There’s little doubt that Winnie the Pooh is the world’s most famous ‘tubby little cubby.’ Since A.A. Milne’s short story Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in the London Evening News on Christmas Eve 1925, Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood’s cast of characters have been a hit with British children and adults alike. And while a dedicated following championed Milne’s subsequent Pooh books in the U.S., it was Walt Disney’s 1966 animated featurette Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree that sealed the hungry little bear’s fate with American kids, setting him on the path to the iconic status he enjoys today.
Currently, Winnie the Pooh is second only to Mickey Mouse in terms of character recognition and franchise size. Having generated US$5.6 billion at retail in 2004, Pooh product sales now make up 20% of the world’s character licensing business – and the perpetually hunny-loving bear shows no signs of slowing down as he hits his octogenarian years. In fact, celebrating Winnie’s 80th anniversary is a company-wide priority for the House of Mouse in 2006, and in true Disney fashion, it’s going to be a massive 18-month affair. Along with extensive promotions, the company is significantly retooling its consumer products and television strategies for the brand.
Getting the party started
Pooh’s 360-degree birthday initiative doesn’t just involve Disney Consumer Products, long considered to be the engine that drives the brand; Radio Disney, Disney Live!, Buena Vista Home Video and Walt Disney Records are all coming to the global party.
To get promotions underway, Disney Online is launching its first-ever Winnie the Pooh supersite on Disney.com this month. The new home for all things Winnie will feature interactive games and a prominent ‘Celebrating 80 Years of Adventures’ area that’s designed to capitalize on Disney.com‘s traffic of 18.8 million unique visitors a month.
Moving from cyberspace into the real world, Disney Live!’s Winnie the Pooh stage show will kick off in New York next month before hitting the road to tour Mexico in January and then Japan in March. The on-stage action follows Tigger, Piglet and the gang as they plan a surprise party for Winnie, and the audience will be encouraged to sing and dance along with the characters.
Walt Disney Records plans to ring in the new year with an updated Winnie the Pooh theme song recorded by Playhouse Disney artist and children’s entertainer Ralph Covert, who will perform it live throughout 2006. Significant airtime will be set aside for the tune on Radio Disney this spring, and it will also get a lot of play at the division’s live events next year. Playhouse Disney, meanwhile, plans to put the music video in heavy rotation, with BVHE looking at trailering it on 2006 DVD releases.
Speaking of Radio Disney, the network is dedicating its Playhouse Disney block (which runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. CST) to Winnie the Pooh one Tuesday out of each month until June 2007. Poohsdays are broadcast on all 54 Radio Disney stations – which cover 97% of the U.S. market and reach 6.6 million listeners each week – and feature Pooh songs and stories. Disney is currently in talks with a few celebrity moms to record audio readings of the classic Milne stories for radio, and video versions of these studio sessions will air on Disney Channel.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, BVHE will release Pooh’s Grand Adventure on DVD for the first time in March. According to Nielsen’s tally, the 1997 direct-to-video animated feature ranks as one of the 10 best-selling DTV titles of all time, and it has been in the vault since 2001. Pooh’s 80th anniversary will be pushed on the DVD’s signage, packaging and media promos. Supported by complementary in-store displays featuring special-edition anniversary merch and current products, the release is also a key prong in Disney’s strategy to deepen its reach in the grocery and drug retail channels next year. At press time, Disney Consumer Products (DCP) was pitching the promo package to chains such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway.
Pooh revs up at retail
DCP has a number of irons in the fire for Pooh, especially at retail. Toys ‘R’ Us will be one of the first ports of call for anniversary goods. This month, the chain is rolling out an exclusive 80th Pooh plush, which is set to benefit from front-of-store placement and whose picture will grace the front cover of TRU’s Holiday Big Book catalogue.
U.S. Disney Stores, now owned by The Children’s Place, will also feature 80th anniversary products and messaging in-store for the holiday season. But its big push won’t come until January, when Pooh product takes over store windows and assumes a much more prominent in-store merchandising presence. Pooh promotions will then start cranking up across most tiers of retail in March.
But perhaps the most historically significant retail move is a merch exclusive with Sears, which was the sole purveyor of Pooh licensed goods in the U.S. for 20 years, beginning in 1973. (Prior to the start of this relationship, a limited amount of specialty-targeted Winnie the Pooh product was available in the U.S. market, without a cohesive retail plan.)
