Studio Ghibli, Disney, and The Range of Their Brands

Both Disney and Studio Ghibli have very strong brands in their respective home markets. Both are famous for their animated feature films. However only one can be said to be more truly representative of the dramatic range that animation is capable of. That entity is Studio Ghibli, who release all their material under one brand. In contrast, Disney uses multiple brands for their releases, restricting the core one for family-friendly content exclusively. Why does this perplexing situation exist?

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Why The Brand Of An Animation Studio Matters

Via: The Animation Background Blog (defunct)
Via: The Animation Background Blog (defunct)

In a recent post on Cartoon Brew, Amid Amidi makes the case that YouTube’s attempt to create branded, niche “channels” has been ineffective compared to the individual videos that have been racking up the large viewing numbers on the site. I will demonstrate why the concept of the brand of an animation studio matters and why that will likely continue for some time to come.

The Background To Amid’s View

The original post dealt with the fact that the recent video of a toddler being grabbed by an eagle was technically animated and therefore one of the most viewed animated videos of the year. Amid’s point was that this single video did so without any significant backing behind it at all:

The success of this animation serves as a reminder that corporations remain clueless about what audiences want to watch online. YouTube spent $100 million dollars last year in its backward-looking attempt to create niche “channels” a la cable television. This single piece of animation, produced by students as a class exercise, outperformed the viewership of 76 of those YouTube channels. I don’t claim to have any answers as to what people want to watch online, but it’s pretty clear that the entertainment industry’s cynical top-down approach of mass-producing content for narrow demographics has become irrelevant.

Now that’s a fair assessment of the situation, but it does over-simplify things. This video garnered so many views for its content; an eagle snatching a child. That’s something that a lot of consumers (and not just brainless ones) want to see. It’s the kind of video that in times gone past would have made the evening news across the country, but thanks to modern technology, we can see it instantly on the internet.

Where Branding Comes Into Play

My original comment on the article pointed out that branding was the main reason why the YouTube channels were being created in the first place:

…If you asked the average punter in the street who made this, they likely wouldn’t have a clue. The limits of their knowledge would extend to the fact that it was outed as a fake and that’s it.

Branded channels are an easy way for companies to give consumers an easily recognizable symbol of quality and style. So even though it may appear backward looking, it actually does serve a purpose.

Videos like this one and Psy’s Gangam Style are flashes in the pan. Yes, they rack up the views, but any record company executive will tell you that a moderately successful artist will bring in more money than a one hit wonder any day and their brand helps play a large role in that.

Amid’s response was as follows:

Branding is a term that means nothing in the context of entertainment, creativity and filmmaking. It’s a modern concept invented by business world hacks who cannot comprehend the abstractions of creative enterprise.

Now I don’t disagree with that for a second because he’s absolutely right. Branding and creativity are mutually exclusive things. Creativity doesn’t depend on branding and anyone who’s familiar with Wal-Mart will know that branding certainly does not depend on creativity.

Such circumstances do not, however, mean that both can be entirely successful without the other. Branding may not be necessary for a quick success in the marketplace but I can guarantee that it will become necessary for repeated success.

The Historical Aspect Of Branded Animation

If we look back at the history of animation, it quickly becomes apparent that while branding didn’t play much of a part in the early years, by the early 30s, it became rather prominent. Early cartoons were produced by a vast array of individuals and small studios. Gradually, however, a few came to national success with one in particular casting a shadow over everyone.

That was, of course, Disney, whose cartoons were the standard against which everyone else was measured. In the beginning though, Disney was just a studio name like any other. Its purpose was simple; to inform the audience who made the film.

With the success of Mickey Mouse though, the Disney name came to mean much more than just who made the cartoon; it began to indicate the kind of entertainment and quality that audiences should expect in the film about to be screened. By the time Snow White rolled around, Disney was well established as more than a name; it was now a brand.

Other similar animation brands include the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies as well as MGM with their Tom & Jerry cartoons among others.

A cautionary tale can be had from all this though; note there is one studio’s name missing above. That would be Fleischer Brothers. That studio was second only to Disney in success in the 20s and 30s but, their brand was nowhere near as powerful as Disney’s. This was despite similar levels of success and the fact that each film had the ‘Max Fleischer presents’ line on every title card. When Paramount took over (whether through wanting to make a clean break with an unpleasant past or not), they eliminated the Fleischer name. The Fleischer brand quickly disappeared into the history books. It’s possible that with a stronger brand, Paramount may not have so readily cast it on the scrapheap.

