EDITOR’S NOTE: There are no plot lines given away in this article, because we didn’t want to spoil the excitement for the rabid fans who have been waiting more than 15 years for the release of Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
Editor’s Note II: There are no pithy comments from marketing executives, either, because details about the massive promotional campaigns accompanying the film’s May 19 release are being guarded more tightly than the Vader-is-Luke’s-father plot twist from The Empire Strikes Back. One agency executive told PROMO that he wouldn’t even talk off the record “for fear of my life.”
While the exec may have been exaggerating, few of the other statements made about the fourth installment in George Lucas’ hugely successful Star Wars series should be classified as hyperbole. It’s the most anticipated movie release in history, and has inspired what many are saying will be the largest-ever promotional push as well.
Ever seen kids pushing whole cartloads of Pepsi away from the supermarket, or well-dressed men climbing into Pizza Hut dumpsters? Ever seen snack bags hanging on bedroom walls, or Mountain Dew cans lining mantels? You might before the summer of ’99 is out.
There has never been this much certainty surrounding a movie’s potential box office take. If you’re still at all skeptical, stop fooling yourself and consider the following:
* Lucasfilm Ltd. offered the movie’s second theatrical trailer on the official Star Wars Web site in March, and got 3.5 million downloads in less than one week. Pirated VHS versions sold for $300 bucks a pop on Internet auctioneer ebay.com faster than Lucasfilm’s legal department could block them.
* European travel agents began offering U.S. vacation packages for opening weekend last year.
* Star Wars fanatics planned to start lining up outside theaters as early as one month before the premiere. (And they’ll wait until the bitter end, since Lucasfilm banned advance ticket sales, justifiably fearing widespread scalping.)
It is taken almost for granted that Episode I will surpass $1 billion at the box office and end Titanic’s short reign as the biggest-grossing movie of all time. So it’s no wonder marketing and licensing rights were so highly coveted – and so expensive. Pawtucket, RI-based Hasbro, Inc., which forked over more than $500 million for master toy rights, told analysts that it expects to take in more than $700 million in 1999 from the 200-odd tie-in products it rolls out beginning this month.
“It’s the largest coordinated rollout we’ve ever done” in terms of both product count and support from retailers, says Hasbro spokesperson Holly Ingram.
Hasbro’s product line includes miniatures made by San Francisco-based Galoob Toys, which became a Hasbro subsidiary last year after its $180 million licensing obligation to Lucasfilm nearly sent the company into the poorhouse.
Lucasfilm has kept tight control over the film’s numerous marketing partners, dictating what information can be released and when. Products from Hasbro and such other licensees as Scholastic (children’s books), Lego (building toys), Favorite Brands (fruit snacks), Nintendo (entertainment software), and Ruby’s Costume Co. (wigs, weapons, accessories) hit shelves May 3.
But advertising and marketing efforts – including much of the planned P-O-P displays – were prohibited until the film’s release. (Promotional partners get to kick things off mid-May.) Sell sheets and other trade materials in many cases had to be issued with dummy graphics. Hasbro’s Ingram is on board with the strategy. “Right now, we’re all concentrating on the film, which is the way it should be,” she says.
The official line from Lucasfilm is that it did not want the viewing experience spoiled for fans who might be inundated with images before they got to the theater. Industry wags have also suggested that the company is wary of a Godzilla-esque scenario in which the box office ultimately pales in comparison with the pre-release hype.
It will be nearly impossible for shoppers to enter any store this summer without being hit full-Force with Episode I merchandising. For the five titles it releases this month (which have an initial print run of three million), New York City-based Scholastic is giving bookstores a motorized display with rotating images, counterstands, hanging signs, and window screens. Borders Books & Music of Ann Arbor, MI, reportedly will have 750 Star Wars SKUs by the end of the month, and will offer tie-in gift cards. Paramus, NJ-based Toys R Us is devoting an entire aisle to The Phantom Menace toys.
With that kind of onslaught expected, it’s no wonder Lucasfilm wants to guard the floodgates. And the filmmaker’s wall of secrecy has held up to a large extent. Asked about its program, a spokesperson for Purchase, NY-based Pepsico would only confirm that “we’re doing some collectible cans.”
But Star Wars fanaticism won out over corporate loyalty in some cases, and employees at various brands and other sources (printers seemed to be especially loose-lipped) were more than willing to leak information to either the media or underground fan Web sites.
It’s Yoda season Pepsico reportedly committed $2 billion to secure tie-in rights for the next three films from the Star Wars franchise. So the company and its affiliates – subsidiary Frito-Lay and now-independent but still familial Tricon Global Restaurants – are making the most of the investment, and will be using every promo trick in the book. The defining characteristic is BIG.
What’s Pepsi’s definition of some? Try eight billion collectible cans of Pepsi, Pepsi One, Diet Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and even Storm featuring 24 different character designs. New cans will be released every two to three weeks, heralded by radio ads. Packing on 12- and 24-packs will provide imagery that will make the boxes collectibles as well. Each Pepsi brand will feature different designs, so if consumers want all the cans, they’ll have to buy all the brands.
