Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Part II: The Spider, The Lamp, The Frog, and Bill Simmons

As discussed in yesterday's post, Disney has definitely tried to frame it's acquisition of Marvel by comparing it to the purchase of Pixar.  The comparison tells the right story for them.  Disney bought Pixar for what seemed like, to outside observers, a very steep price, and those same observers wondered if the unique culture of Pixar would be lost once it was assimilated into the giant Disney conglomerate.  Nobody is questioning the Pixar deal now.  Pixar continued to run itself independently up in Emeryville and Pixar has continued to crank out blockbusters that earn both money and critical acclaim while providing added value to other divisions of the company.  Disney wants you to think that the Marvel deal will function the same way.

Let's dig a little deeper.  Disney didn't exactly leave Pixar all alone.  The Pixar leadership team was tasked with revitalizing the entire Disney animation division, arguably the cornerstone of the entire company.  Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, became the President of Walt Disney Animation Studios.  And John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer with broad influence over everything from animation, to the theme parks, to consumer products.  And let's not overlook that Steve Jobs became the largest Disney shareholder and a member of the board.  This all makes sense.  Pixar functioned in it's own unique environment but it created Disney product.  Pixar films and characters have always been co-branded with Disney and have always been a part of Disney.  In fact, many considered Pixar to be more like Disney than Disney itself.  This is not true of Marvel.  It's an entirely distinct brand that doesn't entirely blend well with the Disney image.  This is exactly what has both the Disney and Marvel fan communities so nervous.

Marvel, meet the Muppets.  The Muppets seemed like a no-brainer for Disney in 2004.  Michael Eisner and Jim Henson had already been negotiating a buyout of the Muppets before Henson's death in 1990.  The characters had been featured in theme parks through tv specials and the Muppet*Vision 3D attraction.  They were practically Disney characters already.  So what has happened in the five years since they were acquired?  Do you hear the crickets chirping?  There have been a couple so-so tv movies and specials, some random talk show appearances and the like.  But largely they've languished and become stale.  They've crossed over from relevant to nostalgic, which doesn't strike me as a good long term strategy.  Clearly, Disney couldn't figure out how to either fully integrate the Muppets into the Disney family or allow them to function separately.  Kermit is still an iconic character, and I'm hopeful Disney will turn things around.  There are a few signs of hope on the horizon.

The challenge for Marvel, as I see it, is brand strategy.  Pixar was already perceived as a Disney brand, so there were no real problems there.  The Muppets should have been easy to integrate into the Disney brand, but so far the record is mixed.  Marvel will be an even greater challenge.  It's important to let Marvel function as an independent business division so they can continue on the terrific creative success they've enjoyed in recent years, drawing upon the many resources Disney offers whenever they add value.  But how do you present it?  I don't think you want to make it "Disney/Marvel" they way they did with "Disney/Pixar".  You can't just drop this guy, or this guy, or her into the Magic Kingdom next to Mickey and Cinderella.

Marvel, meet ESPN.   ESPN was another siginificant acquisition that occured when Disney bought Cap/Cities in 1996.  It brings in billions of dollars of revenue for Disney and it's hard to overstate just how important it is to the company.  But for the most part, you would never know it's Disney.  They definitely take advantage of certain cross-promotional opportunities and synergies of that sort, but it generally functions separately as a completely distinct brand.  I think this could be the model for Disney to use with Marvel going forward.  By allowing Marvel to function completely separately while leveraging the resources of the entire company when it can maximize value, Disney will be able to preserve, protect, and maintain the brand identity of both Mickey and Spidey.

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