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Disney expands mobile vision

Despite Mobile ESPN failure

Despite killing its Mobile ESPN sports-oriented MVNO last year, the Disney Group aims to step up virtual mobile network activities in other areas as part of a broad ranging strategy to use mobile systems to underpin its content business and marketing.

In this way, the media powerhouse is showing the way that many heavily branded companies are likely to evolve - away from simple extension of the brand through running a mobile service, to incorporating mobility into every link of the value chain.

Disney has hinted at more creative approaches to wireless in the past, with experiments such as a trial of a WiMAX network to deliver its own content. But its commercial moves have mainly focused on providing content to mobile operators such as NTT DoCoMo in Japan; and the MVNOs - Disney Mobile, fairly successful in the US but stalled in Europe; and the now defunct ESPN Mobile, which sought to leverage the brand and content of the Disney-owned sports channel.

Now Larry Shapiro, executive VP for the Walt Disney Internet Group, says Disney has amassed sufficient expertise about what works in mobile to take this a step further.

"It's a painful business operationally. The good news about that is, the better you get at it, the more you're separating yourself from all but a handful of competitors," he said in a recent interview.

He is particularly interested in stealing a march on other content providers in terms of exploiting mobile marketing, with "deeply integrated" promotions with other businesses around movies or Disney Channel TV shows.

It tested some techniques recently for its movie Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man's Chest, using mobile promotional materials including short codes that drove users to a WAP site for information and content purchase; and the Pirates 'mobile club'.

Small steps maybe, but the plan is to accumulate many such activities to "turn on the giant marketing machine of the Walt Disney Co, to piggyback on that and integrate with that, to help with creating mobile awareness, discovery and the existence of and potential fun with mobile content," Shapiro said.

Disney Mobile will be revamped in the US around midyear. The company points to the difficult but essential trick to succeeding in the crowded MVNO space without price crashing - offering a unique differentiator with genuine user appeal and real brand association.

In Disney's case, it links its family oriented content with services such as parental access control over juniors' phone usage, or handset tracking to locate lost children. This takes the service beyond just "Disney on a phone" - something that could equally easily be offered through third party operator partners, as the Mobile ESPN content and services are now part of Verizon VCast - and into a range of offerings that commands customer loyalty for practical as well as brand reasons.

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