Disney seeks brand balance

20 June 2011

NEW YORK: The Walt Disney Company is seeking to find the right balance between tradition and innovation in developing its brands.

Speaking to the Harvard Business Review, Robert Iger, Disney's chief executive, suggested the entertainment group's global expansion, alongside the size and scale of its portfolio, could potentially undermine popular affection for its products.

More specifically, he argued that even in the US, the organisation's home country, there is a risk of a "push back" from customers - and particularly parents - if strategic errors are made.

"It's the number of products you sell, always asking people to buy something of yours," he said. "At times, it creates a cacophony of marketing messages behind a substantial amount of products."

"The notion 'is Disney good for me or is Disney not?' is something we track very carefully."

A further challenge follows on from the company's long-established values, which offer considerable positive cachet among shoppers, but can also be restrictive when implementing new initiatives.

"We've been talking about that a lot," said Iger. "I'm a big believer in adhering to standards that created a lot of value, but at the same time, figuring out a way to continue to be relevant."

The formula pursued by Iger has involved channelling the best of Disney's history while responding to emerging trends.

"It's a very interesting balance," he said. "And I don't believe you have to change your standards or sacrifice your standards to be relevant."

Achieving such an objective has required overcoming internal differences concerning Disney's future trajectory.

"You want to continue to be reminded about what is the essence of the brand and its proposition and its place in people's lives," said Iger.

"I like to talk about it in terms of heritage and innovation, or to what extent you revere your past and your tradition, and to what extent you respect it."

"There have been times when a reverence for the past has overwhelmed the need to be innovative."

Modifying the corporate mindset has thus proved to be a long-term process, beginning before Iger was named chief executive in 2005.

In the period prior to his appointment, Disney faced a recession, boardroom tension and the threat of a hostile takeover attempt.

However, rather than perceiving these issues as a limitation, Iger leveraged his elevation to the post of chief executive as a means of fuelling a shift in perspective.

"I felt that I had a great opportunity because of the change in ceo to get the company believing in itself again, and, in doing so, have others believe in us, too. And root for us."

"I wanted to be admired by our customers, by our shareholders and by our employees. But unless you're admired by your employees, you can't be admired by your customers and shareholders."

Since then, Disney has reasserted its position, and as a signifier of its new-found confidence, is an early adopter of several new technologies, from video-on-demand services to apps for tablets.

"We were viewing all the changes that our businesses were experiencing in technology as more foe than friend, and more challenge or threat than opportunity," said Iger.

"I reversed that ... because I really believed it was time, as a company, to start viewing technology as a friend."

"Particularly on the creative side, take big risks, take big bets ... It's the failure that comes with mediocrity and not taking chances that I tend to be a bit more critical of."

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff