When A Brand Collaboration Actually Has Synergy: Disney And FIRST Robotics

When Disney and Target announced their collaboration on a shop-in-shop in Target stores, I was one of few naysayers about the deal. To be clear, this is an easy win for Disney, who gets to put their brand in front of Target shoppers without much effort on their part. For Target, it seems more about letting another brand have supremacy in their store – which for Target is coming a long way off of the highs of their own brand value. To me, it is a sign the brand is hopping on the water skis, in preparation for jumping the shark.

Disney definitely understands brand supremacy, and the company has been able to bring that supremacy not just to the flagship brand, but to others: Marvel and Sesame Street come to mind right away. One Disney-owned brand that has struggled, though, is Star Wars.

It’s not necessarily about the movies themselves – according to Rotten Tomatoes, Disney has done far better than Lucasfilms post-1980 when it comes to shepherding the property forward, with 3 Disney-driven films ranking in the top 5 (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at 5, Star Wars: The Last Jedi at 4, and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens at 3). But those wins have come with controversy, including multiple rewrites and even reshoots, and a growing concern among fans and industry watchers alike that the future of the Star Wars brand is in doubt.

Which is why Disney’s Star Wars partnership with FIRST is brilliant. FIRST, for those without nerdy high school students in your lives (and I use “nerdy” that with great affection and resonance), is the parent organization of four different robotics competitions, FIRST LEGO League Jr, FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and the FIRST Robotics Competition. Each one is targeted to a different age group and designed to give kids from grades K-12 the opportunity to tackle real-world derived challenges through LEGO building and the LEGO NXT robotics system, up through 120-lb welded metal robots complete with car batteries and pneumatics and whatever else they can dream up to throw at it.

Every year there is some commonality between the four competitions in terms of the theme and the design challenge. Last year (this video is for the FRC challenge, the one targeting high school), the focus was on building and replenishing habitations on Mars.

This year, though, is a Disney Star Wars takeover. Disney’s participation is driven through Star Wars: Force For Change, a charity initiative designed to “empower the fan community to use their fandom for good” as well as an organization to “embolden and motivate the next generation of heroes and innovators”. That alone could be enough to be an inspiring end to a story.

However, keep in mind that the game reveal – when the students see the actual game field and the challenge they need to complete – is in January of 2020. And Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker releases on December 20, 2019. Philanthropy aside (and as a parent of an FRC student, I’m grateful for any company that supports these kinds of competitions), this is a brilliant marketing move on the part of Disney. Here’s why.

1.    An outlet for pre-game excitement

Any team participating in FIRST Robotics in 2020 now has a very natural team-building activity built in to their kickoff plan: go see the movie! If you’ve been around a competition like this, you’ll know that the run-up to the game reveal is, to some of these kids, pretty much like the run-up to Christmas morning. There is an enormous amount of energy and anticipation while waiting to find out the details of the game challenge. For coaches, it can be difficult to direct that energy, let alone contain it. Having an outlet like a team-building activity that celebrates the brand at the heart of the challenge is the perfect way to keep that excitement high, without it spilling over into actual stress. Plus, these kids will tell their friends, who will tell their friends…

2.    The opportunity to make an introduction and connection to younger students

For students less familiar with the franchise (like those competing in the K-4 grade levels of the game) this is a great way to introduce kids to the Star Wars universe. Some of the movies may not be immediately accessible to younger kids (I’m thinking of you, Rogue One), but I can’t think of a more powerful combination than Star Wars, LEGO, and robots for attracting the interest of the next generation to the franchise.

3.    Exactly the target market they need to reach

Part of what Disney suffers from when it comes to keeping Star Wars relevant is the need to bring new fans into the franchise. Unlike the Marvel Universe, the “cannon” of Star Wars is far less known – yes there are books and even comics, but the movies came first vs. in Marvel where it was the other way around. The next movie in the franchise has to live up to fan expectations that are driven by exposure to the brand (primarily through the movies) – which means that fans have had a lot more freedom to define what the franchise means to them, which in turn means Disney is going to have a lot harder time hitting those expectations.

New fans, however, are not so inhibited. And many of the new movies have actually done very well, even from a critic standpoint. In other words, if you’re not carrying baggage about what you think the franchise ought to be, you might enjoy the latest installment a lot more, which might in turn temper the reaction of older fans (who also happen to be parents of those kids). That’s probably asking a lot, I know, but apparently not as much as asking some fans to like Rose.

The Bottom Line

Is FIRST Robotics enough to “make Star Wars cool again”? No – the movies have to deliver on what may be an unattainable mix of expectations for science fiction, magic, nostalgia, and action. But will it drive exactly the right audience into theater seats for this crucial next release in the franchise? Yes. It will definitely do that.

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I am the vice president of Retail Innovation at Aptos, a retail enterprise solution provider. I am charged with accelerating retailers’ ability to innovate. I have been ...