EDITORIAL: Innovation is the way to reawaken that Disney magic

Disney is manifestly overexposed to the chill economic winds that have been blowing across the Atlantic of late. It is all too easy to put the media and entertainment monolith's financial woes down to the advertising recession, compounded by the severe downturn in travel and tourism following September 11, 2001.

If that is true then Matt Ryan, senior vice-president for corporate brand management, is right not to lose any sleep over perceived brand crisis at Disney (Is Disney still magic?, page 22).

Ryan shrugs off Disney's less than vintage year in TV and film production by acknowledging that "from time to time our competitors will produce hits", but pointing to kids' record consumption of Disney and the "consistent run" the business has had. Even put through the corporate rhetoric filter, it still comes out as a backward-looking statement.

Disney is a 'classic' brand turned media owner. In the transition from childhood companion to modern corporate entity it has had to face up to how the brand is represented and understood, both by employees and the public. Its strategy, "to market the individual products" rather than the Disney brand itself, is the right one and the same as that embraced by so many global brand giants, including Microsoft, Coke and Sony.

The question is whether Disney sits comfortably among such brands, or whether its real peers are the likes of Vivendi Universal and AOL Time Warner. These are true corporate brands that mean little to the end-user.

Investment in new products is costly and speed to market is crucial. As a result, your success is largely measured by how big or how recent your last big hit was. In such an intense competitive environment, 'consistent runs', of whatever duration, count for little.

Disney's problem is that it falls between these two camps. Its theme parks, stores and one TV channel are eponymous, while many of its individual media companies and TV shows are, to the public at least, anonymous.

Added to this is Disney's reluctance to abandon its 'premier family entertainment' ambitions when every indicator suggests that media is consumed less and less by a family audience.

The successive economic blows to its business interests have at least exposed the myth that chief executive Michael Eisner has managed to sustain over the past 18 years - that Disney is anything more than the sum of its parts. Eisner's next success - or that of his successor - will be to identify the creative hotspots in media, marketing and brand alliances that are still dotted about the Disney empire, and to let innovation rather than brand heritage reawaken the Disney magic.

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