The Contemporary Importance of Branding

Today, branding in animation continues to define what kind of entertainment each studio produces. Josh L. Dickey recently wrote an article on the very topic for Variety where he takes a look at the cross-pollination of the Disney and Pixar brands in their 2012 films, Wreck-It-Ralph and Brave respectively:

Could this be the outline of an identity crisis for Disney? In truth, having two of the world’s strongest entertainment brands emulate one another is probably a good problem to have. Disney insists no one at the Mouse House is sweating this, but the fact is the studios veered into one another’s creative lanes this summer and, well … people noticed.

To be fair though, Disney and Pixar continue to have very strong brands that resonate firmly with consumers. But what if you took a DreamWorks film (say Megamind) and slapped a Sony Animation ident at the start. Would audiences even notice? Is the DreamWorks brand strong enough and their films unique enough to differentiate themselves from the rest? What if there was an Illumation Entertainment ident in front of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs? Is either brand involved there going to be in trouble? The answer is possibly.

If you switched to the TV landscape, content aside, what differentiates the various studios? Brown Bag Films have their logo at the end of every show they produce, but most consumers know that Doc McStuffins is a Disney show, not a Brown Bag one. Surely that is an indication of the relative power of the brands. Brown Bag (being the smart people that they are over there) are rectifying the situation by heading into features, just like another Irish studio, Cartoon Saloon.

Why The Brand of an Animation Studio Really Matters

Returning to the context of Amid’s original post, YouTube channels don’t so much serve to create niche content so much as it gives creators (or more accurately, investors) the surety that the content they are funding will be received by a certain audience. Business constantly revolves around risk: measuring it, detecting it and managing it. Yes, you could fund the best animated film ever made, but because we are humans (and therefore idiots), a good brand association will not only greatly increase the chances that a film will succeed commercially, it will also help ensure it happens again.

In that frame of mind, if the creators of the eagle video launched another one tomorrow, would they achieve the same levels of success as their original one? What if they somehow branded the first video? Now how would they fare? In casual discussion, the first case would be “those guys who made the eagle video” while the latter would be “so-and-so”. They would, in effect, become a brand.

All that YouTube channels do is codify for viewers what kind of entertainment they can expect and in that respect, they are simply the latest in a long line of branded animated content.

Creative and artistic animation can still be commercially successful, but repeated creations inevitably lead to the creation of a brand, intended or not and since any commercial enterprise wants to succeed on a continual basis, that’s why the brand matters of an animation studio matters.

Do you think that branding YouTube channels is outdated? What could they do instead? Let us know in the comments!

A Response To Amid’s Post Concerning an Animator’s Brand

Amid over at Cartoon Brew has an insightful post that looks at Spike Lee and how he has managed to create a personal brand around himself and his company. Its a good post and Amid raises a number of questions. Rather than detailing it in an über long comment, I thought it best to write a full post instead.

How do Spike Lee’s thoughts fit into today’s animation world, where selling one’s creation to a TV network is often considered the pinnacle of success?

This a good point, although it really does raise the question of why selling to networks is considered the pinnacle of success. Surely the pinnacle would be to get a theatrical feature released, no? Perhaps it is, but that really is an uphill battle all the way if ever there was one and only a very select few ever actually achieve it.

Things are changing though. TV series are (slowly) disappearing, or at least becoming less prominent. In the near future, we’ll see a lot more branded online networks. Some will be personal brands and others will be more reminiscent of traditional networks that take pitches and so forth.

So as far as I see it, animators will more than likely have to get a personal brand together in order to be successful on their own terms. Plenty of them have already done so, like PES and Xeth Fineburg, so the concept is hardly new.

Is giving up control of one’s creation a prerequisite for success in our industry, or can artists who own their brands carve out successful careers?

That ties in nicely with the point above insofar that while that may be true today, where networks normally demand control in exchange for funding, the future is likely to be radically different. If you create, distribute and manage your own content via your own website, then you CAN control your own work.

Artists have also proved fairly apt at this already. Think of Bill Plympton’s Plymptoons or again, PES. Success can be measured in many ways and owning your own brand and success (in the generally accepted sense) are not mutually exclusive.

Can an artist sell a creation to a corporation, but still maintain the integrity of their personal brand?

This is a tricky one, mainly because it’s necessary to define a “personal brand” and what exactly would undermine its integrity.

