Disney bets that it's a small world after all

Roy Hardy’s task was simple when he was hired in 2002 to market Hong Kong Disneyland: make Mickey, Donald and company as familiar to families in China as they are in the West.

To kids in the United States and Europe, where for three generations Disney’s cartoons and movies have been a part of growing up, it may seem a no-brainer.

But in China, the smiling face of Mickey Mouse is still alien to many youngsters and the task is daunting.

“A market like China is a greenfield environment and so we have to build awareness and knowledge of what Disney is,” Hardy said during a break in a hectic schedule ahead of the park’s opening day Monday.

“The better you understand the stories and the characters the better you enjoy the theme park experience—it’s a process of education,” he added.

There are many reasons why Hong Kong was chosen as the launchpad for Disney’s expansion into China, among them the readiness of the local government to cough up $1,8-billion of the $3-billion needed to build the park.

But just as importantly, said Hardy, the former British colony is an oasis of Disney understanding, and a springboard from which word of the company can be spread.

“Hong Kong, like Singapore and Japan, has been exposed to Disney for many years through the TV and so on, but China is different,” he said from an office in the park’s Hollywood hotel, one of two 500-room properties in the resort.

Although Hardy could tap into Disney’s huge multimedia network to promote the park to most of the world, he was unable to use in China the most effective marketing tool the company has—its cable and satellite TV channel.

The channel feed barely penetrates China, leaving Hardy only the merchandising arrangements to directly push the parks.

Instead, he struck a deal with southern China’s prominent commercial TV channel TVB to carry the Disney message, securing the key 8:30pm to 10:30pm time slot when family viewing is at its peak.

“It’s worked very well for us,” he said, adding that recognition of the characters and stories has risen.

When the Hong Kong Disneyland project was first proposed in the mid-1990s, critics said Chinese and Asian audiences would not respond well to a giant corporation opening up its peculiarly American brand of entertainment in a region rich in its own heritage.

Hardy, however, said research showed that an American-style theme park was just what China wanted.

“We thought about customising it to this and that but when we got the data back it was clear people were telling us they wanted an American Disneyland,” he said.

“They want a bona fide Disney experience.”

But to make Disney a little more accessible, the American giant hired Jackie Cheung, a Canto-pop superstar who is as recognisable to Chinese pop fans as Michael Jackson, to act as the park’s public spokesperson.

Before each TVB show airs, Cheung is seen on screen introducing the stories and the characters.

“We use Jackie to talk about the heritage of Disneyland and the stories behind it. The films that we show have a direct correlation to the rides we have at Disneyland—Toy Story, Tarzan and so on.”

Disney expects the resort to attract five million customers in its first 12 months of operation, split equally between visitors from China, Hong Kong and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Though significantly less than the 13-million that went through the turnstiles at the Tokyo Disneyland last year or the 15-million at the Walt Disney World Park in Orlando, Florida, it’s a start that the company believes it can build on.

“Like the parks in the US our intention is to build a lifetime relationship with our guests so that multiple generations of families keep coming back,” Hardy said.

So far, efforts to sell Disney have been concentrated on the nearest markets—Hong Kong and southern China.

“It’s the most logical way to do it,” he said. “Within a 300-mile [480km] radius of Hong Kong there are 140-million people.

“We concentrate on that area first before moving to the rest of China.” - AFP

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