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M-I-C-K-E-Y: He's the Leader of the Brand

July 23, 2003|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Mickey Mouse, once described by Walt Disney as "a little fellow trying to do the best he could," is now being called on to do even better.

Trying to turn around its flagging merchandising operation, Walt Disney Co. is planting Mickey's vintage visage in some hip new places and planning to roll out the mouse in an aggressive marketing campaign centered on his 75th birthday.

On its face, using Mickey Mouse to full effect as a marketing tool would seem a no-brainer for Disney executives. After all, over the last three-quarters of a century, Mickey has sustained himself as one of the most recognizable figures in America, if not the whole world.

Yet when Andy Mooney arrived at Disney a few years ago to rescue its merchandising division, he was stunned to find how much the Burbank entertainment giant was underutilizing its famous mouse. Mooney had been hired away from sneaker maker Nike Inc., where he had a front-row seat to the marketing power of celebrity endorsements. Think Michael Jordan.

But Mickey, he found, was sitting on the sidelines, tangled in a thicket of marketing do's and don'ts dating back decades. Mooney, chairman of Disney's consumer products unit, was determined to free the mouse, bucking a conservative corporate culture reluctant to tamper with the company's signature image, hand-drawn by Walt Disney himself.

"This is our swoosh," Mooney successfully argued, likening Mickey to Nike's trademark logo.

As a result, Mickey Mouse is on the loose.

Already, he has been stretched across a snug T-shirt worn by actress Sarah Jessica Parker during a racy scene on HBO's "Sex and the City" series. Minnie surely would blush. Disney also hired a graffiti artist called Mear, whose most recent work was an antiwar mural, to spray-paint a 1930s-style Mickey Mouse comic strip on the side of a Sunset Boulevard building last week. "Very nice," said one onlooker with an orange Mohawk.

Meanwhile, at trendy Fred Segal in Santa Monica, shoppers are paying top dollar for silk pants (costing $250), belt buckles and purses adorned with Mickey's retro image from the 1920s and '30s. It was enough to make Katie Couric, the host of NBC's "Today Show," ask, "Is it true ... that Mickey is the new black?" while interviewing the style editor of People Magazine this month.

Today, the company plans to announce other changes aimed at elevating Mickey's profile.

A series of Mickey Mouse U.S. postage stamps is in the works. Classic comic books, as well as a daily syndicated comic strip featuring Mickey and his pals, are being rolled out once again. Two new direct-to-video movies, including a new 3-D version of the mouse, will be released next year. And as part of the hoopla, consumers can expect lots of news footage as 75 artists and celebrities are asked to create their own statues of Mickey Mouse.

Whether the campaign will succeed remains unclear. Operating income for Disney's consumer products group plummeted more than 50% from $893 million in 1997 to $386 million in 2000, and it has remained basically flat since then. As part of a restructuring of the group, the company recently announced plans to close more than 100 of its 500-plus Disney Store outlets and put the rest of the retail chain up for sale.

A national advertising campaign to spur Mickey-related sales three years ago, anchored by the slogan "Why do we love the Mouse," had little effect. Sales of Mickey paraphernalia, which account for about 40% of the company's overall merchandise revenue, have remained stagnant in recent years.

But now Disney is hoping a hipper image will make Mickey more appealing to a new generation of teenagers. The idea is that once kids see stars wearing T-shirts featuring the mouse, they will be drawn to all things Mickey, including a line of vintage apparel that Disney plans to roll out to mass retailers.

"Mickey has always been cool," said Dennis Green, vice president for apparel at Disney consumer products, who also came from Nike. "It's just the way he has been represented hasn't always been cool."

The challenge facing Disney is that its core audience keeps getting younger, shrinking the pool of potential consumers, as the competition grows. The last decade has seen an explosion of animated characters from rival film studios and cable television shows such as "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Rugrats."

Licensed merchandise drove Disney's growth during the 1980s and '90s, when a string of animated hits including "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" sparked huge demand for toys, clothes and scores of other items.

When "The Lion King" hit theaters in 1994, it was the only major animated release that year.

This year, 17 animated films were up for Oscar consideration -- the bulk of them from studios other than Disney.

The company always has had something of a fluid relationship with its cornerstone character, one that author John Updike once labeled "the most persistent and pervasive figment of American popular culture in this century."

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