Marketing the Disney way

As chief marketing officer at The Walt Disney Company EMEA and general manager for Disney Channels, Tricia Wilber is the ultimate multi-tasker, bringing the different strands of the business on to the same page, while responding to cultural change and not being afraid to take risks.

Tricia Wilber has spent some of the day playing Disney’s new Infinity game on a big screen in her corner office overlooking west London. The game includes an all-star cast of Disney characters, including Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow, Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story franchise and Mr and Mrs Incredible from the eponymous film.

Players create a ‘toy box’, bringing their favourite characters together and letting them have their own adventures, as well as designing their own worlds they can then upload to a website for other users to play.

The game itself is rather like Wilber’s job, which mixes genres and characters so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As chief marketing officer of The Walt Disney Company Europe, Middle East and Africa, an executive management role, the job covers four of five of the company’s divisions, including studios, TV channels, gaming and consumer products (see ‘How The Walt Disney Company divides up’, below)

But Wilber is also general manager of Disney Channels in the region, responsible for 61 branded TV channels reaching 100 million households in 118 countries, and including shows such as A.N.T Farm, Art Attack and the recent film Teen Beach Movie.

This means Wilber has to be an exceptional multi-tasker. It is the first time that a role including chief marketing officer, the channels and licensed products has been combined, she explains. “It is a really fun and exciting role that takes up a considerable amount of time but is also a great opportunity. It’s the first time we have had this role looking across the entire company.”

Having control of all the region’s marketing, plus overseeing its TV channels, allows Wilber to think across the business and work out the best ways of promoting and maximising the reach of its content.

It is about putting all the pieces together to gain the biggest audience and the strongest engagement 

“It allows me to deliver what my boss [EMEA president] Diego Lerner has put in place, which is ‘One voice, one vision’, because consumers don’t see us as different business units, they see us as Disney, so it is our opportunity to speak to them in that voice.”

This lets the company talk to consumers as well as business customers in more of a holistic way. “In a retail environment, for example, we had home entertainment sales teams, product sales teams and others. Sometimes you would be talking to partners about each of those lines of business, so it is about bringing those together and having one voice,” she says.

In relation to Wilber’s role, this way of thinking means franchise management fits closely with marketing. She gives the example of Violetta, the hugely successful telenovela – a series a little like a soap opera but with a clear ending – that is shown on the Disney Channel. 

It started off as a TV show but when the teams saw how well it was likely to do, they looked at consumer products and considered it more as a franchise. Disney’s events arm as well as its music business could also get onboard as the character Violetta is a musician herself.

Wilber gets involved at the development stage of shows for Disney Channel, giving financial approval for projects as well as making sure they fit within the scheme of what needs to be developed to reach audiences.

“We start with our global slate, looking at what is coming out of our teams in [global headquarters] Burbank [California] and what we have available globally, and then we look at some of the specific needs in EMEA, and that could be across an entire region or a particular market.”

A wealth of properties, such as Iron Man, Mickey Mouse and The Muppets is a great advantage but also a challenge for Wilber, who must bring unity to Disney’s markteting strategy

Everything the business does and every character or franchise it creates has to be in line with Disney’s values. “We are very thoughtful about that – what fits and what doesn’t. Number one, our brand is founded on great storytelling; there has to be a sense of optimism, a sense of humour about it, it has trust, it has high quality in the sense that it is appropriate for its platform and it has a real sense of community,” says Wilber.

The optimism she talks about is certainly evident in Disney’s content, however, the term ‘Disneyfication’ has been applied in a negative sense, suggesting some kind of bland homogenisation. But Wilber says this is not a problem among consumers.

“Consumers aren’t talking about that so it is not something we worry about. If it was coming directly from consumers in terms of their appreciation of the brand and their affinity for it, we would certainly be worried about it.”

One backlash did come in the form of criticism against a glamorous ‘makeover’ of Princess Merida, a character from last year’s Oscar-winning animated film Brave, made by Pixar, the animation studio Disney bought for $7.4bn (£4.7bn) in 2006. More than 250,000 people signed’s online petition for her to be returned to her original ‘tomboyish’ self. The company says her new image was a one-off look for her coronation and that she still retains her values.

What must surely be one of the most exciting projects in the movie world at the moment is the development of Star Wars: Episode 7, the latest film in the franchise Disney bought from Lucasfilm in December 2012 for more than $4bn. Wilber and her teams are currently making plans for its marketing ahead of the 2015 release.

When we sit down and think about a property we are thinking about it across the entire business

“What I get excited about is that I am not just thinking about Star Wars as a film but as a franchise. Within that I am thinking about film, TV, consumer products and publishing, and how they all fit together and work with one another. That is something we are laying out right now,” she says, but she cannot whet the appetite of fans further as the movie plans are top secret.

What is also in the pipeline is Star Wars Rebels, a series to be shown in autumn 2014 on Disney XD, its ‘boy focused, girl inclusive’ channel. This will help introduce younger kids to the brand, along with other things such as its Lego Star Wars characters.

