Disney and other mysteries of the brand

Astrolab_1In just four days, Robert Iger will take over as CEO at Disney.

Share holders did not rally round news of his appointment, but they will be pleased to hear that he is already restoring the relationship with Steve Jobs and Pixar that Eisner did so much to damage. Blockbusters like Toy Store and The Incredibles are good for business.

But there is bad news, I think, from BusinessWeek. Apparently, Iger intends to "distribute Disney films and TV shows digitally on phones and directly to homes." This kind of distribution is desirable, not least because it is, of course, inevitable. But I think there is a failure here to reckon with the real power of the Disney product and the Disney brand.

There is something about the thing itself that we, in marketing and in anthropology, do not fully understand. There is something about having your hands on the movie, even when this comes to you in the form of a cheesy plastic package. Parents and kids want their homes stocked with Disney favorites and they want them in a material form.  We’re not sure why.  (But this is a small part of that larger mystery that saw people buy DVDs that they would not watch more than once.)

Is this tangibility, touchability, holdability?  Is it a matter of having it there on the shelf?  (DVDs do furnish a room?)  Is about having to load it up instead of dial it up that makes the difference? Is it about having the DVD in the event the cable feed fails us?  The marketer’s curiousity is aroused.

We got early warning of this effect from the museum world about 20 years ago. It became possible to make a copy of Champlain’s astrolab (above) so perfect that even experts are sometimes fooled. Surely, this is good enough for display. Surely, this gets the job done.

"No," said the museum visitor, "I need to see the real thing." There is something mesmerizng here about the thing itself that does not "cross over" in the moment of duplication.  (People with New Age convictions believe that this irreproducible difference is to be found in the "vibe" of the object and we would periodically find people in the museum running their hands over objects in order to, as one of them put it, "hoover up the vibes."  Yeah, I know.) 

Clearly, a factory product does not have this "real thing" power, but still there is still something important about having our Disney favorites in their material form. Indeed, many of us would rather have limited access to the real thing than constant access to Disney-on-demand.  All of this is another way of saying that there are some qualities of a commercial artifact that do not reproduce in a "mechanical age."  (Poor guy, he was wrong about this, too.) 

In sum, Disney creates value that does not get recaptured when things are distributed digitally.  And this suggests a certain marketing naivete on the part of the new CEO.  And this bodes ill for Disney’s future performance and its present share price. 

Hey, but what do I know.  I’m still using an astrolab.

Post script:

Tonight’s the night for the launch of Culture and Consumption II.  Thanks to everyone who responded to the invitation.  I am looking forward to seeing you from 6 to 8.  For the rest of you, if you leave now, you can just make it.  (Email me for the GPS coordinates.  We will clear the roof top for those of you coming by hot air balloon, light aircraft or helicopter.) 


Grover, Ronald. 2005. Calming the Crowd after Eisner’s Thrill Ride. BusinessWeek. October 3, 2005, p. 37.

13 thoughts on “Disney and other mysteries of the brand

  1. Matt

    It doesn’t really relate to the problem at hand, but as a consumer I’d be very suspicious of any Disney-sanctioned electronic distribution of Disney content. If I buy a DVD, I know for a fact that if I want to watch it again, it will be there. Even if I rent one, I have a reasonable degree of confidence that it will be available to be rented again, should I ever want to.

    But any Disney-endorsed electronic distribution mechanism will necessarily be loaded with tons of heinous DRM crap, which will serve to ensure that, if Disney’s management decides they wish to deprive me without notice of the right to continue using the content I’ve paid them for, they’ll be able to flip a switch and prevent it from ever playing again.

    I don’t trust _any_ mainstream content distributor to not do this, if they’re given the ability. But the reason I don’t trust any of them with the power is almost entirely attributable to the past behavior _specifically_ of the Disney corporation.

