Disney's Cars has become an international success story in just six years. In that time, the property has steadily broken through a number of barriers including 200 million die casts sold, which helped to tip the NPD charts strongly in its favor, and the introduction of innovative new technology to licensed products.
The Cars franchise has topped $1 billion in worldwide sales (source: Box Office Mojo) since the original film opened theatrically in 2006. Revenue further grows with the release of DVDs, an additional medium for children to discover the world of Cars.
With its central themes of vehicles and racing, Cars has underpinned a universal play pattern for boys. Prior to its initial release, the only major competitor in the market was Mattel's Hot Wheels. The Cars toy range, also by Mattel, which covers every price point and encourages collecting, proves popular at retail even without consumer familiarity of the film.
"Disney acquired Pixar in 2007 which was perfect timing to provide confidence in our commitment to content," says Marianthi O'Dwyer, vice president of merchandise licensing, U.K. and Ireland. "There was always a continuity plan."
The film Cars 2 opened in 2011 and a third installment is on the horizon. In the interim, Disney has been releasing "Cars Toons," carefully executed animated shorts that create awareness, introduce new characters and themes and help to sustain the franchise.
"The success of the content lies in the strong characterization and the constant introduction of new personalities. These aren't just vehicles," says O'Dwyer. "The beauty of Cars is that you can extend the world to every sort of play vehicle, from a small assortment of die cast cars to LEGO, Scalextric and high price point remote control cars from Simba."
The richness of the toy line has helped the franchise become one of the top three licenses of 2011 in France, Italy and the U.K., according to NPD.
"Cars is strong in all countries in Europe," says Frederique Tutt, European analyst, The NPD Group. "It has shown the ability to grow without a film and could remain strong after the spike last year from the Cars 2 release."
The property also has an enviable pan-European appeal. The range of Cars has now expanded to encompass the entire boys' world. Now boys can eat, sleep and live the Cars property.
"Step-by-step, not all at once, we have turned Cars into a lifestyle brand driven by content," says O'Dwyer.
Mike Stagg, vice president and general manager, retail, U.K. and Ireland, describes the retail strategy as a "pull rather than push." Demand is consumer led with spikes in sales around new content releases which tend to trend reliably for retailers.
Rather than produce bespoke retail lines, new style guides are produced, driven by new themes and characters that inform product and packaging, giving retailers plenty of assets to use.
"I believe it is better to distinguish yourself by quality of execution, supply chain, retail handwriting and good theater," says Stagg.
At the end of last year, the Cars 2 Blu-ray DVD was successfully cross-promoted with other products and in-store displays in Europe at retailers such as ASDA and Tesco, each merchandised by a Disney team.
"An initiative like this lasts only a few weeks, but it's a big buying opportunity, gives confidence and therefore has a positive knock-on effect," says Stagg.
O'Dwyer stresses the importance of product innovation. New remote control toys, books using augmented reality and the Disney AppMATes are recent examples. On deck is a new range of toys, now in prototype, with a fresh appeal.
Stagg describes the Cars property as "a perfect storm" and one which shows no sign of abating.
"The challenge of the last six years has been about keeping the brand fresh," says O'Dwyer. "Cars 2 provided a great spike in the story."
In 2012, DCP plans to leverage the Pixar brand, bringing it together in a cross-character campaign. The next installment of Cars is in the pipeline, bringing the characteristic humor, warmth and distinctive personalities of the vehicles to the air with the 2013 release of the Planes property.