nothing if not consistent. Across its brands, including the two movie franchises considered here, it is phenomenal at crafting a finely tuned, consistent experience.

Watch any Star Wars spinoff from “Solo: A Star Wars Story” to The Mandalorian. With each entry, you feel like you are in the right universe.

It’s not so much messaging or imagery that can be pinpointed. Instead, it’s a feeling; a feeling of integrity. You know where you are at all times. Even when you’re introduced to characters and locations for the first time. New installments of beloved stories ring true. 

This is intentional. It’s due to the laborious, meticulous behind-the-scenes work of every production artist, writer, producer, modelist and storyteller who had a hand in crafting the stories you enjoy. 

Plus, this consistency is evident in the Marvel movies as well. From the Infinity Stones at the beginning of “Captain America” to the teasers that conclude every credit sequence in the Phase One, Two and Three movies, Marvel is predictable in what it offers. Casual fans can watch any movie in any order and enjoy each one for its pure entertainment value. 

Dedicated followers can consume every comic book, convention appearance and second of on-screen action and be rewarded for their devotion with an unfractured storyline that maintains its integrity across every installment in the expanded universe.  

Branding Connection: Consistency is respect. If you are reliable in your messaging, placements and partnerships with influencers and tie-ins, your audiences will respect your brand. Let that bedrock ground you in the decisions you make for your brand. Let it breathe, let it evolve, but maintain its integrity and your customers will reward you with increased interest and loyalty. 


#5: Attract customers and prospects with fresh content marketing.

Is anyone better at understanding, enhancing and profiting from the journey customers make with its brand than Disney? While its success seems magical, it took years of hard work and planning. Like all good branding, Disney makes money because it maps out its customer journey really well. 

When Marvel president Kevin Feige was interviewed in 2014, he announced a 14-year master plan for Marvel movies capable of drawing on more than 8,000 characters. He told Bloomberg Business Week that he had a map on a wall in his office with films stretching out to 2028.  

“It’s like looking through the Hubble telescope,” Feige said. “You go, ‘What’s happening back there?’ I can sort of see it.” 

Halfway through the master plan and 23 movies in, audiences surprisingly show no fatigue with the volume of content being produced. Films continue to set and break their own box office records. The same is true for Star Wars. 

The cross-generational force is strong with the space opera. Star Wars’ devoted fan base began with fans who first experienced the movies as children and teenagers. Now in their 30s to 50s and beyond, these loyal advocates have introduced the brand to their children and grandchildren. These connections formed bonds that Disney nurtures with a steady stream of high-quality, compelling, on-brand content through its streaming service, Disney+, as well as a slew of new movies. 

There’s a powerful lesson here for content marketers.  

Your massive Excel spreadsheet spanning multiple quarters and providing clear content direction will lead you to profit. But you will need to stick to it, and keep your focus on creating compelling content. The first half of Marvel’s massive content plan took it through three phases. 

Phase One introduced characters who would become a group of Avengers in Phase Two. The same characters who would defend Earth from Armageddon in Phase Three. Along the way,the MCU told origin stories, developed characters and explored backstories. It introduced new heroes and villains, executed crossovers with surgical precision and entertained audiences with an unending source of compelling content.

Branding Connection: It’s easy for brands to get comfortable and rely on past success. It’s much harder to keep creating new content marketing. But that is what must be done, not just to aid customer retention, but to fuel acquisition as well.


#6: Keep profit in its proper place. 

If you think movies aren’t made to make money, intern in Hollywood for a summer. You’ll quickly see that many movies have big budgets. They are heavily financed operations expected to turn a profit — the bigger the better.  

Branding must be profitable, because businesses must make money to keep going. However, brand owners make a critical error when they place the bottom line before the brand.  

Disney experienced this firsthand after Roy Disney died. The first non-family presidents to helm the company faltered in answering the question, “What would Walt do?” The bottom line became the only line and theme parks launched with budget as the driving factor failed to perform.  

While infamous CEO Michael Eisner ushered in the Disney Decade and incredible profits, he skimped on production value when building Disney’s California Adventure theme park. The lack of investment showed. Ticket sales at the park were down. Part of what made Disney theme parks so appealing was the intricate attention to detail. Every visitor could feel the detail (and dollars) invested in every square inch of the property. 

The next leader, Bob Iger, reversed that trend with a massive investment in the theme park and an expansion of Disney’s content empire. Prior to this investment, the company had chipped away at expenses to maximize profits. But in doing so, it forgot that controlling expenses is only one lever to pull in a healthy business; investment in people and products is just as essential.  

Branding Connection: While your branding efforts must be profitable, don’t make the bottom line your only motivation. Remember to invest in your people, products, services and content marketing. This investment will continue to grow your brand and keep it healthy. 


#7: Assemble a killer team. 

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, said in his book “Creativity, Inc.” something every CMO, CEO and content marketer should commit to memory — “Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it, or come up with something better.”  

Catmull is absolutely right. So is George Lucas. In his comment endorsing the book, Lucas commented, “… creativity isn’t strictly a well of ideas, but an alchemy of people.” 

An investment in creative minds and skilled team members is a must. It’s an investment that will generate more ROI than any other investment you could make in your brand. Bring the right people together. Then remove roadblocks from their path and trust them to guide your brand in the direction of success. 

Branding Connection: Just like S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury assembled the Avengers, you should carefully cultivate your branding and content strategy teams. Focus on adding talented team members who create good content. Team members who know how to use that content to connect with your ideal audiences everywhere they’re active, and nurture engagement with your brand to grow your following and turn disinterested individuals into brand advocates.

Remember, marketer, that branding success is the product of carefully crafted, consistent storytelling introduced to the world in accordance with a smart content marketing strategy that supports your brand identity and ladders up to your organizational goals.  

When you’re ready to share your story with the world in a powerfully effective way, contact OBI Creative. From customer journey research to campaign execution, our branding experts will help you build your brand from the inside out and achieve storytelling success.