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.”

Weather forecasters at Disney-owned ABC stations in cities like Houston and Chicago will be chit-chatting about Disney Plus. It is expected to come up on “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The View.” Guests at Disney World will see it everywhere — on billboards, on parking lot trams, on the info-channel in more than 22,000 Disney-owned hotel rooms.

Disney will also push out information about Disney Plus on almost all of the company’s social media accounts, which combined have more than a billion followers. (Tinker Bell has 9.3 million friends on Facebook alone.)

In many ways, Mr. Iger, who took over Disney in 2005, has staked his legacy on the success of Disney Plus, which will cost $7 a month and offer movies and shows from six brands: Disney, Pixar, Marvel, “Star Wars,” National Geographic and “The Simpsons.” Disney has spent billions on the effort. It paid $2.5 billion for BamTech, a company known for helping Major League Baseball and HBO create successful video platforms. Mr. Iger positioned Disney’s recent $71.3 billion acquisition of Rupert Murdoch’s Hollywood businesses as helping to supercharge Disney’s streaming efforts.

The video platform represents a make-or-break attempt by Mr. Iger to reposition Disney for growth — its traditional cable businesses are in decline — and compete with the tech giants that are aggressively moving into Hollywood.

Apple TV Plus, available on Friday, will cost $5 month. For anyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad or Mac laptop, a one-year subscription will be thrown in free. Netflix and Amazon will spend more than $20 billion on programming next year.

Disney has promised Wall Street that Disney Plus will have between 60 million and 90 million subscribers worldwide by 2024. To reach that goal, it needs to hit the ground running.

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.

The marketing onslaught for Disney Plus started in August at D23 Expo, a biennial event for Disney fans in Anaheim, Calif., that attracts more than 100,000 people. Disney showcased the original Disney Plus films and shows by trotting more than 50 participants onto a stage — stars, directors, droids, dogs — and showering the crowd with confetti in the shape of plus signs. As part of the three-day expo, Disney unveiled a special promotion: three years of Disney Plus for $4 a month.

The bargain generated media coverage. Every few weeks since, Disney has offered another subscription deal that has been covered as news. Verizon customers can get a year free, for instance, and holders of Disney-branded Visa cards can buy two- and three-year subscriptions for a discount.

“They have gotten more awareness for Disney Plus from press coverage of these subscription deals than they ever would have been able to get through paid avenues,” Mr. Del Vecchio said.

Another move involved digital media. To emphasize the size of the library offerings on Disney Plus, Mr. Earley and his team strung together 20-second snippets from every old film and series that will be available on the service. The finished video, posted on YouTube on Oct. 14, is more than three hours long. Disney simultaneously published a colossal Twitter thread made up of posters of everything coming to Disney Plus.

Disney has declined to say how many people have signed up so far, but the marketing campaign appears to be working. Analysts at UBS said last week that they polled 1,000 consumers in mid-October and 86 percent had heard of Disney Plus. About 44 percent said they were likely to subscribe.

But the marketing department at Disney Plus is just getting started, Mr. Earley said. Just the other day, for instance, a counterpart at Disney’s theme park division called to say that 20 more billboards could be put up, this time on the sides of semi-trailers that haul supplies to Disney World from vendors across the country.

“We don’t want to overdo it,” Mr. Earley said. “But it’s mind-boggling what this company can do.”

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