With news coming through that John Carter has surprised absolutely nobody by losing Disney a bucket-load of cash, despite hitting the top of the box office in my own dear country and hanging around the top three of the U.S. box office, the fact that the Mouse House have apparently chosen not to try and take fill advantage of the merchandise buck looks all the more baffling. This is just one more step in a disastrous extra-release marketing campaign that saw one of the poorest cinematic trailers I have ever seen, underwhelming posters, and a generally underwhelming, unprestigious release for a film which actually deserved an awful lot more.
Merchandising dollars can mean a massive financial return that can often sweeten a box office failure, as well as setting up better home release sales on the back of the brand reinforcement that toys, clothes and the usual assorted accouterments can bring. So why exactly isn’t my local Disney Store awash with John Carter branded products? And why is the online Disney Store stocking mouse mats, hoodies, mugs and smart phone covers as the primary lines for the merchandise campaign?
One of the single biggest demographics that merchandise-makers can aim at – it goes without saying – is the Kiddie Buck: a demographic which traditionally spends the most around the holiday period, but which can be aimed at aggressively throughout the year to boost a brand and bring in more money. Look at The Muppets – a film which came to be on the crest of a nostalgic wave, and whose major appeal is to original fans of the characters, which crucially set its gaze on the Kiddie Buck (though not exclusively) with an aggressive campaign that included wonderful plush toys, children’s clothes and other products that the film’s primary market couldn’t even buy for themselves. They call that Good Marketing.
Bad Marketing is not taking added opportunities when they present themselves – as in the case of the Muppets – or failing entirely to produce any memorable merchandise lines at all – as in the case of John Carter. Where are the action figures, the plush monsters, the odd little curios that collectors like me want to buy not knowing why?
So, ranting aside for now, below are the three best Disney merchandising campaigns that those behind the insipid marketing and merchandise campaign for John Carter should have taken heed from (or should look upon with embarrassment at the very least):
1. Toy Story
Afforded the luxury of having toys as its main characters, Pixar’s Toy Story franchise has something that most films don’t have, and the transition of character into buyable toy form was always going to be the simplest of things. But that doesn’t mean Disney or Pixar were ever lazy with any of the four films (or indeed the Hawaiian Vacation short, which spawned its own line of toys), with each enjoying a new line of merchandise. I should know the quality of these lines, since I actually collect them – but bias doesn’t come into it here.
What matters most for the Toy Story lines, and their greatest lesson is charismatic design and strong execution: aside from the traditionally poor multiple character figure packs that Disney always fuck up with poor paint-jobs and wrong-looking characters, the majority of the Toy Story merch lines are outstanding in both design and execution, taking advantage of the idiosyncratic appeal of the personalities of the film.
The Lesson? Have faith in your characters to sell themselves beyond the boundaries of the film. Like little merchandise harlots.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas
It is perhaps slightly unfair to compare John Carter with a film with doubly-seasonal appeal, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is the finest example of a Disney film brand rising well beyond the appeal of the film itself. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a genuine brand, whose new products are vociferously hoovered up by fans in the limited windows of release every year (for Halloween and for Christmas). Disney take advantage of that brand position even further by bringing out limited edition lines each year – particularly Christmas decorations – which are numbered and only released once, in a move mirroring the Vault gimmick that ensures targeted sales figures for DVDs and blu-rays.
Impressively, about 80% of what is released under the Nightmare Before Christmas banner has absolutely nothing to do with the film, and according to the George Lucas School for Merchandise that is both bloody impressive and key to strong market position.
The Lesson? Know your collectors, and give them limited edition, prestigious releases to feed their passion. But make sure it’s all on brand.
The film from which John Carter should take the greatest guidance: Cars is generally held as the worst Pixar franchise by far, and yet it has raked in a phenomenal amount of merchandise money despite that limited appeal. So, how did Disney convince people to part with their money for products linked to a film (and a sequel) that few people would willingly admit to loving? Well, by oversaturating the market and specifically targeting that hallowed Kiddie Buck I mentioned earlier on.
Even now, after the sequel pretty much tanked (this is all relative of course), Disney’s stores are packed with little cars with faces – most of which never even appeared in either of the films. In a market place as competitive as a Disney store, which is re-merchandised to accomodate every new film, and every new seasonal line, to have almost permanent residence is an unprecedented success that only Mickey himself can probably claim to have achieved.
The Lesson? Market saturation: if you build it, they will come.
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