Disney+’s Massive Marketing Campaign Is Just Getting Started

Outreach for Disney's streaming service is "unprecedented"

Disney+ truck and signage
A pop-up Disney+ marketing event in New York on Tuesday was just one way the company is getting in front of possible customers. Kelsey Sutton for Adweek

It’s no coincidence that Disney+’s premiere date, Nov. 12, came just 10 days before the theatrical release of Frozen 2 (the sequel to the 2013 animated phenomenon), less than three weeks before Black Friday, and less than six weeks before the release of the ninth and final installment in the original Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker.

This holiday season, Disney is going all in on promoting its new streaming service—on which the media and entertainment giant has staked its future—including leveraging its biggest tentpole properties.

When Disney unveiled Disney+ details at its investor day last April, Ricky Strauss, president of content and marketing for the streaming service, said it would market the OTT service with “a synergy campaign of a magnitude that is unprecedented in the history of the Walt Disney Company,” reaching 95% of the service’s target audience and 100 million homes. That campaign kicked off in August at the company’s annual D23 Expo, where attendees were offered a steeply discounted rate that would lock them in as subscribers for the next three years; the discount, which lowered the $69.99 annual fee to $46.99 per year, was quickly extended to members of Disney’s D23 fan club.

Disney’s full-court press awareness campaign has only ramped up in the months since. Whether via digital and out-of-home ads, promotions on Disney-owned entertainment properties or pop-ups, messages for Disney+ have appeared on kiosks, buses and billboards and in Disney’s theme parks, resorts and retail locations. On the night of the 2019 Emmy Awards, which has become a major event for streaming services, Disney+ secured the first ad spot of the broadcast to reach devoted television fans. This month, Disney+ ads are appearing on Disney’s online store, and special QR codes on Disney employees’ lanyards in more than 300 retail locations are, if scanned by a mobile phone, directing customers to a Disney+ sign-up page.

After saturating its own properties, Disney is now expanding its push beyond its operated channels to reach customers who might not be devoted Disney fans. In a deal with Microsoft, Disney+ will be the exclusive partner of Microsoft’s Give Wonder holiday marketing campaign, which means the Disney+ app and its contents will be featured on Microsoft devices in all of the company’s U.S. and Canadian retail locations during the holiday shopping rush, Disney streaming services president Michael Paull said at a press event last week.

A day-long activation in New York on Tuesday, the day of Disney+’s premiere, offered another glimpse into Disney’s broad awareness play. Staffers wearing branded ear hats and navy sweatshirts posted up in front of the Bank of America tower in midtown Manhattan for a brisk outdoor celebration of the launch of the ambitious streaming service.

Clutching hand warmer packets, they cheerily passed out cards to passers-by that contained information about promotions and special offers from brands like Lyft and UrbanStems, which celebrated the service’s debut with special offers and discounts. Other staffers distributed doughnuts and cookies from a Disney+ branded food truck, complete with navy Disney+ napkins. Inside a small glass-walled van set up by the company, interested passersby were invited to come in and check out the Disney+ app for themselves.

Around lunchtime, five of the six Disney+ tablets were occupied in the glass van, and one man seemed intent on watching the entire first episode of the platform’s new Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, before heading on his way. About a half-dozen people lined up in the frigid weather to receive free snacks while the Mickey Mouse-eared employees fielded questions: Is the service available in the U.K.? (Not yet.) Is signing up for Disney+ required for a free doughnut? (No.)

The day-long activation, dubbed “Plus Up Your Day,” was just one part of a multiphase, omnichannel strategy to promote the service, Strauss said last week. It also featured appearances from actor Tony Hale, who stars as the voice of Forky—the scene-stealer from Toy Story 4—in the short-form Pixar original animated short Forky Asks a Question (exclusive to Disney+), and Mark St. Cyr, a cast member from the Disney+ original series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

Disney’s portfolio of media properties have already offered the service lots of love this fall. The ABC reality series Dancing With the Stars promoted Disney+ in October, and The Mandalorian had two ads on ESPN broadcasts of Monday Night Football. On the Friday prior to the Disney+ premiere, ABC, Disney Channel and Freeform aired the first episode of the Disney+ original series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series to generate excitement about both the show and the service on which it would be exclusively available.

On launch day, Disney again leveraged its media properties, including a promotional segment for Disney+ on ABC’s morning program Good Morning America. ESPN talent promoted the service in tweets and on-air segments, too—raising more than a few eyebrows about the ethical implications of the promotions. (A Disney spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the ESPN promotions.)

Disney+ is Disney’s big bet on the future of its business, and while the service has already hit 10 million sign-ups a day after its premiere, the stakes are high. The streaming service is aiming to have between 60 million and 90 million paying subscribers in five years’ time in an industry fueled by fickle customers who have more streaming choices than ever.

“We have to provide people with the idea of how to get this kind of content. So we have launched a multiphase, omniplatform, 360-degree marketing campaign to reach our target consumers. Now, we’ve also plussed it up—see what I did there?—with a synergy campaign that’s unrivaled and unprecedented in the history of the Walt Disney company,” Strauss said last week. “Of course all these touchpoints across the company are going to reach millions and millions of consumers around the world. If people haven’t heard of Disney+ by today, they will by Tuesday.”

But just in case, there’s even more to come on the marketing front as Disney looks to reach new potential subscribers. The company will soon begin selling gift cards for Disney+ subscriptions in stores, and it will only be a matter of time before themed merchandise based on The Mandalorian, the big-budget Star Wars original series exclusive to Disney+, hits shelves. The company handed out samples of that merchandise, including bobblehead figurines of the titular Mandalorian, to members of the press prior to Disney+’s release.

As Frozen 2 hits theaters Nov. 22, the original movie will of course be available to stream only on Disney+. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens a month later, on Dec. 20, giving new Disney+ customers just enough time to watch all of the other films in the current trilogy and the two prior trilogies, all of which are available on Disney+, for the first time in 4K. Coming full circle: The season finale of The Mandalorian will premiere on Disney+ just a week after The Rise of Skywalker’s theatrical premiere.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.