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Disney Gives Makeover to Mickey Merchandising

By Richard Verrier | Sentinel Staff Writer Posted July 23, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

On its face, using Mickey Mouse to full effect as a marketing tool would seem a no-brainer for the executives at Walt Disney Co. After all, during 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 struggling merchandising operation, he was stunned to find how much the entertainment giant was underutilizing its famous mouse. Mooney had been hired away from sneaker maker Nike Inc., where he had a front-row view 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 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. Using Mickey's 75th birthday as a publicity platform, Disney is planting his vintage visage in some hip new places in hopes of moving more merchandise.

Already, he has been snugly stretched across a T-shirt worn by actress Sarah Jessica Parker during a racy scene on HBO's Sex and the City.

Disney also hired a graffiti artist called Mear, whose most recent work was an anti-war mural, to spray-paint a 1930s-style Mickey Mouse comic strip last week on the side of a Sunset Boulevard building. "Very nice," said one onlooker with an orange Mohawk.

Meanwhile, some 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 the host of NBC's Today show, Katie Couric, ask earlier this month: "Is it true that Mickey is the new black?" while interviewing the fashion editor of People Magazine.

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.

Disney also is launching Mickey's PhilarMagic, a new attraction, at Walt Disney World in Orlando in December.

Whether the campaign will succeed remains unclear. Operating income for Disney's consumer products group plummeted more than 50 percent, from $893 million in 1997 to $386 million in 2000, and it has remained basically flat since then.

Disney is hoping that a hipper image for Mickey will make him more appealing to a new generation of teenage buyers. The idea is that kids, once they see stars wearing T-shirts featuring the mouse, will be more 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.

Licensed merchandise drove Disney's growth during the 1980s and '90s, when a string of novel, 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. But this year, 17 animated films were up for Oscar consideration -- the bulk of them from studios other than Disney.

The company has always had something of an ambivalent 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."

"Mickey Mouse has always been in some phase," Walt Disney chief Michael Eisner said. "He's an actor. Sometimes he gets work, sometimes he's retiring, and sometimes he's coming back."

Long before he became a corporate icon, Mickey was a mischievous deckhand aboard a riverboat in the 1928 film Steamboat Willie, his debut. He would go on to star in more than 100 cartoon shorts in the 1920s and '30s. But as his popularity grew, so did complaints about his sneaky behavior.

Disney animators eventually softened his appearance, making his body more pear-shaped, expressive and appealing to children. Even though he starred in the Mickey Mouse Club television show in the 1950s, Mickey's popularity began to be overtaken by Donald Duck and Goofy, according to Disney archivist Dave Smith. Mickey was featured in fewer and fewer films

Eventually, he became more of a corporate symbol, appearing on thousands of merchandise items and acting as chief greeter at Disney's theme parks. Outside a few modest film appearances and his return to Saturday morning television cartoons with MouseWorks in 1999, Mickey was largely underemployed as an entertainer.

Efforts to spark a commercial revival of the mouse over the years have invariably met with resistance from traditionalists who feared that the company might cheapen the character.

"This is a debate that has gone on for the 75 years since Mickey Mouse has been around," Mooney said. "That's a good thing. If you have people who don't care internally about what to do with the character, you don't have a decent business."

The 1995 animation short Runaway Brain marked Mickey's return to animation shorts for the first time in decades. Many objected to the plot, in which a mad scientist transplants Mickey's brain into a monster's body and vice versa.

Still, signs already had emerged that the public might be ready for a Mickey makeover.

In 1979, Mickey appeared on the cover of an album called Mickey Mouse Disco dressed like John Travolta -- one of the only times Mickey was ever out of his regular attire. Longtime fans were in an uproar over the break with tradition. But consumers didn't seem to mind, and the Saturday Night Fever knock-off went multi-platinum.

Some of Mooney's new ideas also have been met with raised eyebrows.

Twice Upon a Christmas, one of the two new Mickey movies appearing on video next year, marks the first digital version of Mickey, who always has been featured in two-dimensional hand-drawn animation.

"Likewise, there was plenty of nervousness about the idea of hiring a graffiti artist to spray one of Walt's classic cartoons on a wall in Hollywood. Attitudes changed when Mooney convinced the skeptics that the mural was in fact paying homage to Walt.

"I don't think embalming is a good thing," said Mooney. "I think the brand needs to be rejuvenated to be relevant to the future."

Experts agree, saying the latest push to revive Mickey, especially his entertainment career, is overdue.

"If they want to make Mickey relevant to future generations, this is really, really critical," said Kevin Lane Keller, professor of marketing at Dartmouth College. "For the longest time, they just didn't do that much with Mickey."

Mooney recalled "discovering" Mickey and his pals during his first few months on the job, after he spent a day poring through the company's archives. "There was this treasure trove of art," Mooney recalled. "We just felt that if we could expose it to contemporary consumers, something could happen."