Long before corporate synergy, vertical integration and brand equity entered business parlance (never mind Hollywood vernacular), Walt Disney and brother Roy had assembled a range of characters and leisure products based on a hunch that one plus one could, in fact, equal three. Their almost evangelical devotion to branding formed the financial heart of a fast-emerging media and retail empire.
And to think that it all started with a mouse.
When 1928’s “Steamboat Willie,” the first cartoon to use synchronized sound, made Mickey Mouse a star, the Disney brothers could scarcely have imagined that a global family entertainment franchise had been born. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first full-length animated feature, solidified their success nine years later, with Walt and Roy’s vision of warm-hearted family tales eventually inspiring a theme park (financed by feature film proceeds) and TV shows. By then, Mickey and Disney became conceptually interchangeable. The Disney name came to embody values and standards as opposed to just a product.
That, say marketing gurus, is the true measure of a great brand.
“The notion of synergy was embraced by Disney long before other companies figured it out,” says author and New Yorker magazine media columnist Ken Auletta. “While Coca-Cola was arguably the first great brand in America … Disney was building something far broader than soda.”
To be fair, the brand that Walt Disney built grew more organically than by design in the first 20 years. “In the early days, it was simply Walt’s vision,” says Matt Ryan, Disney senior VP of corporate brand management, and one of a handful of key execs charged with care and feeding of the multibillion-dollar brand.
Auletta maintains that the brand evolved naturally but that “at some point Walt knew he was building something more powerful than how well the business would perform year to year.”
That was clear enough in Disney’s embrace of new technologies like TV or outlets like theme parks that could be used as cross-promotional tools. Series like “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “The Mickey Mouse Club” hooked baby boomers into its unique blend of youth-friendly idealism, while building an audience for its new theme park and string of animated features.
“He saw dots that could be connected,” says VP of corporate synergy Chris Curtin of Walt’s early intuition about the prospects of brand-based synergy. “When we launched the ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ in 1955, he carved out the show to mirror the different lands (Fantasy, Frontier, Adventure, etc.) of the theme park.”
Disney’s security blanket
Disney’s feel-good factor is nestled at the core of its brand — a word that derives from the old Norse differentiation between manufacturing and communication of quality. Few other modern entertainment companies today are also consumer brands, or even attempt to deliver such a harmonious message about the products they produce.
And few brands in modern history have withstood the pressures of time and technology as well as Disney, which perennially ranks among an elite group of century-old American brands like Coca-Cola, Budweiser, McDonald’s and Marlboro as the most valuable and recognizable brands globally. In 2003, Disney ranked seventh in the latest brand valuation survey by Interbrand with an estimated value of $29 billion.
The Disney brand is like a security blanket, an imprimatur of good, clean, nonviolent, asexual entertainment that’s safe for parents to buy even if they don’t know precisely what’s inside.
Brands like Disney’s tend to stick, says Jan Lindemann, Interbrand’s global managing director. Its closest entertainment competitor is MTV, which ranks No. 45. “Many of the top 10 brands are very old. … Disney’s been up and down year to year, but they’ve always rank in the top 10 in terms of recognition and value.”
“Disney as a video brand is like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” says Marty Brochstein, executive editor of the Licensing Letter. “When Viacom tried to open a Viacom store in Chicago five years ago, it closed within a year. … Nobody knew what they were selling.”
And where cynics fretted about an almost sinister homogenization of bland, white-bread Disneyfied “Mickey Mouse” culture, the business community marveled at the commercial potential and equity value that Disney controlled.
How many other media congloms can boast a branded cookbook, featuring such authentic Disney dishes as Lady and the Tramp’s Spaghetti Bella Notte, and a twin set mouse-ears television set and DVD player. Even Disney’s venture capital division, Steamboat Ventures, evokes the original Mouse brand.
One of the more ambitious direct extensions was the forming of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks pro hockey franchise in 1992, proving that even one of the roughest sports around could be tamed by the Disney brand.
But the brand also faces inevitable challenges in a highly competitive market for consumers’ time and attention.
“Choice is the enemy of brand,” says Auletta. “The Disney brand equity is not necessarily unique anymore,” says Lindemann, noting heavier competition from Pixar and DreamWorks, Nickelodeon and others. But the emotional perceptions are deeply entrenched and scrupulously re-enforced by the company.
The problem, Auletta says, is how the company goes from Mickey Mouse to newer acquisitions like ABC, which may not benefit from a notion of global family entertainment. “There are limits to synergy and convergence. The question is how to replenish the brand and reinvigorate it.”
Disney is succumbing to the same pressures that other companies face, Auletta cautions, competing with videogames and the Internet for kids’ attention. Cartoons are not interactive and the risk is that Disney becomes seen as staid and conservative.
But execs, who are reviving Mickey Mouse himself in 3-D onscreen renderings, insist they’re keeping up with the curve. “How to stay relevant and true to yourself comes down to understanding that core values are constant; what changes is the expression of them,” says Ryan.
He cites more modern-day Disney incarnations like Lizzie Maguire and Kim Possible, which embody the fundamental decency of the Disney brand while being more relevant to kids and tweens today.
As the company grew, racier fare that didn’t fit neatly within core Disney values was relegated to new brands like Touchstone and Miramax — close enough to share the riches, but sufficiently distant not to tarnish the sacred Disney message.
“We realized three decades ago that the brand couldn’t hold all the things the company could do, so we’ve gradually moved toward a portfolio of brands,” says Ryan, noting that there’s nothing “Disney” about ESPN and flagship program “SportsCenter.”
And while for years the focus has been on the characters (Pluto, Daffy, Snow White, etc.), the company — under the leadership of consumer products chief Andy Mooney — more recently has been revitalizing the visibility of the parent Disney brand for all its consumer products.
Big Brother is watching
As Disney brand identity became more entrenched by the 1950s, so did the company’s desire to protect it at all costs.
It vigilantly patrols the use of its brands and has been known to prosecute relentlessly for seemingly small infractions against its properties. Protecting the Disney brand is a constant corporate preoccupation, and accusations of being copyright-hoarding control freaks is par for the course.
To be sure, Disney has little sense of humor when it comes to protecting its image. The excruciatingly embarrassing live duet between Rob Lowe and Snow White during the 1989 Oscarcast led to lawsuit for copyright infringement citing “unauthorized and unflattering” use of Snow White’s character.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences head Richard Kahn ultimately apologized for “unintentionally creating the impression that Disney had participated in or sanctioned the opening production number.”
Fifteen years ago, Ryan concedes that the company was more focused on warding off copyright and patent infringement. But amid enormous corporate growth, Disney’s “police force evolved into a wider role of internal guidance on how the brand is reflected and extended.” In fact, while Disney boasts a branding team (a franchise management group is also responsible for sniffing out prospective multimedia products), sustaining what is quintessentially Disney is a global effort required of all 120,000 staffers.