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Essay: Exploring the Walt Disney Co.s Evolving Global Marketing Strategy—From Oswald to Social Media

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Within this project I will be analysing and exploring the marketing history of the Walt Disney Company, focusing briefly on where the company began their marketing campaigns and then more specifically on how they have built upon these campaigns in order to achieve global integration and success. In the latter half of this project, I will move on to semiotically analyse the promotional campaign for the 2003 Halloween event that took place at Disneyland Paris, analysing how effective the advert was in promoting its key themes and ideologies.

The Marketing History of The Walt Disney Company

The beginning of Disney’s global marketing success can be dated back to the creation of Walt Disney’s first animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927 (Taylor, 2016). It can be argued that Oswald’s creation allowed Disney to build the foundations upon which it would later achieve global success. From Oswald’s arrival Disney began to produce merchandise bearing the character’s name and image including products such as, but not limited to “a button, stencil set, and marshmallow coated in chocolate” (Gluck, 2015). However, it can be argued that at this stage the company had not sufficiently thought about how to protect the content they were producing. Bryman (2004) states that the “studio had no rights to Oswald’s name and therefore to the small range of merchandise… bearing the character’s name and image”. Therefore it is clear that at this stage in the companies history, whilst their products were arguably attractive to the consumer, they did not have a sufficient enough marketing strategy to be able to maintain control of their characters leaving them vulnerable to competition from both within and outside the company.

However, after the loss of rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927 (Taylor, 2016) “merchandise and licensing proliferated” in the run up to the arrival of Mickey Mouse in 1928 (Bryman, 2004). In contrast to the marketing of Oswald, Disney secured the rights to the image and name of Mickey Mouse with signing of the first merchandising contract “with George Borgfeldt & Company” in 1929 (Gluck, 2015).This contract allowed George Borgfeldt & Company to “manufacture and sell “figures and toys… embodying design of… Mice known as Minnie and Mickey Mouse” (Gluck, 2015). Therefore it can be seen that the company had significantly improved the security of the rights to their characters compared to previous events. Arguably though, as a result of the introduction of Mickey Mouse, the companies success can be seen to have improved further over time. For example “by 1932, a journalist reported… between 50 and 60 firms were producing Mickey Mouse merchandising which was sold in 200,000 stores” (Anon. 1932). But not only in the early days of Mickey Mouse did Disney’s marketing success of the character flourish, in fact you could suggest that the image of Mickey Mouse has become a brand in itself for the Walt Disney Company. Whilst Kapferer (2004) argues that “branding…requires a corporate long term involvement, a high level of resources and skills” it can be fair to suggest that widespread recognition and engagement are also factors in defining whether something is or is not a brand image. As Suddath (2008) writes for example, “Disney claims that Mickey had a 98% awareness rate among children between ages 3-11 worldwide” suggesting that it would in fact be fair to suggest that Mickey Mouse as a character has become a successful brand image for Disney since his creation in 1928.

However, in order to understand how Disney have achieved global marketing success, it is important to not only look at the history of individual characters, but also the ways in which the company have integrated themselves into the global market over time. Perhaps one of the most influential ways in which Disney was able to achieve global success was through the marketing and expansion of its theme parks. The first theme park, Disneyland, was built in the year 1955 in Los Angeles, USA (Zhu and Xu, 2010) but since then a further 6 resorts (Disney, no date) have been built across the globe and contributed to the marketing success of the company. As Bryman (2004) argues “the parks are carefully designed to maximise the opportunity for and inclination of guests to purchase merchandise” with some even providing their own merchandise “including: t-shirts with the name of that park on them; Epcot clothing or souvenirs with a suitably attired cartoon character on them, such as a ‘French’ Mickey purchased in the France pavilion” (Bryman, 2004). By specifically marketing to each separate park in each different location, you could argue that Disney have been able to appeal to a wider range of international consumers and could therefore explain why they have been able to achieve success in countries other than the United States. On the other hand, when Disney aimed to open a European park after the success of Tokyo in 1983 (Zhu and Xu, 2010), Burgoyne (2007) believes that because of “Disney’s film success, the Western European audience already was familiar with Disney entertainment and merchandise” and therefore the idea of a European theme park was thought to bring about success. Perhaps therefore the promotion and marketing of previously existing products, such as films, was the key factor in helping Disney to achieve global marketing success of specifically its theme parks.

The modern day marketing of Disney as a company has however significantly changed from when it began back in 1928. The emergence of social media platforms has changed the way Disney are able to market their products on the global platform and it can be suggested that:

Disney has been a dominating force across various social media networks since 2010 and has made a name for themselves as one of the most powerful brands both online and offline. With more than 1,000 social media accounts across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube they have a 24/7 online presence. (Fleischner, 2013)

This therefore suggests that the marketing strategies of the Walt Disney Company are continually expanding in order to fit with the growing developments in technology to be able to sustain its influencial position in the global market.

Semiotic Analysis of the Disneyland Paris Cruella Devil Halloween Advert (2003)

In 2003 the Walt Disney Company released a series of print advertisements promoting the Halloween events taking place at their European resort in Paris. I intend to semiotically analyse the advertisement featuring the Disney character Cruella De Vil (Walt Disney Company, 2003). At first glance it can be suggested that the ideology behind the campaign is to promote the belief that Halloween should be controlled by the villains for the villains. I intend to therefore explore this ideology by semiotically analysing the signs and codes presented within the text to analyse to what extent they support this suggested ideology.  

