Entertainment - The new adventures of Disney.

When you've been producing entertainment for as long as Disney, customers just won't let you get away with marketing that's not fun, writes Richard Lord.

The web isn't very entertaining. It's nowhere near as entertaining as, say, the cinema. It's slow, it's not much good at sound, and for most people it's almost entirely useless for video, unless you're watching something particularly exciting and need pauses in order to calm down.

For companies whose core business is providing broadcast entertainment for media like the cinema, this is a bit of a problem. Disney, for example, can't put animation on the web, unless it wants its painstakingly created, photo-realistic pictures to slow to a crawl, shattering the 24-frames-per-second illusion.

What it can do on the web, however, is entertain people in other ways.

It can use games, competitions or film tie-ins, for instance - after all, it has some pretty spectacular collateral to play with. Alternatively, it could choose to use the web as a promotional vehicle for its offline properties - the films themselves. When a company like Disney squares up to new media, it has to work out whether it's using a broadcast medium or a marketing medium.

For Jaki Ellenby, however, the two are not mutually exclusive. Ellenby is senior marketing manager for Disney Online Europe, and she's spearheading the massive European expansion which the company is planning. Disney is at the top of the online entertainment tree in the US, with some of the most popular sites on the web, and Ellenby believes that the key to European success lies in emulating the way the US sites reflect the unique Disney culture. "The company as a whole has a very clear mission," she says.

"It's an entertainment company. On the web, at the cinema, on TV, on CDs, at a theme park, or wherever else, every division has one mission - to entertain. So even when our main aim is to promote something, which it often is on the web, we should always be entertaining people."

This, she adds, puts Disney in an unusual situation. There's a tendency among consumers to regard every Disney site as an entertainment property, even when the company produces something like the Disney Channel site (www.disney channel.co.uk), which was set up solely to give information to the TV channel's subscribers. It might seem like the average marketer's dream scenario to have their company's promotional output consumed as if it were programming. But Ellenby claims it places a huge onus on the company to deliver the level of entertainment that people have come to expect from it.

"Disney is expected to be fun, or at least to give information in a fun way," she says. "With the original version of the Disney Channel site, people were disappointed. It was very informative but not very entertaining.

It's changed, so that now it ties in with the launch of our new studios.

Even the Disney Channel site, which was, and is, aimed at people who are already subscribers to the TV channel, has an entertainment element."

The company is also revamping a number of its European sites with a view to providing the level of content most people associate with Disney. "Up until very recently, the French site,e f for instance, was typical of what we originally put online," says Ellenby. "It wasn't very entertaining: it was a bit flat, basically. We improved the design and content so it had more of an authentic Disney feel to it. A number of the other European sites are rather flat like that, but we're in the process of changing them."

The requirement to entertain is even more acute for the company's flagship site in the US, Disney.com (www.disney. com). It is the most popular entertainment site in America and attracts around 350,000 visitors per day. This is all very well, says Ellenby, but the main purpose of the site is actually marketing. "It's funny that Disney.com is America's top entertainment site because in reality, it's not actually an entertainment site. A lot of our sites in the US are far more entertaining than Disney.com. Something like Disney's Daily Blast (www.disneyblast.com) is our entertainment site.

But for us the link between entertainment and promotion is blurred."

In the US, Disney does have sites which are advertising-supported, and whose purpose is primarily to entertain. The Daily Blast is an online games and entertainment area aimed at kids, which appears on AOL as well as the web, while Family.com (www.family.com) is an online magazine. "The Daily Blast is on a totally different level from other Disney sites," comments Ellenby. "It has a greater amount of higher-quality original content, which is renewed more regularly. A lot of Disney sites are very informational and aren't really aimed at children. For instance, the British site to promote Hercules (www.herc.co.uk) has a lot about the creation of the film and how it was drawn, in a section hosted by Gerald Scarfe.

That information is mainly aimed at art students. Similarly, the Disneyland Paris site is mainly aimed at people looking to book holidays. Family.com, on the other hand, is a magazine. Remember that Disney is also a publishing company. Family.com is taking our magazines onto the web, where the other sites take their cue direct from the films."

The Disney Online department was launched in the US in February 1996.

It now employs almost 300 people and is responsible for up to 100 sites for 15 US business units, including the main Disney site, the Daily Blast, Family.com, the Disney Store, Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Home Video, Walt Disney Television, and even Walt Disney Records and Disney Cruise Line.