“The beauty or the challenge with kids is that they grow up, so there are always new ones to introduce to the franchise. The engagement in the content is really important to build that affinity. It is about putting all the pieces together to gain the biggest audience you can but also the strongest engagement and connection.”

However, that engagement was lacking with audiences of The Lone Ranger, Disney’s big summer movie the company estimates will sustain losses of between $160m and $190m. Wilber won’t comment directly on what the EMEA region learned from its release in the US but does say the teams look at each in turn and take lessons from both failures and successes.

“We learn from what the issues with it are: is it only content, is it messaging or marketing, is it the actual cultural differences? You really have to understand that. Sometimes [the EMEA region] goes first with a film, for example, with The Avengers, and to great success.

“There are many things you can learn about your messaging, your creative, your media spend or target audience. Is it more of a family film or less? Is it more male than female? You can do all of the work before a release and still you don’t really know until it comes out. So to have a market go first and learn from that is really helpful.”

While the projected loss on The Lone Ranger is fairly significant, the company maintains it has had a good summer of movie releases, with Iron Man 3 taking $1.2bn globally and becoming the second-biggest grossing Marvel film of all time after The Avengers, which took $1.5bn.

Marvel, which the company bought for $4bn in 2009, has a pipeline of films coming out, including Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and chairman and chief executive Bob Iger says the number of Marvel characters “has only been mined from a tip of the iceberg perspective”.

In spite of the losses on The Lone Ranger, he stands by the strategy of ‘high-cost tentpole films’. “One way to rise above the din and the competition is with a big film. Not just big budget, but big story, big cast, big marketing behind it,” he told analysts at the third quarter earnings call last month.

The big challenge for Wilber, as is arguably the case for all businesses, is the changing behaviour of consumers at a rapid pace. “What you did yesterday may not be the right thing to do today. How do you keep up with that? How do you anticipate it and how do you take risks?


“In a world where there is significant pressure on delivering the bottom line, delivering results, you have to be as nimble as possible. To take risks is also a bit more challenging. They can have great reward but they can sometimes not pan out. So that is the hardest [thing] for me.”

Wilber’s attitude to television itself has also changed. A recent lightbulb moment was when her daughter said she was watching TV but the television set wasn’t on. “She was watching it on her computer – the TV rarely gets turned on in my house by my children. That was an ‘aha’ moment, that television is not what I think it is but what the kids think it is. Then we have to think about what we do in that space, and how we communicate is another thing.”

Wilber gets around this by trying out new things. For example, instead of running a ‘physical’ Disney parade for the launch of Infinity there was a digital version. Characters from the game were projected onto various parts of London, as well as onto the white cliffs of Dover and then the films were released digitally last month.

Similarly, to increase the reach of Iron Man 2, people could ‘become’ the character via a website. “It is about the experience but also about how you take that and make it viral and digital, and move it around to have great reach,” she says.

Disney Channels allows the company to access new markets and introduce characters to children at a young age. In Turkey, for example, it launched a free-to-view channel a year and a half ago. “Not only does it create a connection with the consumer at brand level but we also look at what we are marketing. We look at owned assets first, the platforms where we already have a relationship with consumers.”

Wilber explains there is a difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Disney. She has previously given the example of a fan who set up a Facebook page dedicated to Toy Story 3, which had far more followers than the official page. So the company engaged with him and let him put questions to the directors and attend a screening, something that would not have happened in an ‘old’ Disney world.

She is pushing hard not to have a separate digital team – while there are some experts, everyone has to think about it in the way the company and its brands communicate.

“We have continued to refine the experience audiences or bloggers [have] to give them access. In ‘old’ Disney we protected it, we would have shut [the fan’s Facebook site] down. ‘New’ Disney recognises that you have to embrace it so it becomes part of our culture, part of what we do.”


How The Walt Disney Company divides up

Division Description Turnover – three months to 29 June 2013 Profit – three months to 29 June 2013

Media networks

Disney Channels worldwide, ESPN and ABC



Studio entertainment

Film, music and theatre groups, including Pixar, Marvel Studios, Touchstone and titles such as Star Wars, The Lion King, The Muppets and Cars



Consumer products

Licensing, publishing and the Disney Store




Covers online, mobile, social media and online games. Includes Club Penguin


$58m loss

Parks and resorts

Theme parks in the US, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Disney Cruise Line



Figures are global: the company does not break out EMEA numbers. Tricia Wilber’s role covers all divisions bar parks and resorts.

Tricia Wilber – CV

2010 – chief marketing officer, The Walt Disney Company EMEA and general manager, Disney Channels

2007 – promoted to executive vice-president, Disney Media Advertising Sales and Marketing Group

2004 – senior vice-president, advertising sales and promotion for Disney ABC Cable Networks Group

1999 – joins The Walt Disney Company and spends time as vice-president, national accounts and vice-president, business development for ABC Cable Networks Group

1993-99 – director, marketing SNET (part of television company Americast)

1983-88 – account executive, Xerox



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