"How they launched it" is a recurring series of deep dives exploring how the world’s best teams launch new products and features.
Launch date: Tuesday, November 12, 2019
A world driven by customer data, and yet the world's biggest media company had almost none.
“We've got this unbelievably passionate base of Disney consumers worldwide,” Bob Iger, then-CEO of The Walt Disney Company, told investors a few years ago. “And virtually all of our businesses, except theme parks, we've never had the opportunity to connect with them directly or even know who they are.”
By 2015, Iger was a decade into his tenure leading Disney and had staked his reputation on intellectual property. Specifically, his strategy focused on arming the company with as much quality content as possible through a run of mammoth acquisitions that brought iconic brands like Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar into the Disney kingdom. Add that to existing assets like ESPN, ABC, and nearly a century of original Disney content, and it’s hard to imagine any company with a stronger IP vault.
But the winds were changing. Subscription revenue from ESPN cable packages—a long-reliable cash cow for Disney—was pointing the wrong direction. Pressure from younger, faster technology companies was creating an existential threat to much of the media industry. Tech giants like Netflix and Amazon were moving onto Hollywood’s turf. No company, no matter how iconic or well-positioned, was safe from the threat of disruption. In an August 2015 earnings call, Iger was open about the fact that ESPN was quickly losing subscribers. The reason? The same one that had been plaguing the media industry as a whole: fewer people were paying for cable television. That news served as a wake up call to Disney shareholders, and Disney stock fell 9% the next day.
Iger knew something bold had to happen if he wanted to turn things around. Disney needed a modern distribution platform to take full advantage of its content war chest. It needed an owned channel where it could test, iterate, and cross-promote. And it needed a way to connect directly with that passionate base of fans all around the world.
Four years after that press conference, one of the most recognizable companies on earth hit the launch button on one of the largest product releases of the year, and Disney+ went live.
Here’s how they launched it.
Dive deeper into a specific area of the Disney+ launch:
You know who can’t move fast and break things? A company with a quarter of a million employees and thousands of public shareholders. Pointing the Disney compass to streaming was going to be like turning the world's largest cruise ship.
There was a ton of ground work that needed to be done, and years of building ahead of them.
The first, and arguably most important, piece of the puzzle was the technology. Delivering an always-on software service to devices around the world would be an entirely new operating discipline for Disney. This kind of technology isn’t something that could be bought off the shelf or built by contractors. To do it right, Disney knew they needed a specialized, in-house technology team. Thankfully, Iger knew just the team.
In 2016 Disney had acquired a $1B minority stake in a company called BAMTech Media. A spin-off from Major League Baseball, BAMTech was quietly making a name for itself as the leader in building digital streaming services. From a foundation of packaging and delivering petabytes of high-definition baseball footage, BAMTech went on to build early streaming products for ESPN, HBO, and WWE.
But Iger had bigger plans. He didn’t want Disney to simply be a BamTech customer, he wanted Disney to spend another $1.58B and acquire a controlling interest in the company. So in 2017, he took his pitch to Disney's Board of Directors:
“I went to the board... and not only presented that acquisition, but presented it in the context of what ultimately would be a complete pivot strategically. And that was launching a direct-to-consumer ESPN and Disney branded service,” Iger said in an interview on the Bill Simmons Podcast.
The board’s reaction, according to Iger: “Speed is of the essence. Get it done.”
Here’s another hard thing for big, public companies to do: keep secrets.
With a product like Disney+, a lot of strategic chess pieces had to be moved around in very public ways. Teams and titles had to reorganize. High-profile leaders had to be hired. Licensing deals with other entities had to change. Factor in the massive amount of people involved and the long timeline it takes to build a new streaming service from the ground up, and the probability of a leak is extremely high. If this happens, your offensive strategy turns into a defensive one as resources are reallocated to fight the leak.
So rather than hide and hope, Disney broke the news about its new streaming service more than two full years before it would launch. Iger announced Disney+ to the world in an August 2017 earnings call:
“Of course, one of the most compelling brands for a direct-to-consumer product is Disney. And to that end, we will launch a Disney-branded streaming service in 2019 – which will be unlike anything else in the market.”
Disney's decision to preannounce Disney+ was not only practical, but also highly strategic. The company then used this time they'd bought themselves as the perfect opportunity to steadily release news, announcements, and updates about their new streaming service. And knowing there was a lot of excitement for and curiosity around Disney+, the press eagerly covered every angle of each story.
For example, here’s just a small sample of some of the Disney+ news that broke between the initial announcement and the official launch:
You could spend the rest of your day reading news articles about Disney+ that were published between August of 2017 and November of 2019. But the important takeaway is that the press and public both wanted updates, and Disney strategically delivered a steady stream of them for 2+ years. And as added benefit, all of this news and buzz only had a compounding effect over time. The more articles that landed, the more the product was brought into the public conversation over and over again, and the more eyes and ears Disney was able to reach. In turn, this continued to drive increased curiosity and interest in the service, and greater demand for more news about its release.
