Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Re-convergence of Media Brands and Retail

In May, Disney quietly reacquired the Disney stores from Children's Place - the company it had sold them to in the first place. This was after a wild ride in the '90's for media brands - who rushed into the world of retail amidst the emergence of trends like "retailtainment" and "experiential retailing". You couldn't go to a mall without hitting a Warner Brothers store or a Disney Store, and there were several other media companies that tried - Paramount and Nickelodeon come to mind.

The idea was to build a local place where consumers could experience some of their favorite characters, build a closer affinity to the media properties, and in turn spend a lot of money on merchandise. I happened to see this evolution first-hand while I was a consultant at PwC - I was working on an IT Strategy for the Nickelodeon stores when they made their attempt at retailing in the late 1990's. The sad truth, at the time, was that the 20-30% in licensing fees that the studio could get were a heck of a lot more - and with a heck of a lot less capital invested - than the 3-6% the retail stores would return. The stores team argued in vain that there was a lot more at stake than just the return - there was an untold return when you looked at it from a marketing and brand engagement perspective. The problem was that at the time they weren't sophisticated enough to get a lot of customer data or market basket analysis out of their customer purchase history - so they couldn't prove it.

Times have changed, and I think Disney's reacquisition of the retail arm of the brand demonstrates that. With the combination of online and in-store, you can get an enormous wealth of customer information, and the analytics tools are strong enough (they almost always have been, actually) and user-friendly enough (something they haven't always been) that you can get a lot of insights about your customers these days. Disney has shown signs of understanding that it's about more than just sales - I read somewhere about their strategy in the UK, and how they are much more willing to deal on content distribution because they know it helps drive the merchandise, and all the derivative forms of content that go with it - like live shows and special events.

However, I will say that I think the stint that the Disney Stores did with Children's Place was good for the stores. Children's Place ran those stores not as a brand extension of a media property, but as a place to get great clothes and fun toys, which all happen to be coated with the characters that your kids love. And that's the challenge for all of these media companies as they rethink their retail strategies - how to balance the function with the brand, while ensuring that they are measuring the primary strategy behind stores: increase brand engagement.

As a famous media property once said, "We have the technology." The time is ripe for these stores and this strategy to pay off.

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