In analyzing the John Carter performance at the domestic box office, one thing that I’ve learned is that among the pros in the branding business, Disney is considered to have created what is alternately called a “brand violation”, or a “brand misalignment”, or “brand inongruency” with this movie. This is interesting on a number of levels, as it sheds some light on what went wrong, but also what Disney marketing may have been trying to do with its otherwise difficult-to-understand promotion of Andrew Stanton’s film.
Disney is obviously a legendary brand, not just in the US, but worldwide. Brand strategists talk about something called the “brand promise” which is the essential expectation that a consumer has when contemplated a product under a given brand. The Disney brand promise is “fun family entertainment”. Brand strategists will tell you that in everything it does, Disney will try and make sure that what it is offering conforms to that “brand promise”.
The problem with John Carter, from the beginning, is that the Edgar Rice Burroughs “brand promise” is not very congruent with Disney’s “brand promise”. The Burroughs name on the cover of a novel promises nothing about family entertainment. Instead, it promises that the story within will be heart-pounding romantic adventure in a richly imagined fantastical setting. The imagery associated with the novels has always been that of sword-bearing John Carter protecting scantily clad Dejah Thoris from threat by fantastical creatures. The stories themselves — told in first person by grown man of indeterminant age who hacks his way to a substantial body count of dead Tharks and Zodangans as he pursues romantic acceptance by the Princess of the title–are clearly written as if they are intended for adults. Over the years, they became popular with teens — but never have Burroughs’ novels been considered “family fun entertainment” in the way that Disney promises.
So …. having this problem — what were the options?
This was by no means the first time that Disney had faced a situation where it had a film that didn’t fit the Disney brand. In fact, precisely because the Disney brand is so specific, and the brand promise so well understood, Disney has a number of alternate labels which it uses for films that don’t meet the very precise “brand congruency” or “brand alignment” requirements of a “Disney” branded film. These alternate labels include Buena Vista, Hollywood Pictures, and Touchstone Pictures. Films which don’t fit the Disney brand are released under these labels — allowing Disney to keep the Disney brand “pure” and meaningful while enabling the company to work with a wider range of productions and producers than would be the case if all films were released as Disney films.
Recent examples of films released under the Touchstone label include The Help, Step Up 3D, War Horse, The Tempest, and sci-fi pictures I Am Number Four and Real Steel. Buena Vista Pictures has been used as the label for Wild Hogs, Bridge to Terabithia, The Game Plan, and Ratatouille, and even one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies — Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Notably 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, under development at the time John Carter was released, is slated as a Buena Vista Pictures release. The Hollywood Pictures label was used for, among others, Michael Bay’s The Rock.
So … why not “let John Carter be John Carter” and just put the film out under Buena Vista or Touchstone? Seems like that would have been an easy solution….but it was not the option selected.
Instead, the solution that was chosen was to basically try and take a movie that didn’t really fit the Disney brand, and then sell it with Disney plastered all over it in every way possible, which in turn meant that the pitch needed to do what it could to try and make it look like Disney fare– i.e. make it look like “fun family entertainment” even though this wasn’t really precisely what it was.
The result seems as though it could have been predicted, but wasn’t. True Disney fans didn’t really buy into the idea that this was a true Disney film. They stayed away.
And fans for whom “Disneyfication” is a negative stayed away too, even though the film wasn’t actually “Disneyfied” in the way they assumed it would be.
Thinking further about this, I remembered the Kiddie TV spot that Disney put out there and was playing constantly on the Disney channel. Ironically, this spot was the most sure-footed of all the spots, at least it seemed that way to me — it felt like this was really how Disney saw the film, or wanted to see it. The problem is, the audience when pitched this way shrinks down quite a bit — pre-teen boys and Disney moms (nothing in here for girls)…..and of course this is precisely the type of thing that drives general adult audiences away from Disney films unless they have kids in the right age bracket to take with them (or drag them to it).