No matter where you looked, Disney and its upcoming streaming product was in the news. Business press dined on senior leadership shakeups and the Fox acquisition. The Twitterverse had a field day with Star Wars, Marvel, and Simpsons rumors. Mommy Facebook groups gossiped out about Frozen II. Sports pundits dissected the ESPN implications.
For a company that needed no introduction, this one got a free, two-year preamble from the press.
All this buzz obviously led to a lot of people thinking about and searching the web for Disney+ long before the product was live. And while much of this demand occurred around the launch, there were multiple spikes of interest in the 2+ year lead-up as well. Especially when big updates about the service landed in the news.
When this awareness turned into interest, Disney was prepared. Even if the product was a long way off, they knew how to capture and capitalize on the interest when it was high.
Right after the November 2018 announcement of the Disney+ name, the first version of this landing page went live at disneyplus.com. It was a simple landing page that delivered a very powerful message. Underneath a brand new logo were five iconic entertainment brands. And to top it off, an email signup CTA gave Disney a chance to start collecting email addresses and building a database they could leverage as the launch drew closer.
In April 2019, they spiced up the landing page by adding a countdown clock.
Then in July, the original teaser page was expanded into a full-blown landing page when Disney added several sections of below-the-fold content.
Two months before the big launch, Disney rolled out its first signup CTAs for Disney+. Visitors could learn more about the new streaming service, as well as sign up and personalize their account.
How many companies can say they were able to begin tallying new users and measuring conversion rates before their product was even live?
Finally, on launch week, the site got its last big pre-launch update — swapping the plain background for big, bright images of characters that would be available to stream on Disney+.
We love the way this long lead-up bucks most conventional product launch wisdom. There’s a great lesson for companies of all sizes here. Too often—especially at startups—marketers treat product launches like they’re a surprise party that will be spoiled if someone spills the beans before launch day. In reality, in this scenario something like this usually occurs:
The fact is, most people require time to consider a new purchase before they go all in. They need to mull over the pros and cons, read through some of the fine print, talk about it with their peers, and consider the alternatives. Perhaps most importantly: they need time to get excited about what they’re purchasing. Disney’s approach to launching Disney+ was fantastic because it gave people a lot of time to do all of these things before the product even landed. By the time Disney+ launched, not only did most people already know everything they needed to about the new service, they also knew if they were going to buy it.
Anticipation is a powerful thing. The entertainment industry is great at it. Think about the way big movie releases are announced years ahead of time so studios can build anticipation with promos, trailers, press tours, and marketing campaigns.
Now, there’s no doubt that a long lead time can also carry additional risk. Once you announce, you and your whole company are committed, and everyone is on the hook to deliver. Marketing, engineering, finance — it’s all for one and one for all. And it’s only natural for people to worry about potentially missing their launch date and disappointing their customers. Moreover, what if the product doesn’t deliver on all the hype you’ve built? These are all questions that you and your team should discuss together and align on.
However, as Disney proved with this launch, if you’re willing to give yourself some lead time, and then use this time as an opportunity to create and build anticipation over the long term, it can be an enormous strategic business advantage and an unparalleled marketing opportunity.
You might expect one of the world’s largest companies to amplify the launch of a big new product with a cash-heavy social media strategy. But Disney actually did the exact opposite. When launching Disney+, the company spent a minuscule amount (less than $5K) on Facebook’s ads platform, according to Facebook’s Ad Library. In fact, it would be almost an entire year after Disney+ launched that Disney decided to run a robust paid social campaign.
Instead, to launch Disney+ the company leveraged its incredible social reach to go all in on an epic organic social campaign — a campaign that leveraged dozens of Disney characters to get the Disney+ brand in front of millions of people.
There may be no company that embodies the “brand of brands” ethos more than Disney. There’s the obvious, parent brand (Disney), company brands (ABC, ESPN, Lucasfilm, Pixar), product brands (ESPN+, Disney+), entertainment property brands (Star Wars, Toy Story), and finally (perhaps most importantly) character brands (Mickey, Minnie, Yoda). Disney cross-promotes, monetizes, and amplifies these brands from every direction. And when it comes to social, you better believe that each of these brands (and characters) has its own account and a long list of followers (typically across multiple social platforms, as well). For example, Buzz Lightyear alone has 4 million Facebook fans, and the Disney Channel Twitter handle tweets to more than 800K followers three times a day.
That’s why we were so impressed by the way Disney elegantly wove all these assets together for the Disney+ launch. It’s another example of an opportunity afforded to them by pre-announcing the service and marketing well ahead of launch. On August 19, 2019—with just shy of three months left on the launch countdown—the main Disney account kicked off this epic slice of Twitter synergy:
Then, after creating an enormous amount of social buzz, and with the maximum amount of eyeballs on their various social properties, Disney did the only thing left to do: unleash a massive Twitter thread from the Disney+ handle (300+ Tweets in total), showcasing everything coming to the platform.
