The Disney Marketing Magic That Made Us All Star Wars Fans

Disney no longer markets movies; instead, they market fandoms. From Marvel to Pixar, and especially Star Wars, they create personal connections and pull hard on heartstrings.
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Former Disney Imagineer, current marketing professor and lifetime Star Wars fan explains how Disney's unique marketing magic have turned us all into Star Wars fanatics.

Disney has turned us all into Star Wars fans. They did not just make us want to see a movie; they got us decked-out in Star Wars apparel and identifying deeply with the galaxy through office decorations. How did they get us there? Let us start by going back to this summer at Comic-Con 2015 to see the Disney marketing machine working its magic.

It's the biggest movie-marketing event for blockbusters in the world. At the annual weeklong San Diego Comic Con, movie studios bring the holy grail of marketing: new trailers and special announcements. The Force Awakens director, JJ Abrams, steps on stage for the Star Wars panel and immediately tells Hall H that he has come empty-handed.

You can smell the disappointment in the crowd, which already reeks from those who have camped for days to see the panel. But this was Disney's plan all along. Without any new content or traditional Comic Con tricks, JJ Abrams was about to put on the most memorable panel in Comic Con history. He hadn't come to promote a movie; he had come to do so much more. He had come to cultivate a fandom.

This is the new Disney way. Disney no longer markets movies; instead, they market fandoms. From Marvel to Pixar, and especially Star Wars, they create personal connections and pull hard on heartstrings.

They want Star Wars to not just be a set of movies. They want it to be part of who we are, a quasi-lifestyle with specific clothes, lingo and deep connections with other fans. They bought Star Wars for this reason, because it already was a fandom. But Disney has turned up and expanded the fandom. They've brought us deeply into the narrative.

A Star Wars Battlefront commercial tells the story of two life-long friends who bond through Star Wars as toddlers and teens, and reconnect through it as adults. A Wal-Mart commercial shows how parents can find Star Wars by introducing the galaxy to their kids.

The message of these and the massive number of other commercials and tie-ins is clear: Star Wars is important to you and your relationships. Both these commercials brought a tear to my eye and a respective message to my best friend and my father.

Some might think that Disney is just exploiting the Star Wars brand with the many products, games and tie-ins. But, in reality, they are expanding, not exploiting, the Star Wars brand.

Disney has made Star Wars something everyone can access on their own terms. Some people were not big Star Wars fans, but recently Star Wars has found a way to show them how they can become part of the Star Wars fan culture. From high fashion clothes, to nerd niche games, to casual phone applications, to themed events like Star Wars days at baseball stadiums, everyone can find and build close connections to the galaxy far, far away.

In addition to building personal connections, Disney brought out their magical specialty: emotion. When I worked at Disney Imagineering, I was tasked with finding ways to refine and leverage this specialty. The goal was difficult but simple: create and capture strong emotions.

With every Star Wars ad and trailer, Disney has played to heart, not the head. There are no plot details necessary when you have Han Solo saying, "Its true. All of it." Disney constantly fosters a sense of nostalgia and celebration, producing emotions that are motivating in ways details just are not.

Disney wants this all to happen because there is an exponential difference between fandom-identity and liking. A person who likes Star Wars wants to see the movie. People who consider themselves Star Wars fans must see the movie - even if it is not good.

This identity can get costly for consumers as psychologists generally find can be costly. It can lead to obsessive overspending and other personal sacrifices, meaning a win for Disney but a potential "loss" for consumers. However, at Duke University's Center for Advance Hindsight we examine how identity can also often greatly enhance enjoyment of products, creating a win-win situation for Disney and fan.

Abrams looked out at the crowd of 6,500 disappointed Comic-Con fans. He seemed to take a breath and then began to conduct a night of pure, personal and emotional fan celebration.

He connected with everyone in the audience as he spoke intimately about what it was like to be a Star Wars fanboy making a Star Wars movie. He brought everyone to ecstatic joy when he brought the entire cast on stage -- including, lastly and triumphantly, Harrison Ford. He caused delight when out came a fully functional droid, showing his devotion to the "old ways" of practical effects.

Every word, question and moment was about the immortal fandom of Star Wars. When the mega-hyped Batman v. Superman brought unprecedented 360 video projection of their new footage to the same room, they produced extreme excitement. But they did not pull as hard on the heartstrings of that fans.

As the panel concluded, Abrams surprised the audience once last time by exclaiming: "Who wants to see a live Star Wars concert right now? We only have room for all of you!" Everyone in Hall H then walked out to a San Diego bay peninsula where on the waterfront, under fireworks and the philharmonic playing the tunes of John Williams, the fans rocked their thousands of complementary glowing light sabers back and forth, ever deepening their Star Wars fandom.

Troy Campbell is an assistant professor of marketing at the Lindquist College of Business at the University of Oregon.

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