Disney reaches to the crib to extend princess magic
By MERISSA MARR,AP
Posted: 2007-11-19 10:24:59
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By MERISSA MARR
The Wall Street Journal
At the recently opened Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Cinderella's castle in Walt Disney World, hordes of young girls in ball gowns jostle every day to get their hair coiffed, their nails painted and their faces plastered with make-up to imitate their favorite princess.
It's an image that's become classic of the Walt Disney Co. Princess revolution. What started out in 2001 as a few princess outfits became an overnight sensation as Disney enchanted 3- to 6-year-old girls throughout America with everything from princess comforters and princess backpacks to princess-emblazoned sneakers. Smartly-packaged releases of classic princess movies have helped bring girls back for more each year.
But while Disney appears to have exploited every corner of princess mania, it is also under pressure to keep its $4 billion princess franchise growing. So Disney's princess minders are hoping to hook even younger girls and their moms on the craze with a new range of princess products aimed at newborns. The princess clan will feature on cribs, diaper-changing mats and other infant products next year.
Also on tap: adding new princesses to the core lineup that includes Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine (more-recent characters, Mulan and Pocahontas, are largely on the sidelines). Disney plans to introduce a new African-American princess called Tiana in an animated film, "The Princess and the Frog," a response to demands for more diversity among princesses. Two other animated princess-based movies - one starring Rapunzel and another starring a Scottish princess in a new Pixar production - will be rolled out after that.
Meanwhile, Disney's first live-action princess movie, "Enchanted," will hit screens this week and is being tapped to sell more princess products. The movie - in which an animated girl betrothed to a prince is propelled into modern-day, live-action New York City - was originally conceived as a chance to introduce a new princess, Giselle, to the lineup, according to people familiar with the matter. But Disney abandoned that plan when it realized securing the life-long rights to the image of Amy Adams, who plays Giselle, was harder than an ugly step-sister squeezing into Cinderella's glass shoe.
Andy Mooney, Disney's head of consumer products who launched the Princess brand, concedes that the heady growth of recent years is likely to slow at home and that the company is looking to push the brand more aggressively overseas. That initially means Europe, then Asia. Disney has been trying to introduce the brand in countries like India, where it launched a search for an Indian princess.
One challenge in the more mature home market: a brewing backlash against what Disney Princess represents. Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor of psychology at Colorado College, complains that the princesses have become more sexualized, with more skin showing and bigger heads, eyes and breasts. "The ever increasing marketing to younger and younger girls of an adult sexualized version of the princesses is concerning," says Ms. Roberts, who co-authored a report on the sexualization of girls.
Other critics worry that encouraging young girls to obsess about being a princess sends the wrong message, with too much focus on being beautiful and not more substantive achievements.
Disney doesn't see that as a problem, and says most parents understand that Disney Princess is simply a role-play phase that kids go through. "For every mother that sees an issue, there are a million that don't," says Mr. Mooney, who adds that even beyond the target age group of 3 to 6, "girls do princess in private."
Still, many parents of princess-obsessed daughters notice they abruptly drop the brand at about age 6. In an attempt to keep girls enchanted longer, the company launched Disney Fairies, a slightly edgier group of characters (including Tinker Bell) aimed at 7- and 8-year olds. Mr. Mooney estimates the Fairies franchise will generate $750 million in retail sales this year.
The ultimate aim is to waltz girls from one franchise to another well into their teens. After fairies, Disney is attempting to hook them on "Kim Possible," "That's So Raven" and "Hannah Montana," all playing on the Disney Channel, and then serve up "High School Musical" for older kids.
"Then they come back to us as brides and mothers," says Mr. Mooney. Earlier this year, his group launched a range of princess-themed wedding gowns. Unlike the kitschy outfits made for kids, the wedding gowns are high-end, selling for $1,100 to $4,000. Walt Disney World also offers Cinderella-style weddings.
A gaping hole was babies. Mr. Mooney says mothers are highly gender aware these days (he estimates at least 80 percent elect to know the ______ of their baby before it is born). Disney had historically sold gender-neutral characters like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh in the infant market, but mothers surveyed have shown more interest in gender specific products, selecting princesses for a girl and "Finding Nemo" for a boy. Disney has both in the works.
The key for the princess infant line was to make sure it didn't damage the core business - something they tried to get around by making it a more subtle, less character-driven design. Mr. Mooney says, "We don't want to turn off the older kids."
Indeed, one issue for Disney is that many of its franchises are skewing younger each year. In the beginning, the princess franchise appealed to a slightly older audience. Also, competition has been growing. Toymakers like Mattel Inc. have pushed hard into the fantasy market for young girls. And many of the traditional characters like Cinderella exist in the public domain. In fact, MGA Entertainment has introduced a line of edgy, more modern dolls called Bratz Princess.
Independent toy analyst Chris Byrne says Disney Princess is one of the most "strategically sound properties and branding initiatives in many years." He adds that "princess fans really are fans."
Disney does have the huge advantage of a powerful movie studio to fuel the brand. All of Disney's princesses originated in the movie world and the studio is core to introducing new characters. But Disney's new head of animation, John Lasseter, put a stop to direct-to-DVD sequels that had included "Cinderella" out of concern they were cheapening the brand. The studio will continue to make direct-to-DVDs in the princess world, just ones with original stories and bigger budgets. Disney, meanwhile, has contemplated extending the brand to the Disney Channel, but has so far concluded it could damage the channel by skewing it too female.
Another question is whether the brand could suffer from overkill. But Mr. Byrne, the analyst, says, "We're talking about 3- to 6-year-olds - there's no such thing as overkill."
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.