Disney: a branding dream before Christmas

October 30, 2014

In Halloween season there are plenty of things to frighten and delight. But nothing can be more fear-inducing to today’s parents than the power Disney can wield over our young children. The Frozen phenomenon from this past year has barely let up, as evidenced by a new drinking game, that dared you to take a drink every time an Elsa trick or treated at your house. And with updates to their parks, the 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise, and the steady flywheel of the harem of past princesses, Disney is a bigger force than ever before. Although as a parent, I may feel powerless to - and sometimes frightened of the forces of Disney in my household - as a brander, I tip my witch’s hat to the company for managing their brand with a magical touch. 

How has Disney done it? We have all heard the stories of the tight fist Disney has on its brand management, from the talent acquisition and ongoing employee engagement to their never ending innovation and portfolio growth. Just a quick look at the list of films over the past 80 years gives a representation of the increasing momentum of their content development.  But it’s more than just the solid management practices that keeps this brand ahead, it’s the astute platform upon which the brand was originally positioned that has allowed it to grow, flex and adapt to changing times, technologies, and tastes.

We judge a good positioning by four characteristics: It must be meaningful, believable, differentiated and enduring. Disney’s brand strategy hits on all four and has laid a foundation of success across generations.

Although the company was founded nearly 100 years ago, it has remained relevant to audiences. Walt Disney Company is the #4 most familiar brand that we track in the Corporate Branding Index®. For companies within the Top 100, let alone the Top 10, maintaining Familiarity scores is considered success. But Disney has been steadily improving familiarity rising from 95.8 in 2010 to 96.0, 96.2, and 96.4 in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively. The fourth most well known brand continues to become even better known, an impressive feat - especially for a brand where you might think their target audience would age-out at an alarming rate.

But the company was smart to not aim their offerings solely at kids, but rather “to the child within all of us,” to quote Walt Disney himself. Their attractions and fantastical worlds appeal not just to children, but to adults as well. From Doc McStuffins to the preschool set to High School Musical for preteens to Cinderella-themed weddings for adults, they have entertainment of all kinds that appeal to all ages.

When Disney went from cartoons to building an amusement park, surely there were doubters. I think back to when Disneyland Paris opened and everyone joked that there was no way such a brash American brand would be successful in sophisticated Europe. Now, the naysayers are eating their mouse-eared caps, with Disneyland Paris being the second most visited Disney property after Disney World in Florida, eclipsing Disneyland California.

With decades of proof that the company is a master at delivering magical experiences on screen and in real life, it was no surprise that Disney has taken Broadway by storm. Folks flocked to see Lion King, Little Mermaid, Newsies, and now Aladdin (which is truly impressive, I can say from first hand experience). Disney apps? There are several dozen, most with high ratings. When Disney breaks into a new medium, no one doubts them. They have credibility across channel.

There is no doubt that the Disney brand is a force. And for a long time, it was the only of its kind. But even with technology and talented animators becoming challengers by striking it out on their own, Disney has still managed to own the multi-channel entertainment space for family fun.

When TV (specifically cartoons) became a staple of children’s lives, Disney started their own channel. When Pixar threatened the family film category, Disney swooped them up. Although they have competition in each category, no one does multi-channel integration like Disney does. From movies to books to toys and games to theater to apps to amusements, Disney is consistent and clear in the delivery of their brand and they make their content work in all applications. In fact, audiences are so clear on its brand that many diehard Star Wars fans were upset to hear of the company’s purchase of the rights to the franchise. It seems on the surface that the Disney brand won’t jive with the Star Wars brand. With a new episode due at the end of 2015, only time will tell.

A simple timeline of Disney’s history can demonstrate the staying power of the brand. On a personal level, seeing my daughter’s teachers having a Disney-themed Halloween party last weekend for themselves shows that the company brings joy to all generations. As preschoolers grow into kids and into adolescents and into adults, Disney has something to offer every age.

But perhaps the most relevant statistic to look at for confidence in its ability to sustain its brand strength into the future is its stock price. With the exception of a slight falter during the economic crisis of 2008, the company’s stock price has been on a steady incline. With the boost from Frozen, the company ended 2013 with an all-time high in price. Investors and analysts trust that Disney is not only meaningful and differentiated today, but will be far into the future.

So when those Elsas show up on your doorstep demanding candy, don’t roll your eyes at the monotonous costumes choices. Instead, marvel at the incredible foresight and masterful brand strategy that underpins the Disney empire, and inspires generations to come.

But, maybe have two drinks if you see a Merida instead.

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