Taking a simple example, if you were an animator who sold an idea to a network but they requested you change a few things like the language, or the tone, or the jokes, if you did, would that undermine your brand? What if they requested changing, say a minority character into a white character and you did. If you’re a member of that minority, is that selling-out?

The reason I bring these examples up is that they illustrate how difficult it can be to determine whether a brand is being undermined or simply making the right decisions. Determining the integrity of your brand will depend on how exactly your brand is defined.

At the end of the day, many people conclude that when you accept a project for money and money only, then you have undermined your brand, because that is supposed to stand for something, to give people an instant impression of your content and creation. By “selling-out” you undermine that immediately.

All of this rests on the creator whose brand it is. It is up to them to decide whether it is good practice to sell an idea and lose control. Artists like Bill Plympton decided not to, and they’ve managed to build an incredibly strong brand because of it. Bill decided not to participate in Disney’s Aladdin because he felt it would ruin his brand and in so doing, created the gold standard for decision-making against which all others will be judged.

Rebecca Hains Discovers Disney Princess…Flowers???

Yes, these are entirely real, believe it or not. Media studies professor and author, Rebecca Hains, came across them at her local Home Depot recently. Kinda reminds you of the Disney Princess grapes I stumbled across at the grocery store last year, don’t they? Rebecca’s written a great post about on these seeds which you should all read (as well as the comments).

While her post does a great job of analysing how such merchandise is bad for kids and parents, I can’t help but conclude that it is bad for the Disney company also. How is that, you say? Surely they are simply getting a cut and/or fee from the licensing rights and nothing more. Why should they care about it any further than that?

Well, because it’s a sign that they’re failing to care for their characters. The Disney Princess brand is a faux collection of said characters who supposedly represent the best in female traits. Now you could argue about that until the cows come home, but what’s more important is that each of the princesses is only a good fit for her particular context. In other words, the film they appear in.

The Disney Princess brand takes that context completely away, and instead mashes the characters together in a manner that attempts to blend them all into a singular idea of what good female characters should be like; read: princesses. This would be OK if it was for a once-off thing or a singular celebration of the characters, but branding them in such a manner (and licensing them to everyone under the sun) only serves to devalue the characters themselves, and worse, the films they originally appeared in.

The original films are masterpieces, they evoke they very best in art and character. These seeds and the grapes which precede them do not. They are a cheap attempt to imbue otherwise unexciting products with some sort of luster, and while even the humblest of grape can make the finest wine, a grape is still a grape, no matter which character is on the packaging or how superb the film she appeared in is.

Unfortunately, it would appear that the brand is making big bucks for Disney and shows no sign of abating.




Thoughts on Brand Mascots As Characters

They’ve been around for years and for many, they’re a part of their childhood, or even their entire lives (I’m looking at you, Snap, Crackle and Pop), but mascots are an interesting bunch of characters, aren’t they?

Think about it, they’re ostensibly characters, but their appearances are often limited to 30 second commercials and perhaps some rudimentary comics on the packaging (or when you sent in so many coupons and 3.99 p&p).

The reason this struck a chord with me is because I came (or rather stumbled) across the twitter feed for Chicken of the Sea, who apparently have, as their spokeswomen, the Chicken of the Sea Mermaid.

Yup, the mascot for a tuna company is a mermaid. A bit of a conflict of interest there if you ask me, but I’m not one to judge.

Anyway, it’s kind of interesting to see that she not only has her ‘own’ twitter feed but a Facebook page too with almost 99,000 ‘fans’ on the latter.

It makes me wonder how the public really feels about such characters. I mean, we expect the ones in TV shows to be fully developed, complicated and conflicted beings. But our standards for commercial characters are so much lower.

Is it because we only see them for 30 seconds at a time, or is it more likely that we see them as exceptionally shallow; created for the single purpose of selling us stuff.

Of course, we often forget that characters in TV shows and films sell us stuff too, it just isn’t as blatant as an actual commercial.

Some of the longest-lived brand mascots have evolved well beyond their initial function. Indeed the 1980s saw brands and mascots descend upon TV and film like never before. Now the lines were seriously blurred between spokesman and character, even if the quality of both were similarly flimsy.

Or how about real characters shilling stuff?

Do we have a certain tolerance for Bugs and Daffy filling the role because it’s more of a sideshow for them?

Brand mascots and spokespersons are an interesting study area as they inhabit a unique culmination of art and commerce. Getting the balance right between the two is hard.

What are your thoughts on brand mascots and characters?