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.
Trying to turn around its flagging merchandising operation, Walt Disney Co. is planting Mickey's vintage visage in some hip new places and planning to roll out the mouse in an aggressive marketing campaign centered on his 75th birthday.
On its face, using Mickey Mouse to full effect as a marketing tool would seem a no-brainer for Disney executives. After all, over 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 merchandising division, he was stunned to find how much the Burbank entertainment giant was underutilizing its famous mouse. Mooney had been hired away from sneaker maker Nike Inc., where he had a front-row seat 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, chairman of Disney's consumer products unit, 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.
Already, he has been stretched across a snug T-shirt worn by actress Sarah Jessica Parker during a racy scene on HBO's "Sex and the City" series. Minnie surely would blush. Disney also hired a graffiti artist called Mear, whose most recent work was an antiwar mural, to spray-paint a 1930s-style Mickey Mouse comic strip on the side of a Sunset Boulevard building last week. "Very nice," said one onlooker with an orange Mohawk.
Meanwhile, at trendy Fred Segal in Santa Monica, 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 Katie Couric, the host of NBC's "Today Show," ask, "Is it true ... that Mickey is the new black?" while interviewing the style editor of People Magazine this month.
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.
Whether the campaign will succeed remains unclear. Operating income for Disney's consumer products group plummeted more than 50% from $893 million in 1997 to $386 million in 2000, and it has remained basically flat since then. As part of a restructuring of the group, the company recently announced plans to close more than 100 of its 500-plus Disney Store outlets and put the rest of the retail chain up for sale.
A national advertising campaign to spur Mickey-related sales three years ago, anchored by the slogan "Why do we love the Mouse," had little effect. Sales of Mickey paraphernalia, which account for about 40% of the company's overall merchandise revenue, have remained stagnant in recent years.
But now Disney is hoping a hipper image will make Mickey more appealing to a new generation of teenagers. The idea is that once kids see stars wearing T-shirts featuring the mouse, they will be 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. The last decade has seen an explosion of animated characters from rival film studios and cable television shows such as "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Rugrats."
Licensed merchandise drove Disney's growth during the 1980s and '90s, when a string of 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.
This year, 17 animated films were up for Oscar consideration -- the bulk of them from studios other than Disney.
The company always has had something of a fluid 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," said Walt Disney chief Michael Eisner. "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 fame 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, bringing a 30-year gap between "The Simple Things" in 1953 and "Mickey's Christmas Carol" in 1983.
Through the 1990s, Mickey was largely underemployed as an entertainer. Besides his role as chief greeter at Disney's theme parks and a few modest film appearances, his only other major gig was on the Saturday morning television cartoon "MouseWorks."
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 "Runaway Brain" marked Mickey's return to animation shorts for the first time in years. Many objected to the plot in which a mad scientist transplants Mickey's brain into a monster's body and vice versa.
"It's clear Mickey is not himself.... He overcomes that in the end, but the very fact that Mickey was possessed was very disturbing" to some people, Mooney said.
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. "The movement of Mickey to 3-D was hotly debated," Mooney said. "There's a group of folks internally who believe that 2-D animation is the correct form ... in which to portray Mickey."
Another source of contention was the 2002 interactive video game "Kingdom Hearts," which broke the taboo of having Mickey interact with characters outside his traditional group of friends.
Likewise, there were misgivings about hiring a graffiti artist to spray one of Walt's classic cartoons on a wall. Attitudes changed when Mooney convinced skeptics that the mural was paying homage to Walt.
"I don't think embalming is a good thing," Mooney said. "I think the brand needs to be rejuvenated to be relevant to the future."
Experts agree. Revitalizing Mickey's career -- especially as an entertainer -- "is really, really critical," said Kevin Lane Keller, professor of marketing at Dartmouth College. "There's a stretch of kids who really didn't have much connection to the brand."
Mooney recalled "discovering" Mickey and his pals during his first few months on the job, after he spent a day poring over 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."
First came a product blitz that put Mickey Mouse and the gang on toothbrushes, cereal boxes and juice cartoons. More recently, Mooney launched a new line of consumer electronics products, including a 13-inch television set that has yellow feet and speakers that look like ears.
The retro-Mickey effort began after Disney executives noticed that shops in Hollywood were selling 30-year-old Mickey T-shirts -- some for as much as $100. The company then invited designer Jackie Brander, who has the largest floor space at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, to develop a line of Disney vintage apparel.
Then, instead of just encouraging retailers to push the product, Mooney borrowed a technique commonly used by Nike, Armani and others in the fashion industry called "seeding." That's where marketers "nurture" demand for a new product by encouraging celebrities to wear it.
Disney doled out retro T-shirts to stars at events such as last week's ESPY awards hosted by Disney-owned ESPN, as well as to publicists, fashion editors and designers. Before long, trendsetters -- from actress Jennifer Aniston to musician Avril Lavigne -- were wearing the T-shirts at events and magazine shoots.
Disney says the stars weren't paid, but the company acknowledges orchestrating at least some things behind the scenes. The appearance on "Sex and the City," for instance, came after Disney contacted two of the show's staff members.
Mooney insists that he is being careful not to exploit Mickey. "If you look at the original cartoon shorts, they were targeted at adults," he said. "Mickey had a little edge, a little attitude.
"So I don't view anything that's being done now as disrespectful to what Walt would have done."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A mouse's tale
From "Steamboat Willie" to a "Fantasia" redux, Mickey Mouse evolves through the years:
1928: Mickey Mouse is born when his first cartoon, "Steamboat Willie," opens in New York on Nov. 18. Walt Disney supplies the character's voice.
1929: Mickey merchandising is launched when a man pays Disney $300 to put the character on a children's writing pad.
Fans start the first Mickey Mouse Club in Santa Monica.
1930: The first Mickey Mouse dolls are introduced, and the cartoon star goes on to appear in almost 90 cartoon shorts in the 1930s.
1932: Advertising expert Kay Kamen starts a comprehensive licensing program featuring the company's characters.
The Mickey Mouse Club grows to 1 million members.
1933: Ingersoll Watch Co. avoids bankruptcy by introducing a Mickey Mouse watch and sells more than 900,000 of them in two years.
1934: The Lionel Train company sells so many toy railroad handcars with Mickey and Minnie aboard that it saves the firm.
1939: Mickey is redesigned for the cartoon "The Pointer."
1940: Mickey has a starring role in the Disney signature film "Fantasia."
1946: Jim Macdonald takes over as the voice of Mickey.
1955: "The Mickey Mouse Club" television show debuts on ABC. Mickey is a main attraction when Disneyland opens.
1971: Mickey continues to be on center stage when Walt Disney World opens in Orlando.
1977: Wayne Allwine takes over as the voice of Mickey. A new version of "The Mickey Mouse Club" TV show debuts.
1983: The world's most famous mouse returns to movie theaters in the first new production in 30 years, the short film "Mickey's Christmas Carol."
1989: An updated version of
"The Mickey Mouse Club" starts on the Disney Channel.
1999: "Disney's Mickey MouseWorks" begins on Saturday morning television. Mickey makes his video game debut.
2000: Mickey Mouse's segment from the original "Fantasia" is restored and is the only part of the original film to be included in the new "Fantasia/2000."
2001: Disney launches a marketing blitz to introduce Mickey and other longtime Disney characters to a new generation. Walt Disney TV creates "House of Mouse," which now airs on the Disney Channel and Toon Disney.
Compiled by Times librarian John Jackson
Sources: "Disney A to Z," Times research
Los Angeles Times