With a combined global viewership of 437 million and counting, Disney’s TV movies High School Musical (2006) and HSM 2 (2007) seem to contain the songs that make the whole world sing – especially that notoriously fickle tween demo. To keep its legion of fans ages eight to 14 humming along, Disney is prepping HSM 3 for its big-screen debut around the globe in October. And while the largely female fanbase waits to find out whether or not Troy and Gabriella will head off to separate colleges and end their grand romance, Disney’s been busy putting the considerable weight of its channel, consumer products and music divisions behind the franchise to keep those tweens engaged in the meantime.
HSM retail sales are on track to crack the US$650-million mark worldwide this year. So far there’s been an international concert tour and a traveling ice show, not to mention the DVD and CD soundtrack releases and a host of consumer products, ranging from fashion dolls and room décor, to LCD flat-screen TVs and interactive games. The ancillary program moved quite quickly from a limited soft line assortment at specialty and mid-tier retailers in late 2006 to an international mass-market one in spring/summer 2007 with the launch of HSM 2.
But in terms of licensing, what might be most interesting about HSM is that the program thus far serves as a great example of how important it is to put a local spin on product belonging to a global program, particularly one directed at the sought-after tween demo. As Disney Consumer Products has discovered, trends and personal taste in driving categories for this age bracket, including apparel, accessories and room décor, differ between territories and have to be taken into account to make the most of a franchise with international aspirations.
Establishing the lifestyle
Like the teen-centric, music-filled romance that drives the storytelling behind HSM, the franchise’s positioning as a lifestyle brand has resonated with tweens the world over. In the US, its largest market, the HSM mass retail program really kicked off with a back-to-school partnership with Wal-Mart last fall that covered more than 100 SKUs.
Apparel and accessories drove the retail exclusive and continue to fuel HSM sales. ‘The most successful products,’ says Kathy Franklin, DCP’s VP of girls franchise development, ‘are the ones that allow the fans to play out some part of the movies.’ So the DVD dance mat that lets kids step along to the choreography on-screen and the apparel that gives girls the chance to become Gabriella or shout out their love for the Wild Cats have been particularly hot.
In fact, in the US, DCP has had a chance to highlight certain characters for retail exclusives. For example, über-trendy, somewhat bedazzled Sharpay has been singled out for a fashion accessories line and makeover experience at Chicago-based retail chain Club Libby Lu. Launched just last month and running into November, Fabulus by Sharpay features the kind of jewelry and handbags that the character might just be seen sporting around the halls of East High.
While the Sharpay program has yet to roll out around the world, Franklin says product development globally is shepherded by a hub at DCP’s headquarters in Glendale, California. This centralized direction has been particularly important for the development of hard lines such as toys and consumer electronics, where the cost of tooling, for example, has to be borne by a large production run. Fortunately, this isn’t so much the case with the soft line goods that are propelling HSM retail sales and that need to reflect local market tastes.
Franklin also says there’s room for some give and take. ‘The regional teams make the decisions on how much they want to localize their creative development,’ she says, adding the Glendale hub is constantly being fed information about how HSM is being interpreted in other parts of the world.
Lessons in ‘glocal’ization
Along with the US, the UK, Central Europe and Latin America have seemed to embrace HSM consumer products wholeheartedly. Interestingly, when it came time for DCP Europe to develop goods for the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Nordic and Iberia, Henriette Stuart-Reckling, director of TV franchises for EMEA, says HSM represented a new consumer segment for her group. Prior to the property’s explosion, DCP Europe hadn’t been overly active in the tween space, but in 2006 it set to work delivering product that would resonate in each of the Euro markets.
‘There’s a huge emphasis on localizing and customizing for each market,’ says Stuart-Reckling. ‘But it’s not something that happens easily, overnight, or without a large investment.’ To that end, DCP Europe started crafting the HSM program by conducting careful research in each country to determine what the local tweens wanted to see on product. A combination of holding focus groups and soliciting expert advice on the demo in each country of interest helped the company develop goods in line with the tastes of tweens in each market. DCP Europe then imparted that info to local and regional licensees. Since HSM continues grow, with Hannah Montana keeping pace, the process is now ongoing.
What Stuart-Reckling’s team has found is that along with apparel (See ‘Fashion Class’ p. 50), cultural fashions in Europe have held far more sway over the direction of the room décor category than the style guides generated in the US. ‘In Europe, we tend to be more complementary with the products that we assemble in a room,’ she says. ‘They won’t all need to match, but instead use different elements to bring out the subtleties of the property a bit more.’ Also, product finishes are tweaked to local tastes. Tweens in Southern European countries, for example, seem to want to see items embellished with more bling and shinier fabrics, while French girls eight to 14 look for softer color palettes.
This attention to local detail has also led to the creation of product not previously considered by the US that has since rolled out globally. One of the more interesting examples came about when DCP Europe was looking at creating in-room storage items. As it turns out, kids in the UK don’t have North American-style lockers in school. ‘So it would be a complete novelty to have a secret storage unit in their bedrooms,’ says Stuart-Reckling. From that insight, the room-sized locker was born. The US division, however, couldn’t understand why DCP Europe wanted to recreate something they believed all kids had at school. Stuart-Reckling says she had to reiterate what a novelty, if not a treat, it would be for UK kids.
The first model hit the UK market in 2006, selling for roughly US$25. Since then, it’s been refreshed using the HSM 2 style guide and has gotten retail placement at Toys ‘R’ Us, Asda and Sainsburys (to mention just a few retailers) in the UK. It also rolled out under license to local manufacturers in Europe and the US.
Such efforts to uncover local opportunities with global potential are ongoing, as is the pursuit of new markets for HSM. Franklin says her global team works closely with the broadcast side to foster fledgling markets and make the core content more engaging to the locals.
In Latin America, for example, the net has been producing a reality show aimed at finding the cast for a Lat Am version, while in Japan, Disney dipped into its vault of characters for a bit of cross-pollination. According to Franklin, Stitch (the furry animated alien from 2002′s Lilo and Stitch) is quite popular in Japan, so the channel created a music video of Stitch performing songs from HSM. ‘It’s all about adding fresh and innovative elements in each region that deepen the connection with local fans,’ notes Franklin.
So is there any corner of the Earth left to cover for HSM? As it turns out, the storytelling that drives the franchise is getting serious local makeovers. Disney Channel is producing both a Russian and Indian version of HSM for completion sometime in 2009. As both countries harbor immense, under-developed consumer products potential, you can expect DCP is already busy taking a read of tweens in those markets and figuring out how to keep the next wave of fans clamoring for more.