2021 Year in Review: Star Wars Merchandising

2021 was the year of Marvel Cinematic Universe on Disney Plus but, due to spillover from production and shipping delays from 2020, there were still plenty of Star Wars merchandise hitting retail and virtual shelves.

Here are some notable observations regarding Star Wars throughout the year:

The Mandalorian Brand Continues to Overshadow Star Wars…

The Mandalorian brand cleaned up at the TOTY Awards 2021 | credit Hasbro and Lucasfilm ltd.

The Mandalorian brand dominated the Toy of the Year Awards in February: it won Toy of the Year, License of the Year, Innovative Toy of the Year, Plush Toy of the Year, and Construction Toy of the Year. Even though these awards were given in February and some of the toys were released in 2020, the supply shortages caused lasting demand well into 2021 for items like Hasbro’s Star Wars: The Child Animatronic Edition Toy (the Toy of the Year and Innovative Toy of the Year). The Mandalorian also has the distinction of being a two-time, Emmy-nominated Best Drama series with the amount of merchandise usually reserved for a four-quadrant film.

…And Lucasfilm is Trying to Spread the Love

Even as The Mandalorian universe within Star Wars expands and Lucasfilm attempts to tell stories beyond Mando and Grogu, the two are still at the center of retail. 

In October, Lucasfilm announced that they would be bringing back “Mando Mondays” but rebranding the merchandise-release campaign to “Bring Home the Bounty.” Mando Monday’s launched last year as a part of The Mandalorian season two release and was a global consumer products and publishing campaign announcing new Star Wars products every week leading into the holidays. The launch included a mixture of available and preorder products and kept Star Wars merchandise in the public eye during the holidays. But “Mando Mondays” tied the campaign, undisputedly, to The Mandalorian. Per the press release:

Global Weekly Program Will Debut New Toys, Apparel, Games Content, Books, Comics and More Celebrating Everything from the Skywalker Saga to “The Book of Boba Fett,” Streaming Dec. 29 on Disney+

The 12-week campaign, which was every Tuesday instead of Monday, ended its run on December 28, just in time for The Book of Boba Fett. Disney also spent money on advertising with spots on social platforms.

A :15 YouTube spot for Bring Home the Bounty | credit Lucasfilm ltd.

But despite the promise of celebrating the entirety of Star Wars, there were clear favorites: a lot of Original Trilogy merchandise and a disturbing lack of Star Wars Visions and Sequel Trilogy. Out of the entire Bring Home the Bounty product releases and announcements (335 total), about 74% were dedicated to The Mandalorian and the Original Trilogy. There were four Star Wars Visions products and five Sequel Trilogy products.

VisionsThe Bad Batch (which only had four product releases), and The Book of Boba Fett (26) were all 2021 releases that BHTB should have capitalized more on with merchandise. SH FigureArts has Target exclusive figures for only Kare and Am, which sold out quickly for preorder. SH FigureArts is Bandai’s adult collector line (they have some impressive competitive 6-inch Star Wars figures). Hasbro currently holds the distribution rights to Star Wars action figures in North America so perhaps this is a test for SH FigureArts exclusivity to Visions.

Also of note is that the Prequel Trilogy (including The Clone Wars) had 21 product releases. Star Wars The High Republic had more of a presence than the Sequel Trilogy (with six products) but as The Acolyte gets closer to a release date, that number should increase.

Merchandise quantity is a good barometer of where a franchise stands in interest and brand goodwill. The overwhelming amount of Mandalorian and Original Trilogy merchandise during Bring Home the Bounty a presence on Disney Plus or theatrically in 2021 speaks volumes.

So Who is Holding Things Up…Hasbro or Lucasfilm?

Marvel Legends waves that released in time for their Disney Plus shows and you can already pre-order America Chavez from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

For Marvel Legends, the Hasbro team had merchandise ready to go before, during, or shortly after the release of their Disney Plus shows. In fact, a Hasbro toy found on a retail shelf earlier this year that included The Falcon and Winter Soldier Sam Wilson actually spoiled the new Captain America costume months before the premiere on March 19, 2021. On the Lucasfilm side, Star Wars fans are still waiting for characters from season two a year later and will be well into 2022. This year, Black Series released characters like Bo Katan, Koska Reeves, Moff Gideon, Greef Karga, and Kuiil (from the first season) to retailers before year’s end. Some collectors got their hands on Fennec Shand before The Book of Boba Fett premiered, but many had to pre-order. For The Vintage Collection, collectors won’t see most of The Mandalorian season two figures until next year.

So what is the holdup? Is it Lucasfilm having a high licensing fee or is the Lucasfilm Hasbro team getting the short end on in the production line of Hasbro over Marvel Legends? How can one division of both Disney and Hasbro in Marvel have their stuff together and get out their product in time for their shows, but Lucasfilm moves at a snail’s pace? As the gap in production and release continues to widen between the two divisions (and many collectors overlap between these two), this will be a larger issue.

