Ten lessons for marketers from the D23 conference

The new P’s of marketing may just as well be pixels, princesses, pirates, pixie dust and pre-orders. They inspired ten lessons for marketers at the D23 conference.

Thousands of Disney, Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm fans descended upon the Anaheim Convention Center for the ultimate biennial celebration of enchanting animation and swashbuckling storytelling. I attended with great interest as the much-ballyhooed event proved to be a smorgasbord of product rollouts, behind the scenes access and exclusive sneak peeks. As a marketer, I had a chance to embark on a master class in action as The Walt Disney Company (DIS on NYSE) burnished its brand among its most faithful. Here are ten takeaways from the experience for all of us who build memorable experiences for our clients:

1               Choose your hero.

When you have multiple products to unveil at once, you must choose a hero product and make its marketing memorable. In this case, it was the new Disney+ streaming service. The company is banking on its upcoming subscription video on-demand service launching November 12. D23 participants were treated to an ongoing series of celebrities promoting original content for the streaming service, including Anna Kendrick, Jeff Goldblum and Ewan McGregor, the latter reprising an iconic Star Wars role on a TV series. Because Disney perceives its new service as a massive threat to Netflix, the company provided discounts for conference participants who preordered the service and tagged every conceivable marketing property for its connection to the innovation.

2               Pace the pipeline of news.

The D23 three-day conference was brilliantly punctuated with a first day look at Disney+, a second-day glimpse at feature films and a final day about the future of theme parks, the latter needing a shot in the arm after a struggling quarter of sales. The pacing allowed the conference to dominate pop culture news over multiple days, dropping hints and teases, intriguing pundits and podcasters to make predictions and then paying off with bundles of news.

3               Leverage star power in an interesting way.

D23 trotted out a variety of stars including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt promoting their new Jungle Cruise movie by entering the presentation hall in a vintage Disneyland ride attraction boat. Both used hilarious speeches, a clear chemistry and a dedication to their craft to introduce “he said, she said” movie trailers for an adoring audience. By the time Frozen 2 cast members crooned the audience with a new song from their animated movie as glittery autumn leaves fell from the rafters, it was clear why Disney excels at storytelling.

4               Celebrate icons of your brand identity.

One of the signatures of D23 is a presentation of awards to “Disney Legends” who have made a tremendous contribution to the entertainment juggernaut’s hallowed pantheon. This ceremony is so important that CEO Bob Iger hosted it. Awards were bestowed to the likes of Bette Midler, James Earl Jones and Robin Roberts plus some unsung heroes such as Wing T. Chao, who pioneered storytelling and architecture techniques as they extend from parks to hotels to cruise ships on the company’s resorts.

5               Honor corporate history.

D23 marked milestone anniversaries for several of its animated properties including Aladdin, Tarzan and The Little Mermaid with star-studded extravaganzas. For each, music writers, voice talent, choreographers from film and Broadway and more assembled with fun homages, lost scenes, sing-alongs and re-creations. Joy Benson, who voiced the original Ariel, held court for the proceedings of a look at Mermaid’s history and even got a smooch from the winner of a “Prince Eric Pageant.” He finally “kissed the girl!”

6               Every attendee is a testimonial.

D23 organizers were wise to film “man on the street” interviews throughout the conference and post that every inch of the show floor was fair game to be filmed and used in merchandising. Many cosplayers were more than happy to show off their homemade attire paying tribute to favorite Disney universe characters. Corporate synergy with ABC enabled network presence at the event including “Live from Good Morning America” opportunities. I got to be a part of introducing the animal co-stars of live-action Lady and the Tramp, a Disney+ original filmed in Savannah, alongside ABC’s Ginger Zee.

7               Surprise and delight when it’s least expected.

The queue lines were long for fans camping out to get in the marquee sessions. Cast members played vintage films for those in line. And because the event was promoting so many shows and offerings, there were abundant giveaways ranging from comic books to figurines. Many of the marquee sessions came with major swag – such as an exclusive Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker poster.

8               Do justice to future offerings.

In the trade show area, D23 did an especially good job showcasing the future of its theme parks. A future Epcot in Florida showcased miniature models and colorful posters of its new five themed neighborhoods. The “Avengers Campus” coming to a variety of parks included life-sized props and interactive screens. A new Tron themed attraction and Mickey Mouse railroad ride exhibited full-size ride vehicles.

9               Share a signature shot.

Although most D23 guests ended up in front of the Disneyland castle or Millennium Falcon for a selfie, the expo organizers were wise to have a giant-size event logo outside the front gates, where everyone posed. They also built an entire labyrinth of step and repeat stations with emojis so everyone could pose with their favorite part of the fandom kingdom.

10         Focus on the big picture.

Sure there were guest complaints about some of the lines and crowds, but for the most part, those publicizing the event knew it would be a success if everyone came out of the expo more excited than they came in and more informed about new offerings such as Disney+. Given the scores of positive coverage and the interest generated in the streaming service, films and new park attractions, the event will create happily ever after returns.

About the Author

As president of Cookerly Public Relations, Stephen Brown helps ideate consumer and corporate campaigns, develop social media programs and strategize all facets of integrated marketing for his clients. The firm specializes in corporate communications and consumer marketing.