Disney Online Europe, by contrast, was launched in March 1997 and still only employs a total of five people. Nonetheless, there are around 50

European Disney sites in eight countries, and more are planned. According to Ellenby, however, this doesn't mean that Disney will be any less professional in its online activities in Europe. "Europe will take the same route as Disney.com, with marketing and promotion-driven sites. A lot of it is down to emotion: if people understand the product you're marketing, they're more likely to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about your brand, so giving them information is important. In the US, people can receive regular update emails, and we're looking at the possibility of introducing things like that in Europe.e

f"All the European national sites are basically marketing and promotion, but they do entertain. We make them entertaining so that people want to use them. Entertainment on Disney's European sites always has a link with the product, however.

We don't just throw up an irrelevant game for people to play, for example.

It would have to tie in with the product."

Also taking its lead from the US, Disney Online Europe is planning to introduce a European version of the Daily Blast during 1998. It will be the first site launched by Disney Online Europe whose main function is not promotional. Unlike America, however, the company doesn't plan to support any of its offerings in Europe by accepting third-party advertising, at least for the immediate future.

"Partly that's because it's operationally complex," explains Ellenby, "but it's also strategic: people in Europe are less used to web adverts.

We'll be having sponsors, but sponsors in the sense of partners rather than simply big advertisers who pay a lot to get their branding everywhere. For instance, Apple sponsored the Hercules site and provided some of the technology which was used to create the site."

Although advertising is not planned as a source of funding in Europe, the company is looking to create a European version of the Disney Store (www.disneystore.com) to generate transactional revenue. "There's a definite demand to have a shop," says Ellenby. "But the market is still a little young in Europe at the moment. Disney Online has invested quite a large amount in commerce and we're planning to invest more."

Disney Online Europe's staff is so much smaller than the US unit because, unlike its American counterpart, the European division's site-building role is minimal. Although it creates home pages, its main role is currently a consultative one, recommending developers for sites in individual European countries. Additionally, since August this year, digital marketing agency TMS Interactive has been responsible for co-ordinating home page design across Europe and increasing the promotional impact of the various European sites. According to Ellenby, Disney Online Europe is concentrating on carrying forward its original remit: to ensure consistency between the company's European web sites.

"When we set up the department," she comments, "there were a bunch of sites from individual divisions, and the mission was to centralise it in order to make it more powerful and more fun. Disney can't afford to have bad web sites. Also, there are still a lot of fan sites out there, and the problem is that the information on them is often not correct.

"We're here to help the various business units, not to take decisions for them. Disney.com is the biggest entertainment site in the US, and it's been going long enough to have a presence and a position. We want to work with partners in Europe to gain that same sort of position and build up credibility over here."

One of the main challenges for Disney Online Europe is to ensure that country-specific sites feature locally relevant content and appropriate marketing strategies.

For instance, marketing the recent Disney release Hercules in somewhere like Britain presents a very different set of challenges from marketing it in Greece. "We make sure all content is created specifically for the local market," says Ellenby. "A lot of big companies are just translating content, but the products a company like Disney sells in various countries are very different, and the marketing issues are different.

"The web is also a major branding exercise for us. The web is a 'cool' medium for us to use. It's important for a brand like Disney to be on the web. Cool is a big issue for a lot of our audience, particularly adolescent males."

As its sites expand and improve, Disney Online Europe is looking to increase the amount of coverage it gets from Disney sites in the US. The company enjoys the huge advantage of having some of the highest traffic sites on the web at its disposal as a promotional tool, says Ellenby, as well as a powerful range of offline properties. "We've got so much collateral that it's very easy to promote web sites and web address. We're working on getting more international site exposure on the front page of the main Disney.com site."

With so many different web addresses to promote, she admits the company can sometimes be schizoid in its promotional activities, especially when promoting web sites which are themselves promotional vehicles for films.

"We've mostly been focusing our efforts on trying to promote the Disney.co.uk name rather than individual film sites. But we do tend to market both the main site and the films, depending on how we feel that particular day."

TMS Interactive has the job of increasing the number of people visiting the sites, in partnership with French web promotions company Alpaga. TMS arranges reciprocal links from other sites, including search engines and relevant media properties.

TMS is also building a stronger promotional element into the existing European Disney sites. According to TMS director Nick Henley, this is particularly important on sites, like Disney's in Europe, which don't accept advertising. The company recently put email Christmas cards on the Disney UK web site as a way of increasing traffic levels.

Also in the pipeline is a promotional partnership with one of the major search engines - yet to be named - which will provide links to a page where visitors can enter a prize draw to win Disney merchandise.

Henley claims that since TMS took up its promotional role in August, the number of people visiting Disney's European sites has doubled.

Buena Vista International, Disney's distribution arm, employs agency Foresight to co-ordinate film-specific online promotional campaigns, and also to handle traditional marketing and PR.

