HOLLYWOOD - At the center of things is the bear.Edward Bear, a k a Winnie-the-Pooh. A small bear, of very little brain, with a sticky substance-abuse problem, and yet a certain charisma. He gathered about him a clan of disparate creatures - a piglet, a donkey, a rabbit, two kangaroos, an owl. The purpose: adventure. They all ostensibly answered to the Man, the Big Guy in short pants, Christopher Robin, but it was the bear who called the shots. In his own rum-tum-tiddle-um-tum way, he ran the Hundred Acre Wood.
But that wasn't enough. Is it ever? Eventually, he cut a deal. Eventually, he headed to L.A. On Uncle Walt's dime. And now?
Forget the mouse. The bear owns this town.
A trip through any toy store, any department store, tells the tale. Where once there was almost nothing, there are now racks of Pooh, walls of Pooh, rooms of Pooh. And of Piglet and Tigger and all the denizens of A.A. Milne's imagination.
There are dolls and toys and games, bedding and clothes and chairs, watches and earrings and backpacks, pillows and throw rugs and piggy banks. Most of which come in two guises: Pooh, the vivid Disney-drawn characterization, and the more sedate "Classic Pooh."
This holiday season there have been Santa Pooh gift bags, tags and paper, Christmas stockings, Christmas throws and ornaments. There was even Hanukkah Party Pooh. Surely, Ramadan Pooh and Kwanzaa Pooh are not far behind.
"Pooh belongs to everybody," says John Singh, spokesman for the Disney Consumer Products Division. "He can be anything you want him to be. It's totally appropriate for him to celebrate Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or the Fourth of July."
The numbers say no matter what Pooh does, he does it big. In October, Winnie-the-Pooh was the No. 2 licensed toy line, behind only Barbie. Ed Roth at the NPD Group, a marketing research company in New York, says he expects it will finish in the top five at year's end.
"It will probably end up with 2 percent or 2.2 percent of the market," Roth says. "That may sound small, but it translates to about $400 million. And that's just the toys."
As for Disney's standard characters? They rank No.16.
The next new ride at Disneyland, scheduled to open next summer, will be the Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. There are whispers among those who know that the bear, in fact, has replaced Mickey Mouse, that the mouse is down for the count.
How did a mild-mannered literary bear and his friends, plucked from the sylvan simplicity of the English countryside, manage to so thoroughly invade retail shelf space?
"Pooh is a very lovable character," says Charles Riotto, executive director of the Licensing Industry Merchandising Association. "He's soft and cuddly, which parents are attracted to. And many mothers today grew up with him, so you've got the nostalgia factor. And, of course, the property managers have done a terrific job."
That's Disney, of course. Their courtship of Pooh and his friends was a persistent one, beginning sometime in the 1940s. According to Robert Tieman, manager of the Walt Disney archives, Walt himself began negotiations with the Milne estate, complicated negotiations that didn't bear fruit until 1964, when Disney was able to acquire film and merchandising rights.
Immediately, Disney redrew Ernest H. Shepard's pen-and-ink characters in a more child-friendly, colorful way. Next it granted Sears stores 30-year exclusive merchandising rights. Pooh became the first Disney character for which the merchandise preceded the film.
Thirty years later, when the contract was up, things at Disney had changed. The company was doing its own merchandising and was looking for another product with the punch and durability of Mickey and friends.
Enter the bear and his little friends. And the treehouses and honey pots. Which would look so good on mobiles and lunch boxes and cookie jars and blankets ...
Disney did not renew its contract with Sears. Instead, it plotted the return of Pooh, both the Disney (for mass market) and Classic versions (for adults, mostly).
The launch, intentionally, was not tied to any movie or event. The Disney name, though present, is downplayed on Pooh merchandise and is almost invisible on Classic Pooh. Working with a wide variety of licensees, Disney created products across all categories. All, claims Singh, true to the original themes of Milne's work, thanks to Disney's Pooh style guide, which devotes several hundred pages to each character's "history, appearance, coloring, personality - down to what they like to eat, drink, do for fun."
Pooh purists might argue with this. There is an unflagging vivaciousness of the characters' depictions not present in the books. And Disney's creation of very un-Milne-like story lines for the TV show "The New Adventures of Pooh" and accompanying videos and children's books leave some confused or dismayed.
At Dutton Children's Books, which still owns the rights to the original Milne classics, there is no such animal as Classic Pooh. There is only Pooh and "the Other Pooh."
Yet the naysayers cannot dispel the fact that since 1995, when Mattel came out with the first new Pooh plush toys, the success has been phenomenal.
Because at the center of the numbers and the strategy is the bear. Perpetually perplexed but game for just about anything. Never too busy for a game of sticks or a morsel of honey, he and his friends can always be counted on.
"They're cute and cuddly," says Lindsay Jorden, a 12-year-old Pooh aficionado. "And when you need a friend, Pooh's there to play with and to hug."
And that's something no marketer can change.
Pub date: 12/27/98