What’s your Mickey Mouse?

Colorado, USA - May 13, 2016: Studio shot of LEGO minifigure Mickey Mouse on top of a pile of money with other Disney characters in the background.

In a strange parallel universe, Disney’s most successful brand icon is a slightly Lovecraftian-looking character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

But back in this universe, Oswald was actually the first attempt at character development cooked up by the Disney brothers, Walt and Roy. Something about it, however, didn’t stick.

So, in 1928 they went back to the drawing board, shrunk the ears of the character, changed its face a bit and added some buttons to the character’s trousers. Viola! Mickey Mouse was born. Now Disney had an asset it could truly make famous.

Mickey made his on-screen debut in a breakthrough animated short film called “Steamboat Willie” and the character’s popularity soon skyrocketed when it became the mascot of the company.

The significance of Mickey Mouse for Disney has been huge in the century since. Although it’s hard to put an exact value on Mickey Mouse, experts suggest the franchise has generated more than $52 billion in revenue since its inception.   

Noting the success of Mickey, Disney quickly expanded into other beloved characters like Donald Duck, Goofy and the Disney Princesses (although Oswald the Lucky Rabbit never made a return, unfortunately). But none could hold a candle to Mickey’s shining starlight.

And yet, all good things must come to an end.

In January 2024, the copyright restrictions on the original Mickey Mouse character from “Steamboat Willie” ended which will make it open slather for anyone wanting to use its likeness. 

It would be interesting to peek into that parallel universe to see if Disney would be anywhere near as successful if it had persisted with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit instead. Maybe the Disney brothers were stubbornly sure the character would be popular. Maybe they pushed back against the naysayers. Maybe it all worked out.

But that’s doubtful.

Oswald didn’t have the right formula. There was some imperceptible aspect of the rabbit character that wasn’t quite right, and the Disney brothers understood from day one that success for their company depended on capturing the audience’s attention. They needed to make something famous if they were going to create a powerful brand.

Think of a brand as the sump in an engine, the place where all the oil drains. All value (positive or negative) ultimately ends up in the brand. The brothers knew that getting the brand wrong would place the company in a weak position that it might struggle to rise above.

Disney was never alone in the entertainment sector. Indeed, entertainment has always been one of the most prestigious and lucrative sectors of the American economy. Disney has competed against giants like Twenty-First Century Fox, DreamWorks, NBCUniversal, Comcast, Six Flags and CBS Interactive for almost its entire lifetime and managed to both stay relevant and hold onto a serious slice of market share.

Mickey Mouse allowed Disney to stay relevant with the changing US and global culture.

When the US needed a symbol of hope during the Great Depression, Mickey’s bouncy on-screen antics were there to cheer everyone up. While Americans fought in WWII, the Mickey character was drawn with a combat helmet and plastered on propaganda posters across US cities. During the Civil Rights era, Mickey was associated with progressive sentiments and exciting popular movements.

This process of gradual brand value accretion was critical for Disney. In many (but not all) instances a brand becomes something of a scorecard for a company’s suite of intangible assets (its product designs, its customer experience, its data, its content, its systems and processes, etc). As the strength of the underlying intangible assets grow, so does the value of the overarching brand.

When Disney was founded in 1926 it had no brand value. It was just another movie studio. Over time, Mickey helped Disney accrue deep value to the point where people started to associate the company with the character of Mickey Mouse. Today, alongside Levi jeans and Coca-Cola, people around the world now see Mickey Mouse as synonymous with the US itself.

Other companies have plenty to learn from Disney’s brand strategy.

You don’t want to be stuck with an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was never going to work, but with a few tweaks to the character Disney found a sweet spot with Mickey Mouse. Many businesses tend to give up on creating a famous brand right before they crack the code. They stop when they hit their own “ok” Oswald the Lucky Rabbit rather than push on until they discover a famous Mickey Mouse.

So, take a moment to look at your brand today. Have you picked something that resonates with the audience? Are you investing in the right messaging? Are you making the right thing famous?

What’s your Mickey Mouse?

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