Perhaps the image that stands out the most within the advert is the image of Cruella herself. Whilst being used synecdochically as an individual character to represent a wider group of villains, it can be suggested that her positioning within the advert connotes her power and authority over the audience as her image is the largest on the page. Concentrating specifically on her facial expressions, that evoke disgust and dissatisfaction, she is glaring downwards in a direct mode of address at the audience and her mouth has also been positioned at downwards angle. This signifies her attitude and demeanour to the audience, providing the overall advert with a generally dark and sinister ambience. It is clear therefore, that the marketers have not tried to rebrand Cruella’s image within the advert, but have instead emphasised her iconic features and reinforced her attributes that audiences already commonly associate her character with, such as her hair and her heavy duty eye makeup. This signifies, without the audience needing to look closely at the advert, that she is Cruella De Vil. As well as her facial expression, the colours used for Cruella’s clothing and makeup, such as the her purple eye shadow, signify her status as a “wealthy heiress” (Fiedler, 2011). It can be argued, therefore, that this sign does in fact support the ideology of the overall advertisement as Cruella is represented in a position of control and power over the audience, therefore connoting her potential control of the Halloween event that is being promoted.

Another sign that is of main focus within the advertisement is the tagline “Some say I don't like dogs, but really it depends on the cut” (Walt Disney Company, 2003). By including the word ‘dogs’ within this, the marketers create a paradigmatic relationship whereby the association of Cruella De Vil, to the “dogs” she is talking about, gives implication to the association of the character with her involvement in the film 101 Dalmatians (Geronimi et al. 1961). It can also be suggested that the tagline signifies her evil nature, therefore emphasising her status as a Disney villain. This is done using a humorous tone when it says “but really it depends on the cut”. By including this humour within the advert, it presents connotations of the Disney villains as being comical rather than serious figures. A criticism, however, would be that it detracts focus away from the overall purpose of the advert, which is to promote Halloween at Disneyland Paris, as this text is much larger and bolder on the page in comparison to the Halloween logo towards the bottom lefthand side of the page.

On the other hand, you could argue that the text further down the advert which reads “Cruella and her friends invade Disneyland Park” reinforces the ideology of the advert more effectively than the main tagline. The use of the word “invade” for example, has connotations of danger, threat and violence, signifying not only that the villains will have control over the entire park, but also signifying some of the core themes associated with Halloween, of trickery, scheming and the encouragement of villainous characters.

Within the advert one of the only signs that actually makes reference to the theme of Halloween is the inclusion of the ‘Mickey Mouse’ style Halloween logo. The logo, concentrating on its adaptation from the classic ‘Mickey Mouse head logo’ style and formatting, creates a paradigmatic relationship associating Disney as a brand to the holiday of Halloween. This is achieved by using the imagery of a pumpkin in replacement of the regular black circle to connote the theme of Halloween to the reader. This relationship is highlighted further through the colour scheme that is used in the advert. When used in combination, the colours red, orange and yellow have connotations of autumnal weather and the autumn season, which is effective in further promoting the theme of Halloween  that is presented within the advert.

In conclusion, the Walt Disney advert for the 2003 promotion of Halloween at Disneyland Paris, is effective in promoting the ideology and themes that are portrayed in the advert. The reader is immediately enticed by the sinister image of Cruella De Vil that connotes the power and control the Disney villains intend to have over the resort and this becomes the main focus of the campaign. It is clear therefore that with through the combination of imagery, text and use of colour scheme, that the advert effectively creates an appropriately sinister ambience that engages the reader in wanting to participate and research further the Halloween activities that would be taking place at the theme park.

Word Count: 1902


Anon. (1932) ‘Mickey Mouse’s fourth birthday’, Motion Picture Herald, October 1: 42-3, 51.

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Fiedler, J. (2011) ‘Character of the week – Cruella de Vil – Disney character central Blog’, 30 May. Available at: http://www.charactercentral.net/Blog.aspx?BlogEntryId=228 (Accessed: 7 December 2016).

Fleischner, T. (2013) ‘Social media case study: How does Disney use it?’, Business, 12 June. Available at: http://giraffesocialmedia.co.uk/social-media-case-study-how-does-disney-use-it/ (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

101 Dalmatians (1961) Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman USA: .

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Taylor, D. (2016) The unbelievable history of Oswald the lucky rabbit. Available at: https://ohmy.disney.com/insider/2016/09/05/oswald-the-lucky-rabbit/ (Accessed: 14 October 2016).

Walt Disney Company, (2003). Disneyland Paris Halloween 2003. [image] Available at: http://files2.coloribus.com/files/adsarchive/part_511/5112155/file/halloween-at-disneyland-park-cruella-small-39750.jpg (Accessed 7 Dec. 2016).

Zhu, L. and Xu, D. (2010) Marketing Strategic Change in Expansion of Disneyland: Cases Study of Disneyland’s Overseas Expansion in Shanghai. Available at: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:369516/fulltext01 (Accessed: 7 December 2016).

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