But the Walt Disney Co. looks at 2008 as a very different opportunity. According to Chinese astrology, the Lunar New Year beginning on Feb. 7 will usher in the Year of the Rat.
Or the Year of the Mouse, as Disney prefers to call it.
The lunar calendar has given the U.S. entertainment giant an ideal platform to promote its business divisions in China through its most famous icon, Mickey Mouse. The campaign, called “Mickey brings you the magic of family happiness,” launched in early January to coincide with the western New Year as well.
Connecting Mickey to the Year of the Rat is no fairytale romp, however. It faces competition from another famous mouse, Jerry, (part of the Warner Bros. duo Tom & Jerry), who is popular among both boys and girls in China. Also, the strategy could backfire if conservative Chinese officials view it as an American company imposing a foreign cartoon character on China, or a frothy interpretation of its cultural heritage, making it more like a dash through Bambi’s forest.
“We had to be careful about how we use it,” said Lance Diaresco, Hong Kong-based VP, marketing for China at Disney. The company has grown from 60 staff in 2004, focused on consumer product sales, to almost 400 today, including a studio team, a Disney media network including the sports channel ESPN and a parks and resorts division.
Cultural sensitivities are running high, but “Disney is about celebration, bringing families together. We did some research and the idea was very well received among Chinese,” he said.
For most consumers in China, meanwhile, Disney's strategy is an easy leap, since the same Chinese character represents the rat and the mouse. While westerners have a negative view of rats as disease-carrying rodents, Chinese appreciate rats--and mice--as the hardest-working signs in the Chinese zodiac.
The four-legged creatures are cunning, disciplined, and meticulous and consistently find clever ways to overcome obstacles. It is widely believed that people born in the Year of the Rat can look forward to a year in which to really shine, either personally or professionally.
Disney fans, meanwhile, can look forward to a year of film and television programming, books, videos, online contests and games, mobile content with Year of the Mouse wallpaper and ring tones, and limited edition products like a fashion jewelry range--all centered around Mickey Mouse and his friends.
Young Chinese are “reaching out to be part of the western world, and the Disney franchises are symbolic of western culture without a doubt. This is one of the most important campaigns for Disney this year,” said Cameron Romeril, a brand team leader at WPP Group's MindShare office in Shanghai, which oversees media planning for Disney in China. “We see the same thing with Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald's, they aren't really going to those places for taste of the food or the value. It makes them feel international.”
Young adults in China are nearly as fond of Disney as kids. It's not uncommon to see men and women sporting a Mickey Mouse logo on clothing, or women wearing a gold necklace featuring his iconic ears. Like youth in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, young Chinese share a passion for animated characters, a hobby that has turned other characters like Hello Kitty into global icons.
“Disney is certainly aiming for more than kids, it's aiming for the whole family with comprehensive offerings,” said P.T. Black, founder of Jigsaw, a youth marketing consultancy in Shanghai.
Disney has a “nostalgia value,” which is rare in China, since there is relatively little material culture to reflect back on for older people, added Mr. Black. “Chinese in their mid-30s and 40s also grew up with Mickey, it was one of the very few western or global properties active in China during their childhood. The government accepted Mickey as innocent children's material, Disney cartoons have no violence, no obscenity and no political content.”
Today, the government is less obliging. In mid-2006, authorities drastically reduced the amount of foreign children's programming that could air on Chinese television, a move that slowed Disney as well as rivals like Cartoon Network. CCTV, for example, stopped showing the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse program on its children's channel.
But the zodiac has helped Disney reopen some doors. To celebrate the Year of the Mouse, CCTV will put Clubhouse back on air during February and it plans to rerun the show during the summer. China’s state-run broadcaster will also air one Disney family film a month this year, starting with the Three Musketeers in February.
Disney has a “great relationship” with CCTV, said Mr. Diaresco. “They operate partly through self-censorship and can air programs that they choose to some extent and which they think are appropriate.”
Part of the company's appeal for CCTV programmers as well as consumers is its focus on education, a value shared by many Chinese parents, who believe their kids learn from Disney while they are being entertained.
“They think Mickey is the gatekeeper to a healthy and informed little white-collar child, so much of Disney's popularity is about education, cognitive development games, English-language learning. They are capturing that image with their advertising. It's not a hedonist brand, it's very practical,” said Mr. Black.
Since its programming exposure on television is still limited, Disney and BBDO Worldwide in Shanghai created a 45" spot that is running alongside print ads and a revamped Chinese-language Mickey Mouse web site, www.disney.com.cn/mickey.
With Touchmedia, a Shanghai-based media company that operates high-tech screens on the back of headrests in taxis in China's first and second tier cities, Disney has created an interactive platform. In addition to showing the TV spot, icons on the screens featuring different Disney characters led users to interactive games and information.
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On Jan. 18, Disney launched an online contest on its Chinese site and a Chinese YouTube-like video site, 56.com, that lets Chinese make a New Year wish. Entrants can win a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland, five Mickey-themed home makeovers, eight party gift packages and small prizes like DVDs, said Magdalena Wszelaki, regional VP, strategic planning at Agenda, Disney's interactive agency in Shanghai.
This month, the company launched Disney Magic Board, a cartoon-styled multiplayer online racing game produced with the Chinese publisher SNDA, and a music video of the song “Little VIP,” performed by Taiwanese boy band Fahrenheit to usher in the new year.
Disney is also celebrating the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, where it operates a Disneyland theme park. This month, designer Vivienne Tam launched a Disney collection for young adults, including outfits for Disney's royalty, a bright red Mao suit for Mickey Mouse and a cherry blossom red dress with a bouquet-like bottom for Minnie. The line combines contemporary fashion with traditional Chinese styles, and will be sold by Disney in Hong Kong and Shanghai as well as Ms. Tam's boutiques starting this spring.
“The time is absolutely right for Mickey in China. He's an energetic chap, always giving something a try, he's always an optimist, but he always takes great pains to maintain his friendships and relationships,” said Carol Potter, BBDO’s CEO for China in Shanghai.
Mickey is interested in friends and family “at a time when we know that is coming to the fore in China. Five years ago, if you asked people what was important to them, they said material wealth and status,” she said. “Now, young people especially cite friends and happiness first. Internal happiness is definitely becoming more important.”