Disney seeks commercial partners to revive its income

Walt Disney Co. reported disappointing results last week, with operating income at its cable networks falling for its last quarter by $69m (£47m) to $517m (£348m). But the Disney Channel is hoping to offset difficult advertising conditions by using its newly created global sponsorship team to build more inventive commercial brand partnerships.

Global executive vice president of advertising at the Disney Media Advertising Sales and Marketing Group, Tricia Wilber, explains the strategy: “We’re not seeing the kids’ market being hit as dramatically as the adult market. But that isn’t to say there won’t be an impact.”

Wilber’s new integrated ad team, which will be led by Disney Channel’s director of ad sales Michael Ghosh in the UK, will also manage sales for sister TV channel Jetix. “We need to be able to deliver the same opportunities for each market and build on them for each region,” says Wilber.

Senior analyst for the TV department of Screen Digest, Tim Westcott, says: “Disney Channel’s strategy historically has been to stay away from ad-supported programmes. It has used subscription models wherever it uses the Disney brand. Last year it launched an ad-supported, free-to-air channel in Spain, so it is becoming more flexible.”

Wilber is aiming to develop more bespoke sponsorship activities for clients that go further than simply logos appearing on screen. She points to a partnership that the channel ran with retailer Wal-Mart in the US as a model for possible future collaborations. Wal-Mart was keen to drive its back-to-school business and attract more families to stores. Wilber explains: “We listened to them, went back and built a nine-month programme.”

Team work in action

The initiative crossed a number of media channels. Wal-Mart sponsored the release of the Hannah Montana film in 3D in cinemas, while Disney created an in-store programme at Wal-Mart for the release of the DVD. When the movie was about to appear on the Disney Channel, timed to coincide with the back-to-school period, Disney drove shoppers into Wal-Mart stores to pick up free 3D glasses to watch the film. The partnership also ran across Disney’s online and magazine portfolios.

Disney Channel is not just aiming for retailers with its new sponsorship strategy. It has already run three programmes with Honda for its family vehicles around its High School Musical franchise. The automobile company sponsored screenings on TV and ran a competition for a family to win a new car, which they could drive at the front of the HSM-themed parade at the Disneyland park in California.

“It has to be more creative about how to exploit its brands off the screen,” says Westcott. He adds that in many European countries, free-to-air digital TV is becoming dominant, so Disney Channel may have less exposure unless it follows its Spanish model in future.

Wilber seems convinced, however, that sponsorships are the right model for the moment. Disney is setting up an advertising and innovation lab in Texas to test the effects of its sponsorship and advertising strategies. The lab will measure viewers’ reactions to messages and media to offer clients more insight into the brand’s value for money. Wilber reveals this may include cutting-edge neuromarketing as well as more established techniques.

Wilber says that Disney will remain careful in its collaborations. Even with media companies clamouring for sponsors, it cannot risk making the wrong moves. She explains: “Mums trust that our programmes are good. We allow sponsors to borrow on that trust.”

Ruth Mortimer

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