Disney+ and Apple TV+: A Pitched Battle Between Entertainment and Tech Launch Strategies

Disney is hedging its bets on tried-and-true industry events, while Apple is taking a more independent "surprise and delight" approach.
Oprah Winfrey speaks at the Steve Jobs Theater during an event to announce new Apple products, in Cupertino, CalifApple Streaming TV, Cupertino, USA - 25 Mar 2019
Oprah Winfrey speaks at the Apple TV Plus announcement.
Tony Avelar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

As you might have heard, Apple TV+ and Disney+ are coming out soon, and hype for their presumed November launches is reaching a fever pitch. The use of “presumed” in the previous sentence is intentional and telling; while Disney has held multiple public events advertising its Nov. 12 launch date, Apple will not confirm what day the service will launch, leaving everyone to rely upon a widely-cited Bloomberg News article from last month.

This is but one example of how Apple and Disney are leaning into the marketing strategies they hold most dear to promote their new streaming services. By being as public and splashy as possible in teasing its latest outlet, Disney is sticking to the traditional entertainment practices it has honed over nearly a century. Apple, by contrast, has long adhered to its “surprise and delight” product rollouts perfected by Steve Jobs, and for its streaming service it is mimicking this tech industry-oriented approach that hinges on star power and the loyalty of its established fanbase.

Should the addition of a streaming service to these empires change these strategies, a hallmark of each company? Industry analysts say no, but that comparing and contrasting the pre-launch marketing for each service suggests how they could market their respective shows for years to come.

For Disney, it’s no coincidence that much of the most attention-grabbing news about Disney+ has come from quarterly earning reports and popular events such as the D23 Expo, Disney’s annual fan event in Anaheim. It’s the tried-and-true way of unveiling new content, and the company’s job is made all the easier thanks to the universal popularity of its Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe brands, which are well-known enough to sell themselves on name alone.

The company’s time-tested advertising strategies already seem to be paying off, according to ComScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

“There’s no better platform than D23 for promoting a new service since both journalists and fans were there,” Dergarabedian told IndieWire in an interview. “They got both kinds of people excited by putting the content and stars front and center to let people see their strategy, while still being kind of mysterious about the ultimate plan. People were lining up to buy a one- or three-year subscription at D23.”

The event strategy is seemingly working: A study by Ampere Analysis earlier this year said that consumer awareness is high, especially among the 18-to-24-year-old demographic and in households with children.

Outside glitzy events like D23, Disney has been steadily drip-feeding interesting information about its upcoming platform for quite some time. Disney+ might not have been present at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, but the service nonetheless made industry headlines during that multi-week event when the company announced on an earnings call that Disney+ could be bundled with ESPN and the ad-supported version of Hulu for $12.99 a month.

The timing was strategic: Disney’s competitors were busy jostling for news headlines and viewer eyeballs, which is becoming harder to do as the huge amount of television on the market threatens to overwhelm potential viewers. While that was going on, Disney announced that bundling option, which reads like a direct response to concerns about having too many SVOD streaming options to choose from. (Disney declined to comment for this article by deadline.)

Beyond hyping up its programming and pricing options, Disney+ marketing is bolstered by Disney’s ability to market the service in a variety of its existing platforms, according to Dave Heger, a senior equity analyst at Edward Jones who expressed confidence in the company.

“Disney has a lot of different channels and means of getting the word out across their existing platforms,” Heger told IndieWire. “They still have a big presence in traditional media via the Disney channel and ABC, and I would expect pretty heavy marketing campaigns across those outlets. More recently with D23, giving the special discount offer to fans who are influencers and will speak highly of Disney, is another good way to seize the market.”

Like Disney, Apple is working on more than a few high-profile projects, but Apple’s are more focused on individual star power as opposed to an established brand such as Star Wars. It’s been months since Apple TV+ projects headed by the likes of Oprah, Prince Harry, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steven Spielberg were announced, but beyond a few trailers we still don’t know much about most of them.

Regardless, the sheer number of well-known celebrities and Hollywood talent working on Apple TV+ projects are its own form of hype, and indeed, even the relative secrecy of these star-studded shows can generate interest. Under this theory, even negative publicity is a form of buzz; Apple declined to comment for this article or a report that a Richard Gere-starring project had been axed, and yet because of the pedigree of the talent, it still receives press.

Apple also has the unique advantage of a fiercely devoted fanbase. Every Apple product, be it a new iPhone, television, or a $1,000 monitor stand, is marketed as a groundbreaking event, and the sales numbers speak for themselves. The company is known for announcing a slate of details about its upcoming products at tightly-controlled events such as their Apple TV+ press event in March and then going relatively silent, letting fan buzz do a fair bit of the heavy lifting. Still, it’s a bit surprising that even some of the most key aspects of the service, such as its alleged $9.99 per month price and presumed November launch, weren’t announced at an official event.

The next Apple event is set for Sept. 10 with, as ever, a secret agenda. Will it be more information about Apple TV+? Or a new iPhone? Or a new Apple Watch? It will remain a mystery until that morning.

Unlike Disney, Apple doesn’t have a huge back catalogue of content to promote, which might explain the somewhat subtler advertising for Apple TV+, according to Dergarabedian. Regardless, he added that Apple’s marketing shouldn’t be underestimated and stressed that the company’s widespread brand awareness is invaluable to the pre-release hype for Apple TV+.

“Apple is like a club we’re all part of,” Dergarabedian said. “For people that have an iPhone or iPad, there is an almost unprecedented amount of emotional attachment to Apple because of their devices. The only analogue to that I’ve seen was in the ‘70s with Sony products such as Walkmans, which also had a unique design and aesthetic.”

Granted, Apple is still releasing information about its upcoming shows, but is content to gradually send out press releases as opposed to blasting out a handful of project news at a large event. “For All Mankind” and “Dickinson” might not have been present at recent TV industry events, but their trailers have generated plenty of interest released as one-offs that adhere to the “surprise and delight” mantra.

Edward Jones equity analyst Logan Purk noted that Apple is notorious for keeping pre-release information about its products under wraps but stressed that it wasn’t cause for concern, given the company’s goodwill with its customers.

“Apple might not announce details about things like the iPhone far in advance but people will still go out and buy it the day after it is announced,” Purk told IndieWire. “They have truly nurtured a strong following and an ecosystem that helps them out quite a bit.”

It may sound preposterous to those used to the red carpet treatment that Disney content is receiving, but don’t count them out. A recent research note by Cowen analyst Krish Sankar, who covers Apple, says that he expects 21 million Apple TV+ subscribers by 2021. (Not bad for a “hobby” for the tech giant, D.A. Davison & Co. analyst Tom Forte told The Street.)

In the end, however, despite all the shiny marketing ploys, it may all come down to numbers and what households are willing to pay. A key factor may be that the two are going to be competitively priced: The Disney service will cost $6.99 per month, while Apple TV+ will reportedly cost the aforementioned $9.99 per month, both of which are cheaper than standard subscription options for most of the major streaming services on the market. The rollout strategies, ultimately, may be moot.

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