How Brands Are Trying to Tap Into Disney's Magic in China

Pepsi, Chevrolet and Uniqlo Are Looking for a Boost From Disney Partnerships

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A woman wearing Minnie Mouse at the Shanghai Disneyland theme park.
A woman wearing Minnie Mouse at the Shanghai Disneyland theme park. Credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Vendors at the new Disney Shanghai Resort hawk Pepsi, though Coke is served at Disney's other theme parks. Chevrolet's name is on a roller coaster. Across town, Uniqlo devoted an entire floor of its Shanghai megastore to Disney merchandise.

They're all hoping Disney's magic rubs off on them. Denise Sabet, Shanghai general manager for branding consultancy Labbrand, notes that Disney is one of the most beloved brands around, evoking "happiness, wonder, fantasy, adventure." In China, the brand has extra power because it's so international, and that makes it a status symbol, she said.

"The merchandise is costly, tickets are expensive, and there is even an added boost if you can compare your experience at Disneyland in Shanghai to past experiences at other Disneys," she said.

There are 330 million people – more than the U.S. population -- living within a 3-hour car or train trip of the new park. Many of those are part of China's rising mass of middle class consumers, eagerly targeted by so many brands. Despite China's economic slowdown, and consumer spending suffering in some areas, like luxury, there's still strong growth in sectors like travel and sportswear.

Disney's new park opened Thursday; here's a look at how other brands have joined in.

Pepsi: Coca-Cola has long sold its beverages inside The Walt Disney Co.'s theme parks around the world. But PepsiCo products, including brand Pepsi and Lay's snacks, are served instead at the Shanghai resort; the company says it's the first time in nearly 30 years that its beverages are being sold at a Disney property.

PepsiCo's Asia research and development center in Shanghai came up with new offerings for the resort, including five new beverage flavors. There's also a "Pepsi E-Stage" at the park, where Baymax from "Big Hero 6" makes appearances.

Limited edition Pepsi cans for the grand opening
Limited edition Pepsi cans for the grand opening Credit: PepsiCo

In 2014, PepsiCo and its partner in China -- Tingyi, China's largest domestic soft drink maker -- won the contract to supply beverages at the Shanghai property. There has been special attention to adapting the park for China and its tastes; it's 57% owned by a state-owned consortium, Shanghai Shendi Group. And Pepsi's relationship with China's Tingyi "may have facilitated Pepsi having a huge role in the park," said Andrew Kuiler, managing director and founder of The Silk Initiative, a brand strategy and insights consulting agency focused on food and beverage clients, including PepsiCo. (PepsiCo's snacks had double-digit volume growth in China in 2015, while beverages had high single-digit declines, the company has said.)

A restaurant in the new park is sponsored by an iconic brand from Tingyi, Master Kong. It's called the Wandering Moon Teahouse, and it serves dishes like Fujian seafood noodles and Shanghainese pork belly. Chinese food makes up 70% of the resort's food, Disney says.

The Wandering Moon Teahouse, sponsored by Chinese brand Master Kong
The Wandering Moon Teahouse, sponsored by Chinese brand Master Kong Credit:

Chevrolet: Many familiar Disney attractions, like "It's a Small World" and "Space Mountain," have been sidelined in Shanghai for new ones. The TRON Lightcycle Power Run, a futuristic-looking roller coaster, is the main attraction in Tomorrowland. Shanghai General Motors and Shanghai Disney Resort signed a deal two years ago to develop a major attraction there; Wang Yongqing, president of Shanghai General Motors, said then that Chevrolet was "committed to becoming the automobile brand of choice among young people and young families with products that deliver a spirit of possibilities and optimism." (The Chevrolet brand has hit a rough patch in China; while China sales of GM and its joint venture vehicles rose nearly 17% in May, Chevrolet sales were down 24%)

A sign under the roller coaster bears the Chevrolet logo and informs visitors of the wait time. Waits for that ride have sometimes been several hours long, and long lines at the park in general prompted complaints on social media.

Uniqlo: Japan's Uniqlo has been gearing up for the Disneyland Shanghai opening for months. It has 449 stores in China, where it's been expanding fast and is pushing into lower-tier markets, including through e-commerce. For Disney, Uniqlo's reach will help push its brand to Chinese consumers beyond Shanghai.

Inside the 'Magic for All' concept store at Shanghai's Uniqlo flagship
Inside the 'Magic for All' concept store at Shanghai's Uniqlo flagship Credit: Angela Doland

At Uniqlo's flagship store in Shanghai, the entire fifth floor is devoted to Disney T-shirts and other merchandise in Uniqlo's "Magic for All" line. A few months back, the store had an exhibit of Mickey Mouse statues created by Disney employees. Shoppers can also pose in front of a big screen; instead of saying "cheese" they're instructed to "shout Mickey," and a Disney- and Uniqlo-branded photo is delivered to their phone via mobile app WeChat.

Lego, Starbucks and more: Not all Chinese consumers can afford entrance tickets to the park, which range from $56 to $76. But anyone can have a stroll through "Disney Town," an area of shops and restaurants outside the theme park.

That area is home to the largest Lego store in the world. A Starbucks flagship right outside the entrance gate has 110 staff. The first flagship store of The Cheesecake Factory in Asia has opened there too.

Mr. Kuiler of The Silk Initiative says one of his clients, a casual-dining restaurant in Disney Town, had one month of staff training from Disney, as did other food and beverage outlets. They were taught "how to smile, greet customers, how to recognize when you're tired and signal to someone for a break," he said, adding that a full day was devoted to shaking hands and smiling.

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