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‘We threw out our playbook’: How Disney+ adapted its strategy amid coronavirus

Although popular shows such as “The Mandalorian” helped propel Disney+ to capture an impressive 10 million subscribers within its first day of launch, the company’s momentum hit a bump nearly three months later after the Covid-19 pandemic shut down much of the global economy.

But instead of putting its marketing on hold, Mouse House opted to adapt its strategy and push forward with its plans to expand Disney+ to eight European countries, says Molly Brady, vice president of customer acquisition at Disney streaming services.

“Given the initial success, expectations were extremely high,” Brady says. “But I think there’s a silver lining in that we didn't have time to slow down.”

Brady’s comments were shared at The Trade Desk’s Groundswell Digital Marketing Festival during a panel that discussed success stories in the measurement arena. She was joined by moderator Amber Browne, vice president of client development at The Trade Desk; Brian Pruitt, vice president of media strategy and planning at Inspire Brand; and Jeff Rasp, vice president of digital platforms, channels and capabilities of Bayer North America.

Here, we share three takeaways from the discussion.

1. Disney gets nimble

Making global media buys is challenging in its own right, but those difficulties are amplified when you’re suddenly forced to work from your home office. “For those of you with hands-on keyboard experience, imagine trafficking thousands of campaigns in eight markets, 12 languages all from your laptop,” says Brady.

There were other hurdles. In France, for instance, the company’s Disney+ debut was delayed by two weeks as the country feared its release would overload the country’s internet infrastructure. Live sports, meanwhile, were at the time placed on hold indefinitely, putting the company’s other streaming service, ESPN+, into question.

But the company adapted by bundling its ESPN+ offering with Disney+. Disney also pulled staff who were working on ESPN+ to help support its Disney+ expansion. And while live sports at the time were on hold, Brady says ESPN still had a wealth of content that included “30 for 30,” “Peyton’s Places” and “The Boardroom” — all of which were featured in its marketing.

Other challenges included how the company managed its content. Although Disney held back some of its programming, it also moved up the debut of shows such as the made-for-TV adaption of popular Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”

“From a strategic perspective, we threw out our old playbook,” she says. “We were executing against them as these things changed — and they changed quickly — but we had to be nimble and flexible, which we got done.”

2. Bayer turns to e-commerce

The healthcare category was able to stay somewhat insulated from the pandemic, as consumer demand for medicines increased amid Covid-19. Still, companies such as Bayer had to make changes in their marketing strategy, says Bayer’s Rasp.

“We’ve seen significant shifts in consumer behavior and having to anticipate what that looks like, and how you adapt to it in a completely new world without any guide — that’s a challenge upon itself,” says Rasp.

Consumers were staying in and loading up their pantries, but many weren’t shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. As a result, Bayer adjusted its marketing to drive consumers to its e-commerce channels. “It really helped to sustain the same level of growth that we as a company were experiencing before,” says Rasp.

3. Buffalo Wild Wings

A lack of live sports not only impacted Disney and its ESPN offering, but also Inspire Brands, which among its many restaurants includes Buffalo Wild Wings. The company has historically integrated sports with nearly all aspects of its marketing for its chain.

“We are America’s sport’s bar,” says Inspire Brand’s Brian Pruitt. “So the notion of rallying around the absence of sports was clearly a huge, unforeseen challenge for us.”

In a normal year, for instance, NCAA basketball sets the restaurant’s marketing tone for March, followed by football from August to November. The solution? Make “new occasions” such as “Wing Tuesdays” and “Boneless Thursdays” to replace the loss of tentpole sporting events, says Pruitt.

“The high-impact presence of a game is critical to our marketing stacks, especially for video,” he said. “So in the absence of those things it gave way to this notion of agility planning and converting our messaging to almost utility — focusing on the fact that our drive-thrus are open, for example.”

Watch the full session here.