Putting an ‘untouchable’ brand up to interactive scrutiny


The next time some company starts fretting that an interactive approach to communications puts the integrity of their brand at risk, tell them about Mickey Mouse.

It’s hard to find a more carefully managed corporate brand that Disney, and no symbol is more entwined with the company than its most popular cartoon character. Through the decades Mickey has served as both a corporate logo and a company spokesperson, a squeaky clean character whose image and look remained untouched.

That’s about to change. Mickey is about to change. And video game enthusiasts can make the changes.

As part of an ambitious plan to overhaul Mickey’s image and make him more relevent in today’s pop culture, Disney has signed off on the development of a new game for the Nintendo Wii where players have tremendous freedom in the actions and ethics of the protagonist. The game takes place in a word of retired and forgotten Disney cartoon characters, a realm that Mickey inadvertently stumbles upon and damages.

There are some elements of a traditional action game, but the real focus is on interactivity with the surroundings. Using the Wii remote,  players paint and undo the structures and fabric of Mickey’s physical environment. This offers extraordinary control not just over the game’s content and direction, but on the personality of its iconic protagonist.

“The core of this game is the idea of choice and consequence, and how that
defines both the character and the player,” designer Warren Spector said during the game’s roll-out last month. “By putting the mischievous Mickey in an unfamiliar place and asking him to make choices — to help other cartoon characters or choose his own path — the game forces players to deal with the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, players must ask themselves, `What kind of hero am I?` Each player will come up with a different answer.”

Sounds like Mickey will be getting a makeover.

It really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Disney is embracing user choice and control that are the hallmarks of interactive media. For over a decade they’ve had an interactive theme park. They’ve even embraced the idea of streaming their movies and television programs online.

But what’s really notable here is the trust Disney has placed in opening up a once untouchable icon to reinterpretation by users. That kind of trust is mandatory for companies utilizing the new media landscape. But the payoff of having consumers actively shape and engage with your logo holds enormous potential for future profits.
If Mickey Mouse can shoulder that risk, then no brand is off-limits.

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