Disney’s top global exec explains why the company has had to change the way it sees the world

The Beauty and the Beast (2017)/ © 2017 – Walt Disney Motion Pictures via IMDb.

LOS ANGELES — When Andy Bird first joined Disney almost 14 years ago, the company was — like many multinationals — taking a one-size-fits-all approach to international markets.

With the dramatic transformation of the global media industry in the intervening period, the company needed to change to keep up with evolving consumer behaviour.

As chair of Walt Disney International, Bird’s job is to make sure the company’s giant franchises connect with consumers across varying markets, while being aligned with the company’s three strategic values of high quality creative content, innovative use of technology, and global growth.

Andy Bird, chairman of Walt Disney International. Photo: Supplied.

“We knew that we couldn’t stay relevant because the consumer landscape was changing significantly,” Bird told Business Insider in an interview.

While feature films and theme parks in some countries help Disney keep its brands fresh in the minds of consumers, many regions don’t have these marketing weapons, so the business is forced to find new avenues and diversify its products.

Bird says it has come down to leveraging the power of its movies and characters, and creating bespoke approaches for each region.

And the brands are titans, following the company’s mega acquisitions of Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009, and Star Wars creators LucasFilm in 2012.

“Our brands are a key differentiator. They all have an incredible attachment to consumers,” he says.

That said, there is a significant difference between Disney’s market presence in beyond the US, where Walt Disney founded the company in 1923.

“In the US you don’t learn Disney,” Bird said. “It’s a social fabric.”

This is not the case elsewhere.

The Walt Disney Company/ Supplied

The establishment of Disneyland in Shanghai was the biggest foreign investment in the company’s history. Until then, Disney’s presence in the China was limited due to restrictions on foreign films and TV shows.

“We create individual strategies country by country –- thinking about the journey a consumer is going to make,” he said.

“In order to do all that we changed the way we think about the world.”

Rather than thinking about getting people in to see a movie, the company thinks about audiences will relate to a brand like Star Wars over decades.

“The actions we make today are going to make an impact 10-20 years down the road,” Bird said. To support this, the company has a team of “Future Thinkers” that sits down once or twice a week to discuss the best and worst scenarios for its brands over time.

“What I tasked my team to think rather than think about the Walt Disney China, is how do we become the Chinese Walt Disney company… once you ask yourself that question you get different answers.”

Disney considers Australia to be a mature market and as having the closest brand affinity of any country outside of the US, even though it doesn’t have any parks or resorts. The recognition, he says, comes down to the high consumption of Disney film and TV content stretching back decades.

For example, Bird says Australia sends more visitors to Disneyland in the US than any other country. The company linked up with Australia’s rugby league competition, the NRL, to create Marvel-themed jerseys for the teams in order to reach consumers through alternative platforms.

“[It’s about] taking global IP (intellectual property) and making it relevant,” he says.

NRL – National Rugby League/ Facebook

Bird said new technologies and lifestyles had changed the timeline of the relationship between the brand and consumer. Movies are just one part of a much longer “story” told to audiences.

“What’s interesting is engagement with the consumer nowadays has to start way before you see the movie,” he said.

“Social influence, the power of Twitter or Facebook and other social platforms, like Instagram…. Whether it’s releasing posters, releasing footage from onset, whatever it happens to be, the story happens way before you actually see the event. So the movie now becomes like the main event of a much longer story. It has sort of this prequel and then it has this much more longer tale.”

An example of this is the company’s use of Facebook to promote a hugely popular series in India called “Girl in the City”. The show traces the exploits of young Indian girl who moves to the city and gets an internship in fashion house. Each episode premiers on Friday night on the dedicated social page and then airs later on TV.

It makes money through an advertising-based video on demand (AVOD) model as opposed to subscription.

Bird says releasing it on Facebook creates an organic social viral effect whereby people share the content and engage with the character and the story in its own virtual ecosystem.

“Her profile is part of the story,” he says, “everything has been posted as the character.”

Modern story telling for the modern consumer

In the social-powered media landscape, you can live and tell stories 24/7.

“[Social media] extends our ability to tell stories. We can tell stories in a totally new way to a new audience,” Bird said.

“There’s a lot more almost power to the consumer now in terms of, ‘I want to watch what I want to watch when I want watch it.’ Back in the days of just television, you were told what you had to watch, something by some scheduler on one of the channels. Now I think there’s a great deal of empowerment to the consumer and you’ve got to be respectful for that.”

He expects the company will start doing it many other countries around the world.

And while such platforms create more opportunities for the company to share its stories, the more channels that open up for the consumer the more noise is created to distract them.

To address this, Disney is reducing the number of films it releases on an annual basis to around 10 a year. This year, fiscal 2017, there will be seven movies. In fiscal 2018, it will release 11.

“Having brands that resonate with consumers are really, really important. And then having great stories that you can extend the story telling into this new technology is very important,” Bird said.

The author travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Disney.