A Find Yoda and Win sweepstakes will offer more than 250,000 instant-win prizes of $20 via limited edition “Gold Yoda” cans and under-the-cap on 1- and 2-liter bottles. Consumers call a toll-free number to claim their prize. Other news that came in over the transom – or more accurately, through the modem – has Pepsi issuing 25 million character cups for fountain services. The company was also considering the launch of a loyalty program a la the Coke Card and other strategies, according to sources. Dallas-based TLP, Inc. is lead promo agency; Tic Toc, also of Dallas, is handling in-store work.
To support, Pepsi reportedly has three TV spots from New York City-based BBDO that will have heavy prime-time rotations, FSIs, and P-O-P made available to 38,000 mass merchant & grocery stores. Participating store managers were required to sign contracts promising to return the displays – which might minimize the number of standees that turn up on ebay.
Plano, TX-based snack maker Frito-Lay will tie in all of its products via character-enhanced packaging and 100 million instant-win game cards in what is being called the largest in-pack promotion ever. The company will dangle $1 million worth of products and a grand prize of $1 million in a game that incorporates one of the central themes of the Star Wars movies: game cards will allow consumers to choose a safe route to win secondary prizes, or go over to “the Dark Side” for a shot at the big payoff.
The company is offering “destination centers” featuring standees and signage to house its products, and will work with sister Pepsi on cross-purchase discounts. A tie-in Web site is also in the works. Chicago-based Frankel & Co. handles.
Although declining to answer strategic questions, Frito-Lay spokesperson Lynn Markley told PROMO that “we believe the partnership is going to be a strong one. We’re hoping to leverage excitement in-store.”
The restaurant trilogy Tricon officials would likewise not discuss details. But word is the Louisville, KY-based company will turn Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC restaurants into veritable Phantom Menace theme parks. The effort will be the first time Tricon has unified marketing for its three chains, and the company is spending an estimated $50 million to do it. “The tie-in will provide us with a unique opportunity to encourage customers worldwide to try all three of our brands,” says Tricon spokesperson Amy Sherwood.
The focal point of the campaign will be a Defeat the Dark Side instant-win/collect-and-win game breaking May 12 that will require consumers to visit all three restaurants to win certain prizes. Each chain portrays a different planet featured in the movie’s story line. Game cards will provide free food and offer a shot at $1 million and a host of other prizes. The cards will be distributed via peel-off stickers on a few hundred million food and beverage containers.
The three chains separately will offer premiums, character-based cup toppers, and special food promotions. Like Pepsi, the chains will take an “everything is collectible” approach by packaging the premiums in boxes that interlock to form a mural; each chain’s toy boxes will provide a full picture that can then be connected with boxes from the other two restaurants to create a larger picture. The boxes contain detachable trading cards to boot.
According to sources, the collect-and-win game will last about six weeks, then give way to less manic premium offers that will run through summer. TBWA/Chiat/Day of Playa del Rey, CA, handles.
It’s obviously no surprise that the ongoing Star Wars saga, which has amassed legions of loyal fans, would inspire marketers to develop continuity and loyalty programs. Hasbro’s Jedi Points, for instance, will let consumers earn prizes as they amass their toy collection. In the fall, New York City-based Scholastic will launch two monthly reading programs, one for 5- to 7-year-olds and one for tweens.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need a deal with Lucasfilm to leverage this buzz. In a TV spot this winter, New Line Cinema told moviegoers to see The Phantom Menace first, then go to its own Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery second. A trailer for Sony Pictures Entertainment’s upcoming Stuart Little boasted that the film came “from the special effects supervisor of Star Wars.”
Leading Web sites stepped all over each other announcing special Star Wars news or sales sites, some complete with countdown clocks. (The real insider stuff, however, could be found on more underground sites like countingdown.com and theforce.net.) Media outlets parasitically (wink, wink) clamored for a piece of coverage.
But marketers should check with the folks in legal before jumping on the bandwagon: Lucasfilm initiated a “major anti-piracy program” in March by suing Time Warner book division Little, Brown & Co. for publishing The Unauthorized Star Wars Compendium. “We will spend whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to protect the integrity and authenticity of Star Wars,” Lucas Licensing vp Howard Roffman vowed in a statement about the suit.
Licensees should have no fear. The first three Star Wars films sparked $4.5 billion in merchandise sales, which has analysts conservatively predicting more than $5 billion from the next three episodes – including more than $1 billion in ’99. Rabid fans have been scouring the Internet for anything connected to Episode I. (Bids poured into ebay in February for a broken Darth Maul Double Lightsaber used by Hasbro as a prop at Toy Fair.)
Promotional partners are almost assured of sales spikes. But the real question is whether any of the giveaways will convert the Star Wars faithful into brand-loving customers. It seems guaranteed that at least a few loyal Coke drinkers will snatch up Pepsi cans by the dozens to bequeath to their grandchildren. (Pepsico’s stock price jumped $1.50 per share earlier this year right after Wall Street analysts were shown the cans.) But they might go right on buying The Real Thing to quench their thirst. (Pepsi’s own packaging will imply this by advising fans to “please empty collector cans before saving.”)
Likewise, Tricon’s strategy should get Taco Bell fans to give Pizza Hut and KFC a try, and drive burger buffs into all three chains – at least this summer.
May The Force be Extra Crispy.