This February, Sears is going all out for Pooh with an eight-figure retail campaign. Lisa Nevins, DCP’s VP of sales and retail marketing, says dedicated Winnie the Pooh boutiques will be featured in the kids departments at all of the chain’s 870 full-line stores nationwide, with branding and signage designed especially for the retailer. Apparel produced under a direct-to-retail deal is the centerpiece of the promotion, led by a fashion-forward infant and toddler sportswear line featuring stylized Winnie and friends art. The majority of the line’s mix-and-match items take design cues from higher-end Euro apparel, says Nevins, particularly when it comes to fabrics, the use of art and trim application.
Outside of the U.S., there will be considerable activity at Latin American and Japanese retail. In Mexico, Sanborns, Sears, Comercial Mexicana and Gigante will run Pooh promos, with Wal-Mart carrying a large-scale 80th anniversary program. And in Japan, department chain Takashimaya has been named the exclusive retailer of classic Pooh merch, and TDS will launch 30 anniversary-themed product SKUs. At press time, DCP was hammering out its retail plans for Europe, Australia, China and Korea.
Pooh’s preschool plotline
Besides promoting Pooh’s birthday with special products like the TRU plush and a deluxe oversized treasury of Pooh stories from Disney Publishing, DCP is taking the opportunity to refresh and refocus the brand next year, with increased attention being paid to infant and preschool consumers.
Winnie and his pals from the Hundred Acre Wood have always appealed to parents with babies and toddlers, but for the next five years, you can expect to see DCP really honing in on developing Pooh product that caters to each segment of a child’s early development. So this marks the end, for example, of universal infant feeding systems, which may be replaced by two separate product lines designed to meet the very specific feeding needs of newborns and six-month-olds.
Kevin Preston Lewis, director of global franchise management, says recent research conducted on-line and with focus groups really drove home the fact that moms need different products as their kids mature. Moving forward, says Lewis, Disney’s product design teams will be taking a hard look at the needs of specific age brackets in the baby market, especially in terms of character usage, fabrication and function.
While Pooh is a perennial bestseller with the two to five set, infant merchandise has actually been driving the brand’s sales growth recently. Target’s Classic Pooh U.S. program, which highlights the original E.H. Shepard illustrations, is generating particularly strong sales. Sell-though on items such as newborn apparel, bedding, diaper bags and gift sets had increased by 20% in spring ’05, compared to the previous year, and DCP expanded the line to include furniture, stationery, framed art, health & beauty and outdoor garden items earlier this year. (These new categories now represent more than 13% of the Target range’s year-to-date sales volume.)
DCP would like to begin seeing the same kind of results from its preschool programs, so in 2006, the team is adopting a brighter and bolder creative approach to product development and packaging in an effort to showcase Pooh’s sense of adventure and imagination. The soft, static character images featured on infant goods will graduate into vibrant colors and pictures of Pooh and crew doing the kinds of things preschoolers do everyday.
A much greater emphasis is also being placed on interactivity. A deal with Jakks Pacific to use Pooh in the toyco’s upcoming line of preschool plug-and-play SKUs and Pooh’s Hunny Hunt V.Smile game (which launched in 2004) are just the beginning. The team is currently formulating Pooh’s next move in this sector.
Also, Tigger is taking a much more prominent role in the division’s latest style guides because research conducted this past summer shows that preschoolers identify most closely with him. So there will be more Tigger-centric SKUs along the lines of the Tumble Time Tigger animatronic plush from Fisher-Price, and DCP plans to pair Pooh with Tigger more often on products.
New TV too?
Given that Disney has such a powerful broadcast platform in its arsenal, it should come as no surprise that Pooh’s reinvention will play out on the small screen as well as at retail. To that end, Walt Disney Television Animation (WDTA) is working on a new 26 x half-hour series that should bow on Disney Channel in early 2007.
The CGI show will be the first original animated Pooh vehicle produced for TV since The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh debuted in 1988. This classic 2-D toon met with critical accolades, snagging two Daytime Emmy awards for outstanding animated program in 1989 and 1990.
The new program’s rich CGI aesthetic represents a big departure from both the landmark 1988 show and Pooh’s last TV incarnation – a 2001 series called The Book of Pooh, helmed by executive producer Mitchell Kriegman of Bear in the Big Blue House fame. This show built on the character’s origins as a stuffed animal and featured Banruku puppets and a simple pre-literacy curriculum.
WDTA’s revamp is still in early development, but it should reinforce the changes being made to the preschool consumer products program. Tigger will have more screen time, and story lines will be driven by interactivity and adventure. But the Hundred Acre Wood cast is about to welcome a new character – and she’s a six-year-old girl!