Behind Disney's Massive 'Lion King' Marketing Effort

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney
Disney's 'Lion King' cast and crew at the world premiere at the Dolby Theatre on July 09 in Hollywood.

A strategically timed "pulsed" campaign by the studio aligned its promotional beats with big cross-demographic cultural moments.

For the third time in six months, Disney is releasing a remake of an animated classic to theaters, this time a new version of 1994’s beloved The Lion King. With Jon Favreau directing and an all-star cast including Donald Glover, Beyonce, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and, returning from the original, James Earl Jones.

How to refer to this movie has become a conversation in and of itself. It’s not live-action since it features no on-screen performances, but “animated” doesn’t quite do it justice given the photorealistic nature of the production. To sell the movie Disney has taken full advantage of both the audience’s love of the original and the massive corporate synergies at its disposal.

"We had a very carefully planned out ‘pulsed’ campaign," Disney president of marketing Asad Ayaz tells The Hollywood Reporter about a promotional push that began in earnest in November of last year. "The Lion King is a beloved property. At the same time you’re bringing in new audiences around the world who may not have seen the original."

That campaign has included not only the usual mix of trailers, posters and advertising (billboards and social media) but an extensive collection of promotional partnerships and event appearances that sometimes break out of what’s usually found in movie marketing efforts. Below is a close look at the campaign:

The Posters

Simba steps out of a cave and tentatively sets his foot into the pawprint of his father on the first poster (from marketing agency BOND), released in December of last year. The imagery is so unmistakable the movie’s title isn’t even used anywhere here. The second poster (from agency LA Associates) from February has Musafa and Simba sitting on a cliff ledge and looking out over the vast plains at dusk with clouds swirling through the distance.

A series of character posters (from BOND) came out at the end of May featuring close ups of all the main characters along with the names of the actors providing the voices.

The IMAX poster presented the epic scale of the movie, showing the citizens of the kingdom as they assembled on the planes around the cliff where Simba is being presented as the future king. Dolby Cinemas’ poster shows a painting of a single lion’s eye looking out from a white background, a young cub reflected in that eye. Timon and Pumba are included on the RealD3D poster along with Simba. 

The Trailers

There’s not much plot in the first teaser trailer (66 million views on YouTube), released Thanksgiving weekend of last year during the broadcast of the Cowboys/Redskins NFL game. It’s a remake of the scene where Simba is introduced to the rest of the kingdom, with Jones’ dulcet tones reading his lines about what awaits the young king. 

Disney was quick to tout the success of the trailer, noting it had racked up 224 million views across platforms within 24 hours of its release. Also resulting from that trailer was a decent discussion online of what exactly constitutes a “live action” movie, since this is clearly animated but featured photo-realistic characters.

The second trailer (40 million views on YouTube), released in April, shows off more of the story, from Simba receiving words of wisdom from his father to the young prince needing to run and hide when his father is killed. We’re shown more of the characters in the kingdom they inhabit and get a brief look at the friends Simba makes while in exile, including Timon and Pumba.

Those trailers have also benefited from being attached in theaters to movies like Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home and other hits. They’ve also been shown before a few titles including Dark Phoenix, Men in Black: International and more that have become part of the “underperforming” narrative that’s emerged at this year's summer box office.

Advertising and Publicity

Most of the first news about the movie came via casting announcements supplemented by various comments from Favreau about what drew him to the movie. The first big publicity moment came when Disney brought footage of the “Circle of Life” sequence to D23 in 2017, a full two years before the scheduled release date. That footage was chosen in collaboration with Favreau because everyone wanted the first public look at the movie to show the epic scale and spectacle of the movie.

“Anyone who saw ‘Circle of Life’ had a very strong reaction to it,” Ayaz says. The same clip, in slightly different form as it moved through production, would later be shown at both CinemaCon and CineEurope in 2018 to entice exhibitors and show them what was in store.

The timing of the TV campaign has shown just how closely Disney has aligned its marketing beats with big cross-demographic cultural moments. For example, the first extended commercial, an edited version of the teaser trailer, debuted in February and aired during the Oscars broadcast on corporate sibling ABC. Further TV spots, including those that have debuted Beyonce’s performance as Nala and the first listen at the new version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” have been run during key episodes of popular shows, high-profile sports broadcasts and elsewhere.

More clips were offered at CinemaCon 2019, drawing very positive reactions from industry and press attendees.

In June Disney sponsored the Wearable Art Gala hosted by the WACO Theater in North Hollywood, creating the “Journey to the Pridelands” theme for attendees, a partnership that worked in part because Beyonce is the organization’s chair. The event even opened with a performance by the cast of The Lion King on Broadway.

First day ticket sales on Fandango were reported to be the second-highest of the year, behind only Avengers: Endgame immediately after they went on sale in late June.

Earlier in July the studio brought a number of promotions for the movie to Essence Fest in New Orleans. Those included a chat with and performance by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, who voice the young versions of Simba and Nala respectively, as well as a special brunch for current and aspiring social media influencers. There was also a photo booth where people could have their picture taken against a movie-themed background.

Promotional Partners:

LinkedIn, which ran the “#JustCantWaitToBe” contest, awarding one member of the professional social network a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film as well as the role of reporter for the site at the movie’s red carpet premiere in Los Angeles. 

Dole, which put sticker promotions for the movie on its fruit and made a series of themed recipes available coupled with tips on healthy eating. The partnership was supported in part by an influencer marketing campaign, with those personalities offering more recipes and health/fitness advice.

McDonald’s, which offered customers buying Happy Meals exclusive movie toys and packaging. Those toys connect with each other so people can recreate three scenes from the movie. The fast food chain ran TV spots to promote those Happy Meals.

Jeep, which ran a co-branded advertising campaign including a TV spot that put the vehicles on the savannah.

Google, which ran a sizable media campaign including custom promo videos touting how search allows you to find out more about the movie. It also included The Lion King as one of the three audiobooks read by Kristen Bell accessible exclusively through Google Home Mini.

General Mills, which put movie imagery and branding on select cereal boxes as well as stick-on patches inside those boxes. The promotion included online and TV advertising.

Luminess, which offered a line of collection of movie-inspired makeup created in collaboration with Sir John. That collection was the subject of a major media push that included a number of beauty and lifestyle influencers on YouTube.

Pandora, which offered a line of jewelry inspired by the movie that was supported by in-store promotions, TV spots and more.

► Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, which encouraged fans at games to lift their little ones in the air like Rafiki does to Simba in the hopes of appearing on “Simba Cam” on the big screens at stadiums.

Verizon, which sponsored the livestream of the movie’s premiere in Los Angeles on July 9.

Ahead of the Release

Los Angeles was one of several premieres the movie had, with a rare “Royal Premiere” happening on July 14 in London at the Odeon Leicester Square. Both had many of the movie’s stars along with Favreau in attendance. Also in the weeks leading up to release the cast and crew were sent around the country as well as overseas to Canada, Japan, Mexico and elsewhere to attend press events and answer questions.

Disney has, of course, utilized its vast media holdings to help promote the film. Multiple “first looks” and TV spots have aired during broadcasts of ABC's The Bachelorette and other popular shows. Custom promotions featuring both big sports stars and some of the film’s voice talent have aired during ESPN programming, including its broadcast of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

The Disney Channel, Radio Disney and Disney XD have had spots featuring talent from the film in heavy rotation, in some cases since as far back as April. On Nat Geo and Nat Geo Wild, the movie sponsored a “Born to Rule” marathon earlier this month as well as other content online and the primetime premier of Yellowstone Live. Robin Roberts hosted a primetime special on ABC devoted solely to the movie.

On opening day the entire roster of TV channels were activated with day-long co-branded logos and other promotions that included exclusive segments opening both Good Morning America and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Also fully activated were Disney’s resorts and theme parks. Talent from the movie appeared at Animal Kingdom before guests were treated to a musical performance. That park also featured exclusive merchandise and a special movie-themed scavenger hunt visitors could take part in. Those staying in resorts found signage, movie-branded food and drink options and more that all promoted the film. Other parks featured other marketing materials and events.

On the social media front, the cast along with Favreau and the composers participated in a conversation hosted by Twitter in a custom-designed space featuring movie branding. That event was attended by select “influencers” and ended with a live performance of music from the movie. There was also a location-based AR filter featuring Rafiki’s drawing of Simba released on Snapchat.