  2. CarolGee

    Grant, you talked about “the real thing.” For me as a consumer of fine art, there is nothing more humbling than being in the actual presence of the real thing. Disney is fine art in its own way. Actual fine art, such as a painting, sculpture, a symphony or ballet, need to be experienced so that I can honor the maker or performer. I won’t record the live performance. It will be gone for me. I won’t bring home a postcard with an image of the original artistic work. But I will be internally filled up again, refreshed, renewed by the experience of actual thing. There is no substitute.

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  4. Peter McB.

    Carol —

    Why is there no substitute? Why would you not be refreshed by an indistinguisable copy? I genuinely don’t understand what an original object has which an indistinguishable copy does not, unless it something immaterial, spiritual. But I know I argue against the grain of our times here.

    The focus on authenticity and the original, which seems to be a feature of our culture across many arts, intrigues me. In classical music, for example, the last few decades have seen an obsession with playing period music on original instruments, ie, the instruments of the time in which the music was written. But, 18th century performances were held in rooms without air-conditioning, and often without much heating, so we immediately invalidate all the focus on the original by our modern performance conditions. (If you think air-con is nothing to be concerned with, you haven’t tried to play a trumpet outside on a winter morning!) So, no modern performance, even on period instruments, can be a true replication of the original performance.

    I have before me a postcard of Thomas Moran’s famous landscape, “Nearing camp, evening on the Upper Colorado River, 1882”, which shows a majestic bluff, a cathedral of a site, with immense cliffs coloured by the sunset, the sort of painting to grace the entrance lobby of a National Parliament Building or the Senate Room of a rich University. The picture is wonderful! I was so impressed, I went looking for the original, which is held in a gallery not far from me here in NW England (where Moran was born). The original is tiny, not much larger than the postcard I have. A great disappointment that such a majestic image should reside in a painting so small. I don’t think original is necessarily better.

  5. steve

    Peter’s comments hit a nerve. I’ve seen some original Eschers that were no more impressive than the copies upon viewing.

    I think we need to distinguish between the direct aesthetic experience of an object (both pleasure and intended meaning) and the indirect aesthetic experience–our projections of meaning based on the conditions of its creation. For example, religious relics (say Christ’s hipbone) would have little direct aesthetic impact but heavy indirect effects on us. I have seen the actual small wooden chair that Edwin Hubble sat in on Mount Wilson when he discovered that the universe is much bigger than just our galaxy–that there are millions of other galaxies at vast distances. The chair isn’t much to look at, but when I knew that Hubble had his butt in it when he made his discovery…it gave me a (small) relic-like thrill.

    My guess is that the relic-effect kicks in when we have some sort of dramatic narrative in our heads about the creator,the context of creation. or how the artifact came down to us. For something like the astrolabe, it’s simply “Jeez, this thing is old, and someone worked really hard to make it, and then it got saved and wound up here. Cool.”

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  7. CarolGee

    Peter and Steve, you both have hit on some very important points of which I was not consciously aware. You are correct that the real thing might bring disappointment. For me going back to a cherished childhood place, the “real” home place, is impossible. Because I have imbued it with “stuff” that has nothing to do with objective reality. Seeing “Bambi” as a child is far from any objective reality; my mind has overlaid much of it with my own inferences and interpretations. The fine painting for me brings with it the beauty of a slight glimpse of the “actual” past genius, impossible to really come to know, except through his or her faint brush strokes. As for live music, again it is the person, the artist that makes it richer. You both have helped me see that the value-added part is the creator present with the creation. That has more meaning for me. Thanks, guys!

  8. Donna Halata

    having tried to log on to web site http://www.disneyshareholder.com as informed by the arrival of my 1st dividend check it informed me that it could not be found.as this is the only communication i have recieved since purchasing my shares i am begining to think that the whole shares thing is a bit of a con trick, when purchasing i was told that i would recieve a welcome pack and a printed shares certificate. as this was a present to me and my huaband on our first wedding anniversary (paper)you can imagine how disappointed we all are. that we have nothing to show. if you feel this is not worthy of a reply with an explanation i am tempted to seek advice.

    waiting reply
    mrs D Halata

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