And Disney’s organic social campaign wasn’t limited to Twitter. Over on YouTube, Disney published this epic 3-hour video that spliced together 20-second snippets of the hundreds of shows and characters coming to the service.
If Disney was going to ride the wave of cord cutters, there was one, big open question that couldn’t be ignored: price.
High prices and antiquated contracts continued to drive millennials and young families away from cable to more convenient and affordable services like Netflix, Hulu, and others. As soon as there was a whisper of Disney’s streaming ambitions, people began wondering what it would cost. Could they compete? Would they come in below Netflix and YouTube TV? How would they manage the relationship and pricing with Hulu (which by 2017 Disney owned a 60% stake in)? Would pricing too low undercut Disney’s premium brand status? Could consumers stomach yet another streaming service, or was “subscription fatigue” setting in?
Disney went into this launch with a firm understanding of the market, how entrenched other players were, and what they were up against as a late arrival. As such, they pre-emptively addressed these concerns early and often. In fact, when it came to pricing and packaging, they didn’t just address this concern head on, they leveraged it as a strategic marketing opportunity.
In August 2019, four months prior to the launch, Disney offered attendees of its D23 Expo in Anaheim, California a special price: $4 per month for three years. Later that month, they announced a Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ bundle for $12.99. Two months after that, word came that Verizon customers would get a year of Disney+ for free.
As Gene Del Vecchio, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, told the New York Times:
“[Disney has] 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.”
When the launch finally came, the pricing and value became its own story and further drove adoption. And by pouring resources into the product — investments in new quality content like “The Mandalorian” — nobody mistook the low price for a “cheap” product.
You could teach a business school course about this launch, as it bucks some of the most common and traditional launch best practices. Honestly, the hardest part of writing this edition of 'How They Launched It' was deciding what to exclude from it.
But here are three takeaways we'll leave you with:
You might expect a great big launch from a great big company like this would come with a lot of grandstanding and hand-waving. Big proclamations and chest-thumping about entering a new era and revolutionizing streaming services. But this wasn’t the case for Disney+. Bob Iger never got on stage to deliver soaring remarks about a groundbreaking new service that was going to change the world. In fact, most of what he did say was through relatively stiff investor earnings calls and CNBC interviews. Instead, Disney let the product, and their amazing library of brands, do the talking. Specifically, they focused on the amazing content they were delivering, the great bundling options to take advantage of, and the super competitive price point. These components were the stars of the Disney+ marketing efforts.
For all the fireworks and action that surrounded this launch, it’s easy to overlook how simple and consistent their story was: great entertainment at a great price.
Great pricing and bundling can be a marketable moment. Your company might not have collaborations with Fortune 500 companies to shout about. But too often it feels like founders and marketers think they can only talk about pricing on their pricing page. If you’ve approached pricing strategically, it can be central to your product’s story.
There's a saying in marketing and sales: you should never lead with price, always with value. Disney’s approach here kind of blows that idea to smithereens. If you're coming into an entrenched space and you know price is going to be on everyone’s mind, lean into it. Play offense on your pricing message and put it out there, embrace it, use it as a weapon. This can be a one-two punch, the product brings the value, the killer price amplifies your story and puts a nail in the coffin.
Of all the lessons you can glean from this launch — synergy, branding, pricing, strategic PR — one sticks out more than the rest: embrace the strengths of your particular business and play the game you know you can win.
This was a launch powered by one of the world’s largest and most iconic companies. A marketing and branding superpower that's been successful across a multitude of different business lines. Even so, building a new subscription-driven streaming platform was far from a guaranteed success. In fact, to take our game analogy one step further, it was the equivalent of Disney playing an away game. It was Hollywood lacing up on Silicon Valley’s turf. And honestly, when we’ve seen this matchup before, for legacy incumbents it’s usually a bloodbath.
Disney was (and has been) successful with Disney+ not because they built better tech than companies in the Valley. In fact, day one of the service was plagued by technical difficulties (although to be fair, they did build some exceptional tech, thanks especially to the strategic acquisition of BAMTech... or as it’s now known, Disney Streaming Services). Instead, Disney+ has prospered because, from the moment Iger decided to go all in on streaming, the business chose to play the game they knew they could win. And how does Disney continue to win? By leveraging an iconic content library that no one else can even remotely touch, and by putting the stories of the characters from this library front and center. When playing this game, no one else can win.
And what was the final score of this win? Before Disney+ launched, Iger set expectations with Wall Street that they would aim to his 60 million to 90 million subscribers within five years. Disney+ hit that goal in their first 11 months, reporting 60 million subscribers in October 2020.
It’s the same kind of strategic marketing that put Mickey on lunch boxes in the 1930s, and Disney continues to prove it's working just as well as it did back then.
Have a product or feature launch that you’d like us to do a deep dive on? Drop us a line at hey [at] launchnotes.io and let us know!