Disney wields its marketing magic
By Joanne Ostrow
October 19, 2007
Montana" is not just a show, it's a lifestyle.
To say that Disney's half-hour "Hannah Montana," about a regular teen who happens to have a secret life as a rock star, is the highest-rated series on basic cable doesn't begin to describe it.
"Hannah Montana" is an industry of live tours, DVDs, books, soundtracks, electronics, handbags, gift-wrap, posters, room décor, cosmetics and the rest. It is oxygen for a specific demographic target audience.
"It's a lifestyle brand," according to Disney marketing chief Adam Sanderson.
The brand is only growing.
Coming soon to theme parks around the globe: Hannah Montana participatory performance spaces, perhaps on the order of karaoke, Disney-style.
The success of "HM" speaks to the branding savvy and omnipresence of The Walt Disney Co. In marketing circles, Disney represents the victory of branding on the public consciousness, a triumph of vertical integration combined with the astute reading of the fervent desires of today's tween, a vaguely defined group roughly 10-14. Another demonstration of its effectiveness was the near-immediate sellout of the Pepsi Center for Thursday's Hannah Montana concert.
To some critics, the Disneyfication of childhood is not so benign a force.
Susan Linn, founder of the Campaign for a Commercial- Free Childhood, a Boston- based coalition of health-care professionals, educators and child advocates, said, "There's this incredible push to immerse girls in brands and to have them turn to brands to define who they are, define their self-worth. What does that say to kids about values, wealth, social repsonsibility?
"When you define who you are by a corporate brand, you're missing a chance to find out who you really are, what you really believe in, where you are in the world."
Linn believes the barrage of marketing has implications beyond brand dependence. "If we are just consumers, not citizens," she said, "then there's not much hope for democracy," she said.
The live tour has made headlines nationally for immediate ticket sellouts and the scalper prices that follow. A Pittsburgh software firm is the subject of a lawsuit for enabling scalpers to buy up tickets. According to T he Associated Press, the highest face value for a Hannah Montana ticket was $63 for the sold- out show in Pittsburgh Jan. 4, but people have reported seeing tickets for $2,500. Tickets for the sold-out Denver show were on eBay for $1,765 a pair at press time.
Clearly, "Hannah" is a phenomenon of Rolling Stones proportions.
When an episode of "Hannah Montana" followed the debut of "High School Musical 2" this fall, the movie sequel got all the buzz, but the episode of "Hannah Montana" averaged 10.7 million viewers - the highest ratings for a regular series in the history of basic cable.
No escaping "HM"
The company's stated goal is to extend the brand beyond TV, beyond the tour, into a full way of being for tween girls.
Disney's goal is to place "HM" at every conceivable "consumer touch point," Sanderson says. In the language of marketing, "touch points" are the various forms of engagement within a child's world: live entertainment, music, Radio Disney, online, mobile, television, movies, DVDs, books, the mall.
"Kids multitask," Sanderson said. "We like to be in as many consumer touch points as possible." Sanderson's job is synergy for the Disney ABC Networks Group, leading the brand management teams responsible for maximizing the kids' TV properties across the company's many lines of business.
Fashion and accessories are huge "Hannah" touch points, Sanderson said. "We're working with most of the major retailers, including our own Disney stores, specialty stores, toy stores. We're in the mall. They won't have any trouble finding us."
Indeed, good luck avoiding them.
If "Hannah" provides sweet, age-appropriate entertainment for tweens, can there be anything wrong with launching her as an all-encompassing lifestyle campaign?
Author and anticorporatizing activist Naomi Klein has theorized that Americans are looking to brands to provide a sense of community. "I think brands definitely are filling a very real need," she said in an interview for her 2000 bestseller, "No Logo." "The question is, are they filling it well? I believe that they tend to fill it in a fairly unsatisfying way."
Klein wrote that Disney has always understood that its movies were ads for its toys, which were ads for its theme parks, "and they've been stretching and building that brand cocoon since the 1930s."
The cocoon extends to Broadway productions based on animated characters, from "The Lion King" to "Little Mermaid." Websites, videogames, cruise ships, resorts and a planned community (Celebration, Fla.) recycle attention within the vertically integrated corporate family.
"We'll be doing a lot more things with 'Hannah,"' Sanderson said last week. "We're talking about how to bring 'Hannah' to theme parks." He visited Disneyland in Paris this month, helping develop a karaoke-like project.
"Let kids be more active in the experience, that's one of our brand promises. We're working on various ideas to help on the healthy kid initiative" to combat the charge that TV and computer games lead to obesity.
Teen reality check
Sanderson will drop in during the coming "Hannah Montana" tour to debrief tweens on what's working.
The tactic is to build brand loyalty, grabbing young consumers with "Playhouse Disney," the preschool TV block, and nurturing them with product through "High School Musical" and beyond. (Cross-pollination works too. Miley Cyrus had a cameo in "HSM2," an idea that came from asking kids who they wanted to see in the movie.)
The Disney Channel's 90 million subscribers can watch "Hannah Montana" daily, sometimes as often as seven times a day. An average 2.2 million viewers see each episode. The show also airs weekly on ABC's Saturday morning block, and is licensed in 177 countries. Of course "HM" is available around the clock as streaming video on computers and on iTunes.
Compared to the ratings of all shows on U.S. television, "Hannah Montana" is second only to "American Idol" among kids 6-11 and tweens.
The company launched "HM" on television 18 months ago. The goal was "not only to generate revenues across multiple products and entertainment, but also to build for the long term," Sanderson said. He considers the product timeless in terms of storytelling and character.
"Our challenge and opportunity is to think long-term," particularly since Miley is only 15. "She has a long shelf life in terms of being a performer," Sanderson said.
The appeal of the show, like Patty Duke's teen vehicle before it, is the duality of personas. Like Hannah/Miley, kids can be the girl next door and they can aspire to be the rock star. The strong father-daughter relationship is depicted as grounding.
The program targets 6-to-11- year-olds. The company calls the product "kid-driven, family inclusive" - a nod to the fact that it's the parent's wallets being tapped.
From an ethical standpoint, some Americans may find it distressing that children live within a corporate commercial bubble, bombarded by merchandising messages.
"As a marketing person, we want to be able to meet the demand," Sanderson said. "Our job is to entertain kids and teach them a few lessons along the way. That's the primary business we're in and we've done it extremely well."
Critics of corporate culture beg to differ.
"His job is to create the demand. That's the job of marketers and they're very good at it," Linn said.
"The primary lesson they're teaching is to seek happiness in brands and commercial products," she said. "As we know, brands don't make us happy. More ephemeral things, like relationships and job satisfaction, do."
"HM" was the top-selling line at Macy's nationally in the 2006 holiday season. A junior novel series from Disney Publishing sold more than 3 million copies in its first year. The soundtrack has also sold 3 million albums. A line of guitars is next. Films are on the horizon.
"Something tells me we're going to see a lot of 'Hannah Montana' at Halloween too," Sanderson said.
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