What Makes Pixar Tick?

June 21, 2010

Cool with you guys if I rave about “Toy Story 3” for a little bit? I know that would be like complaining about BP so I’ll try my best not to make it redundant. I saw it over the weekend – good marketing by Disney to release it close to Father’s Day – and although you’ve all likely seen the four-star reviews and heard about the narrative’s sniffles, I think it’s a good time to look at the healthy brand equity that Pixar has built itself largely because of this film franchise.

With the achievement of the third chapter – that I think is the best ever (no disrespect to Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, “The Last Crusade” or “Army of Darkness”) – Pixar is now 11 for 11 in terms of its product being both critically acclaimed and a box office smash. The CNN Money chart above to the left is from 2004 after the animation studio had such success with its first five films, and they’ve just continued at it. From both the pop culture and business perspective it’s hard to find a precedent.

Can you think of other brands that have not had a single hiccup in their history? Pixar has been around for 15 years so it’s not too young to raise the question, I don’t think. Even the Yankees missed the post-season in 2008. Robert De Niro was in “Showtime” and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” – to name a couple blunders. Toyota had 2009. McDonald’s made the McDLT. Michael Jackson had that one album with a statue of him on the cover. You get where I’m going.

Apple comes to mind – although the hockey puck mouse does too – as a brand void of failed product introductions, but the question is arbitrary, I know. If brands were afraid of the possibility of failure the marketplace would never see innovation. Also, did you know Steve Jobs co-founded Pixar? So maybe that’s the answer to becoming the coveted mistake-free brand – just hire that guy.

But in all seriousness, it takes a great work ethic and awareness of what consumers will go for to have a track record like Pixar has. Something sets it apart from Dreamworks (most one-sided “rivalry” known to man?) and allows them to take risks while eluding failure. They’ve built the empire on the recipe of keen humor (see: Ken doll in “Toy Story 3”) and an ability to connect with kids and parents alike with stunning visual animation and by touching on personal themes like mourning, regrets, goodbyes, etc. Those have all been constants as the characters have switched from toys to fish to robots to curmudgeons and back to toys.

This success has made me wonder about the corporate culture that cultivates such quality. I wasn’t surprised by what I found: Peter Hartlaud, the likewise quality pop culture reporter for the SF Chronicle reports of a workplace with “Willy Wonka mystique,” production assistants riding around the halls on bikes and seemingly not a trace of paranoia about losing its luster around. Let’s hope they keep at it – it’s a great case study for brands and marketers to continue to observe.

Now I’ll leave you with less to chew on – here’s one of the many fun scenes from “Toy Story 3” courtesy of the WSJ Speakeasy blog: