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How Ford and Disney pulled off the most audacious prime-time product launch for the new Bronco

Three films simultaneously across three networks—ABC, ESPN, and National Geographic—was the pandemic adaptation of the carmaker’s major launch.

How Ford and Disney pulled off the most audacious prime-time product launch for the new Bronco

Back about a thousand years ago—also known as the second week of March—the Ford Motor Company’s marketing machine was just gearing up. The company was about to embark on launching its most significant new vehicle line in years, the all-new Bronco series.

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Aside from a particularly historic run down an empty L.A. freeway about 26 years ago to the week, the Bronco is a cult favorite among car and truck geeks. It’s one of the original off-road classics, with a ton of style. It ceased production in 1996, so Broncos are steeped in nostalgia, and there is a cohort of enthusiasts who collect, restore, and soup up old Broncos, including Simon Cowell, Jeremy Piven, and iPod and Nest creator Tony Fadell.

So Ford had its strategy all ready. It would ceremoniously reveal the vehicles—a two-door, a four-door, and a smaller Sport model SUV—over a series of events, with big celebrations at auto shows, festivals, and outdoor events. All the bells and whistles you’d expect. The company had 180 journalists coming to Dearborn, Michigan, to get an in-depth view of the Bronco archives, the history, the heritage, racing, and everything else.

Of course, none of it ever happened. A global health pandemic can have that effect.

“So we stepped back and said, a lot [of marketing in COVID-19] is going to look the same,” says Ford’s director of U.S. marketing, Matt VanDyke. “People are going to create some videos, they’ll put them on YouTube and in their own media, but we need to do something culturally relevant and befitting the Bronco brand.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, VanDyke says it would’ve been both bonkers and insensitive to be talking about introducing a new product. Ford, to its credit, dumped its March Madness marketing plan, choosing instead to raise awareness about its car payment relief program for those experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic. The Bronco launch was caught in limbo, as executives talked about what the right time to start up again might be. As it became clear that people were getting increasingly sick of sad piano music, plans began to ramp up anew. Now instead of months, they had just a few weeks to pull together one of the company’s biggest-ever product launches.

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The result is a primetime media event across three Disney networks. The Bronco models will be unveiled in three short films directed by Oscar winner Jimmy Chin, which will be airing at 8 p.m. across ABC, ESPN, and National Geographic. Hulu will then have all three short films available on-demand on Tuesday.

Given the tight timeline, Ford and its creative agencies, Wieden+Kennedy and GTB, were looking for a creative and media partner with a particular set of skills.

Disney, with its broad scale of media reach and variety, combined with its in-house agency called Disney CreativeWorks, offered the kind of opportunity that no one else could. But it wasn’t just about reach. Disney advertising sales’ automotive lead Wendell Scott says it was about both scale and engagement.

“This hasn’t been done before,” says Scott. “We’ve never revealed a car this important ever. COVID was a disruption. We have a very short time frame, and a massive opportunity from one of our largest [brand] partners. How do we create a moment in prime time?”

The question facing the CreativeWorks team was, here they had a marquee product and the biggest channels. So with all that at their disposal, what kind of stories could they tell?

To answer that, they went to longtime National Geographic partner, and recent Academy Award-winning director Chin (Free Solo). Each film features a special guest. One, featuring pro climber and Olympic hopeful Brooke Raboutou, will air during ESPN’s SportsCenter. Country music singer Kip Moore stars in one airing during the CMA Best of Fest on ABC. And Chin is both directing and starring in one during National Parks: Yosemite on National Geographic.

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With shoot locations in Wyoming and Nashville, Chin and the other production teams were sending updates and footage in real time to Disney and Ford. VanDyke says that they didn’t even have time to create storyboards for the trio of three-minute films. “In all of my years doing this, I’ve never produced something at this scale without that. That comes down to trust in the partners, trust in the people we picked, and all working towards that common goal. At one point we had some senior leaders [at Ford] asking us to send over exactly what the films were going to be, and we had to say . . . no! That’s a pretty big leap of faith.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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