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Marketer George Grobar Directs ‘House of Mouse’ MVNO

THIS MONTH, THE WALT DISNEY CO. WILL LAUNCH A MUCH-ANTICIPATED MOBILE PHONE SERVICE TARGETED AT THE TWEEN-TEEN SET AND DISNEY ENTHUSIASTS OF ALL AGES. THE MAN HEADING UP THE NEW DISNEY MOBILE BUSINESS UNIT IS GEORGE GROBAR, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER, AND HE’S A MAN WITH A MISSION. NAMELY, EXTENDING THE BRAND AND CRAFTING A DEEP CONNECTION WITH CONSUMERS THROUGH TECHNOLOGY.

MOBILITY, AFTER ALL, IS

something that permeates people’s lives. “We saw this as an opportunity to bring to market an end-to-end service offering that affects people’s lives around the clock,” he says. “And a unique opportunity to integrate brand offers into that.”

Disney Mobile, an MVNO on the Sprint Nextel Corp. network, will offer a family service with comprehensive parental control options and lots of content. Grobar is in a unique position to head up the unit, after years pursuing the goal of a ubiquitous Brand Disney.

Beginning his career at Unisys Corp. doing financial management, product planning and hardware/software development for the mainframe and workstation projects, Grobar strapped on the mouse ears 11 years ago. He worked on the consumer products side doing operations analysis and licensing reviews, headed up the inventory processes for the Disney Store business, spent time at Disney Records, worked in the art and collectibles department, and then got into direct marketing and catalog sales for the company. A long journey filled with operations and management lessons, Grobar’s career at the media giant finally brought him back to the technology business.

Specifically, to Disney Online, an e-commerce joint venture between the Internet and catalog divisions. Brand extensibility through new marketing channels had become a byword of many venerable media companies looking to change with the times; Disney was no different. Grobar worked on the e-commerce launch, then headed up a NASCAR store online and launched an auction business through eBay, selling small-batch collectibles and overstock items. Technology was creeping into Disney, and Grobar saw it as an ideal opportunity to grow.

Good companies are always growing and following the zeitgeist, but it’s not necessarily easy when you have 82 years of being on-message. Grobar knew that emerging technologies like the exploding mobile marketplace held promise, but given the requirements for launch, was a wireless venture right for Disney? “Two-and-a-half years ago we started looking at the MVNO model, but it wasn’t the right time,” Grobar says. “But as carriers moved beyond offering primarily voice, they got more engaged with content, and willing to help us extend the brand, we saw it as a more feasible business.” That, combined with the arrival of handsets that offered color screens and data support at competitive prices, eventually convinced Grobar that it was time to unwire the Disney brand.

“Most of all, I wanted to stay close to the consumer, to create a tailored service that offers the things our brand is known for, likeguest service,” Grobar notes. “Families can trust the Disney brand after 82 years and this should support that idea.”

So the company first tested the waters through focus groups and research; Grobar wanted to understand exactly what most families’ wireless needs were.

“Kids are far more scheduled than they were 20 years ago, when kids just came home and rode their bikes around the neighborhood,” he says. “Life today is more chaotic, both parents are usually working, more activities, more safety concerns. What we found is that parents want to connect more with their kids, and also want a solution for scheduling and for safety purposes.” Grobar’s team also found that for parents, the view of wireless service for the younger set is that it’s financially risky. Giving a kid a cell phone is a lot like offering them an unlimited credit card for a trip to the mall. Also, there is a deep-seated concern for the safety and appropriateness of the mobile content.

“So we want to bridge the gap,” says Grobar. “We’re positioning this as a way to combine control for parents while still offering a great experience for the kids.”

For instance, the MVNO will be the first to offer conventional phone service for kids; competitive options like Firefly Mobile and Tic Talk do not use phones with full handsets and allow only limited activity. “The handset is a badge of sorts,” Grobar explains. “Kids want it to be similar to an adult’s. But the controls will allow parents to choose limited functionality despite that.”

Disney will sell two camera phones for $59.95 each, from LG Electronics and Pantech, targeting the service as “whole-family” by allowing parents to control their children’s usage. While calls to parents, other designated numbers and 911 are continuously enabled, a parent can set monthly spending limits to restrain other calls, text messaging and downloading activity. The controls also allow parents to set the times and days of the week when the phone is enabled, and to which numbers, while parents can map the location of the kids’ handsets from their phones or PCs, thanks to embedded GPS functionality. Custom and pre-set text alerts for common needs like scheduling pickups round out the special features.

“The main idea is that this is a service that can grow with the child,” says Grobar. “It can be as restricted or open as needed. So it’s an option for an adult Disney enthusiast as well.”

Child-only subscriptions and family plans will be sold online at Disneymobile.com and at mall kiosks; while plan pricing at press time was still TBD, Grobar says it will be “competitive.”

Then there’s the brand. The service will bundle in content like ringtones, wallpaper and graphics based on Disney characters, (along with non-Disney options). Vault Disney will offer unique, exclusive content for the phone, some included and some for an additional fee. The service also will tie into the Radio Disney Web experience, and will eventually offer interactive services like multiplayer games, voting and polling. “We want to create a sense of community and extend the mobile channel to other parts of the business,” Grobar says. Meanwhile video, while not an option in the initial service launch, is something Disney Mobile is “very interested in going forward.”

With all this focus on brand extensibility and positioning, the House of Mouse saw the need to contract several companies to take care of the technical side of things. Telcordia Technologies Inc. will support Disney Mobile’s Family Monitor feature that enables parents to control how long and to whom their children talk. Convergys Corp. and its partner Visage Mobile will provide outsourced billing and professional services; Visage Mobile will support customer care. Brightpoint North America L.P. will provide inventory management, custom packaging, reverse logistics and fulfillment services.

So with a giant media company as its parent, strong partnerships in place and a goal of becoming an intimate part of its customers’ lives, will Disney Mobile’s arrival change the wireless competitive landscape? Unsurprisingly, it all goes back to marketing.

“This is an opportunity to deliver to a segment we’re traditionally strong with,” says Grobar. “There’s plenty of room in the market for lots of companies to be successful with their various niches. Our content, ease-of-use and focus on the consumer experience will allow us to acquire customers cost-effectively, and that’s all it takes to be successful.”

PhonemagTeam

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