Searching for the Sweet Spot for Star Wars Haslab

The first failure of Lucasfilm HasLab | credit Hasbro

Earlier this year, Hasbro announced their first HasLab for the Black Series, the Rancor. The backing was set at an unusually large goal of 9K and a price tag of $349.99. Initially, the pacing of backers was on par with past HasLabs, but as the Tiers were slowly revealed, enthusiasm continued to wane. The shit hit the fan when the final Tiers (Tier 3 and 4) were revealed in a lackluster Livestream to be Salacious Crumb and Luke Skywalker. HasLab was officially in danger of not funding when they lost approximately 500 backers within two days.

In a last-ditch effort, the Hasbro team announced a 6-inch Rancor keeper, Malakai, would be included if the project hit its backing amount. This appeared to work and stop the bleeding. And in the last hours, it got close to its goal of 9K backers. However, it came up 500 short (perhaps those same 500 that backed out after the final Tiers) and Hasbro decided not to extend the deadline. And so, the first Black Series HasLab joins the Cookie Monster as being one of the few HasLabs that did not go into production.

There are many theories as to why the Rancor failed. The timing was not ideal as there were already two other HasLab’s with Ghostbusters Proton Back, which reached its goal the quickest, and the GI Joe: Skystriker. The Proton back ended up with 21,537 backers off of a 7K goal, and the Skystriker coasted to 16,704 off of a 10K goal. It is possible that enough Star Wars fans are also Ghostbusters and GI Joe fans and had to pull a Sophie’s Choice on where to spend their money.

Speaking of spending, all of these campaigns landed during the holiday season, and I am not sure how appealing backing a Haslab is as a gift. At the end of the day, it is $350 that could be spent on gifts families do not have to wait for.

Then there is also the fact that Star Wars fans are still waiting on the last HasLab. And, despite what some in the collector community would have you believe, some collectors collect both scales. Then there is the simple answer: Star Wars fans did not want to pay $350 for a Rancor and figures that will be released for the Return of the Jedi Anniversary in 2023. The past two HasLabs for The Vintage Collection (the SailBarge and Razor Crest ) have been vehicles, and that might have been the better avenue for Black Series. 

There was also an enthusiasm gap between the Lucasfilm team and the Ghostbusters and GI: Joe teams, both in their presentations and promotion on social media. And it all just seems oddly intentional. Adding that it missed the backing by only 500, and Hasbro did not extend for one day to push it over the finish line makes it seem like they ultimately didn’t care.

Time will tell how much of a failure Hasbro and Lucasfilm consider the Rancor HasLab. Will they give up on 6-inch HasLabs? Other things could generate more interest. For one, there is still a love of diagrams (most of the displays at SDCC and other cons are 6-inch). Or a set of figures exclusive to a HasLab. Obscure but loved characters that collectors have to resort to paying for customs. The Star Wars brand team needs to lick their wounds and move on, lessons learned.

Galaxy’s Edge is Still Trying to Find Its Footing

The headlines out of Destination D23 were less than ideal for the Galactic StarCruiser | credit Inside The Magic

The Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge Hotel, the Galactic Starcruiser, is not set to open until March 1, 2022, but the marketing started in 2021. In January, Disney released a first look at the hotel rooms with some information, including that the hotel would act more like a Disney Cruise Itinerary weekend. Then on Star Wars Day, May 4th, a video was released of the new lightsaber developed by Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development that would be exclusive to guests at the Galactic Starcruiser. Lightsabers are popular merchandise for Star Wars fans and range in various price points: from the lower end for kids around 30 USD to the FX Lightsabers that cost between 150 – 300 USD. Galaxy’s Edge also sells its own Legacy lightsabers at Dok-Ondar’s that can run up to 250 USD depending on whether it is a limited edition (and that is just the hilt, you have to buy the blade separately). So a lightsaber that can retract felt like a big step forward in product innovation. But then Disney dashed excitement six months later by confirming that the lightsabers would only be used by the performers and not the Guests. Recently there have been reports that the retractable lightsabers are still having issues due to the metal material used to retract.

The second promotional video that was removed shortly after release showcased a Twi’lek singer, Gaya, now a canon character in the Star Wars universe.

The underwhelming marketing continued when Disney finally released the itinerary and pricing for the whole experience and an official promo video. The cost would be between $4.8 – 6K total for two days and includes food, dedicated time in Galaxy’s Edge theme park, and a whopping 30 minutes of lightsaber training. And, finally, the cherry on top came when Disney released a second promotional video during Destination D23 in November and then immediately removed it after the backlash that the hotel looked cheap.

Essentially, the 2021 marketing campaign for the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser has gone horribly. The hotel could turn out to be an amazing experience for wealthy Star Wars fans who just want two days of role-playing (which is what this whole thing is). It is an immersive experience that is trying to one-up the Wizarding World by providing what Disney does best in the theme park space…exclusivity. But by pricing out a majority of theme park attendees, you need to sell something that will attract people past the first few months of opening. And the marketing team has failed the first round of the publicity campaign. And because the hotel opens before Star Wars Celebration, Destination D23 was the last big event to generate positive hype.

I am confident that Disney will settle in and figure out how to market this experience to the right type of Star Wars fans for longevity. But, for the short-term, they need to ensure that all the influencers and opening day Guests have the best experience possible for positive buzz post-opening.