According to Foresight business development director for film and entertainment Kathleen O'Donnell, a promotional site isn't always the best tactic for an individual film. "We don't necessarily always create a web site," she says. "Sometimes we go for an online marketing campaign, for instance with competitions on the children's areas of MSN or AOL, and then get a traditional media owner like the Funday Times involved to promote the competition."



DISNEY.COM FOR KIDS AND PARENTS

Marketing to children is always controversial. Appealing to pester power - where children pressure their parents into buying - is a popular tactic among children's advertisers on television. For many, the ethical tightrope trodden by children's brands who use the internet as a marketing medium is even narrower.

Ian Hughes is sales and marketing director of the Mail Marketing group, which provides the transactional capabilities for several family-orientated web sites, including those of Aardman Animations (www.aardman.com) and Enid Blyton Ltd (www. enidblyton. co.uk). He insists that brands shouldn't try to address children too directly on the web. "The web is a one-to-one, relationship marketing medium," he says. "Whichever way you look at it, companies are establishing their marketing relationships on the web with the child, not with the parent. It's not like TV where the whole family sees the ad together. So it's the child who's being invited to put in those credit card details, it's the child who is the target for the marketer, and those marketers are going to have to be careful or they'll get in a lot of trouble for unethical behaviour.

"If you go to the Disney site," he adds, "the first thing you see is 'buy, buy, buy, buy, buy'."

Jaki Ellenby, senior marketing manager for Disney Online Europe, rejects claims that the company forces its web marketing down children's throats.

"Disney has never been hard-sell," she insists. "We're very careful about branding and definitely do not use characters to sell merchandise. We're very aware of the ethical issues online, and that's one of the reasons why Disney.com isn't hard-sell. TV advertising is much harder-sell than anything on the web.

"Also, there aren't nearly as many children on the internet in Europe as in the US, so advertising to children who are using the internet on their own isn't really an issue here. Disney's audience is global, and it is both parents and children."

Kathleen O'Donnell, business development director for film and entertainment at Foresight, which develops sites for Disney's distributor Buena Vista International, agrees that hard-sell can be counter-productive: "Ultimately it's the parents who are going to buy the products. We don't want them to think we're exploiting the children. What's makes parents happy isn't the same as what kids want to watch. We want to have attitude, but we don't want to repel the parents.



AARDMAN ANIMATIONS LIMITING ITS SITE TO MERCHANDISING

Bristol-based Aardman Animations has almost exactly the opposite challenge from Disney when it comes to marketing its properties on the web. Rather than designing different sites for local markets, the company behind Wallace and Gromit uses one central site (www.aardman .com) to reach out to overseas markets and build loyalty in existing fans.

According to Arthur Sherriff, marketing and publicity spokesman for Aardman, the company can't currently use the web for animation, and instead chooses to provide information rather than entertainment. "I think we will broadcast on the web one day, but I think that is an awfully long way off," says Sherriff.

"I do see a time when you'll be able to download a short animated film for some sort of fee. The public themselves have to want to do it, however. At the moment animation won't work. Animation is a deception of the eye. The web slows it down and makes it look a bit naff.

"We can use the web to expand our influence, however. Ideas for Wallace and Gromit licensing originate in the UK and take a long time to reach other countries. We have a massive following in countries like the US, Japan and Korea. We have 350 merchandise items in Britain and only a few in each other country. We can get some of the best of those 350 items up on the site, so internationally the web is very important. There's bound to be one territory that's very in-front with merchandising, and usually that's the mother territory."

As well as providing background on the company and its work, the site features an online shop. According to Sherriff, Aardman is planning to step up the transactional element in the future. "At the moment the shop is only one function of the site," he comments. "We've looked at it and reappraised it. We're aware that there's a category of web site with regular news to give to people, and we're aware that our site isn't like that. It's about animation and animation is such a slow process, the site doesn't change very often.

"We want to put the emphasis on the shop, which can change every week.

The shop will be the main attraction. You will be able to dig deeper and find out more about the company if you want to, but we'd hope that most people that come to the site already know all that.

I would certainly hope that people would know enough about Wallace and Gromit already - otherwise we're not doing our job properly.

"If you're visiting Thailand, for instance, and you come across Aardman or even Wallace and Gromit, would you really be interested? I doubt it. It's not about new people, it's about giving something to people who are already interested in Wallace and Gromit and want to find out more.

"We'll try and find things exclusively for the web. When Nick Park went to Buckingham Palace to collect his CBE, we created a picture of Wallace and Gromit going to the palace to collect CBEs, and put 100 of them on the site to give away. I'm very keen on the idea of selling through the web. I've got a feeling it will be a very good place for shopping."



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