4th of July fireworks displays in Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix and elsewhere were sponsored by the movie and featured performances by local groups of music from the film.

In addition to the exclusive posters mentioned above, theatrical format companies like RealD3D, IMAX and Dolby have promoted the movie via social and elsewhere. Favreau recorded a special introduction to the movie for IMAX, RealD3D while Glover and McCrary did so for Dolby.

Niche exhibitors including Arclight Cinemas and Alamo Drafthouse have also run special promotions, including the latter offering a collectible glass featuring artwork by Mondo. They, along with AMC Theaters, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark and other exhibitors took part in a special “Opening Night Fan Event” the night of July 18 at 300 locations around the country. Those lucky enough to attend received exclusive mini posters, were treated to special cast introduction videos and more.

The Soundtrack

The buzz around Beyonce being part of the voice cast has practically been its own subset of the campaign. As noted earlier, an early TV commercial was almost solely focused on offering the first footage of Nala speaking. The marketing of the soundtrack has been important as well. When the tracklist was revealed last month she was listed as being featured in the new version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.”

A mysterious “Track 14” was presumed to be an original song from the superstar, a presumption later confirmed to be “Spirit,” the video (12.5 million views on YouTube) for which was released this past Tuesday. Disney also recently announced The Lion King: The Gift, a new album curated and produced by Beyonce featuring songs from artists from around the world inspired by the movie along with Kendrick Lamar and other top names.

Promotions on the front page of Spotify beginning with the 7/9 release of “Spirit” featured some combination of movie artwork and Beyonce and directed people to the soundtrack and official playlist. The movie’s music was also prominently featured on the front page of the recently announced Disney Music Hub on Spotify.

Philanthropy

In late June Disney launched the “Protect the Pride” philanthropic campaign meant to support the African lion population it notes has been cut in half in the 25 years since the original Lion King was released.

That campaign, run in conjunction with The Wildlife Conservation Network’s Lion Recovery Fund and others, promised to raise up to $3 million in grants and donations, with Disney chipping in the first $1.5 million and additional donations made for those riding Kilimanjaro Safaris at Walt Disney World during the movie’s opening weekend.

That campaign was promoted with a launch video and the general public could contribute via the purchase of specific consumer products at Disney theme parks and elsewhere. That list of partners included Regal Cinemas, which created a collectible ticket for IMAX screenings supporting the effort.

Overall

Anyone who has interacted with any Disney property — theme park, television network, social media profile — in the last two months has likely encountered multiple messages for the movie. So too anyone who has gone to any major movie in theaters or walked into any of the big retail stores. As Ayaz explains, though, the campaign has been designed to hit specific beats at very specific times, including three distinct phases:

► Cast, Crew and Technology: Favreau in particular has regularly talked about the technology used in making the movie. That’s even been the focus of some interviews with members of the cast, who talked about the unique experiences they had during production. Featurettes have included plenty of comments from the cast to make sure everyone in the audience knows it was a powerful and recognizable lineup of talent behind the characters.

Music, Especially Beyonce: Beginning in late June, more and more of the campaign turned toward Beyonce to call out her involvement and set the stage for the eventual release of her original single for the soundtrack. She was part of the WACO Fest sponsorship, has been prominently featured in the Spotify paid campaign and other aspects of the marketing. Not surprising given her status as a global music icon.

Hakuna Matata: In the last weeks of the campaign there’s been a bigger presence by Rogen and Eichner and their cinematic alter egos, one that’s pushed “Circle of Life” out as a major musical cue in some of the marketing such as the McDonald’s Happy Meal commercial and footage in featurettes. That shift has included media appearances and interviews with the pair and more, showing the movie’s humor was the last, best pitch to audiences the studio felt it could make.

The real connective thread in the campaign comes from Disney wanting to make this a true event. The original Lion King is a cultural touchstone for generations and the studio wants this to serve the same purpose. So the marketing has held everything in reverence while also promising something new, even if it is a bit hard to describe, showing key moments that will satisfy the audience’s curiosity and pique their interest at carefully choreographed times and in a way meant to generate strong emotions.