Disney's Philippe Roucoule gives firms a licence to thrill, reports Gary Scattergood
When it comes to licensing its animated characters and brands to appear on a range of food and drink products, Disney takes anything but a Mickey Mouse approach.
Despite "thousands" of products featuring characters from Winnie the Pooh to Monsters Inc, Philippe Roucoule, Disney's director of food, health and beauty for the UK and Ireland, insists it is essential that he and his team have a full knowledge of every step of the product's manufacturing process.
"It is essential that we visit the licensees and see what they do. For us, it is very important to make sure we are close to them, not only in terms of the commercial deals and the discussions we are having, but also in understanding the constraints that they are working with," he says.
It is not surprising that he likes to take such an active role in light of his background.
Before joining Disney in 2004, initially in its home entertainment division, Roucoule's past was firmly rooted in the food industry.
His CV includes stints at RHM, Burtons Biscuits and dairy group Bongrain in a range of category management, insights and marketing positions.
"My background means that I am able to bring to the role an understanding of what is happening in factories and a knowledge of some of the limitations that manufacturers have to work with," he explains.
"It is very easy for someone who has never worked in food to say 'just change that wrapping very quickly on the line' and not understand what that entails. My team has a food background and they do understand what is required in factories."
Relishing the role
Roucoule has been in his present role for 18 months and clearly relishes being able to get back on to the factory floor.
"I was very, very keen to get back into food. It's an area I love and it is a key growth area for Disney. I have been brought in to use the network I have in the food industry and work with manufacturers to develop new products."
He is at pains to point out that licensees, or "partners" as he prefers to call them, not only get a recognised brand on their products, but all the expertise that his team has to offer.
His hands-on approach includes sharing best practice and suggesting changes to the manufacturing processes.
On a recent trip to Disney licensee Finsbury Foods in Glasgow, Roucoule and the team initiated new processes for decorating some of the firm's Disney cakes.
"This is something that came from a discussion we had on the line where we saw how some of the cakes were being decorated. It was a very manual process with a whole army of people putting together characters with incredible skills. But we were able to drive innovation by automating the process something that actually makes the transcription of the character on to the cake much easier and look more realistic," he explains.
"This allowed the team to spend more time working on more intricate products."
While such assistance can no doubt bring benefits to manufacturers, Roucoule is fully aware that the key barometer of success in a licensing deal is the bottom line.
So how does Disney go about creating the all-important "incremental" increases for the manufacturer that he continually refers to?
"The way [a manufacturer] works with us is the same way that [it would] work traditionally for a new product launch," he says, adding that Disney's key ability is in "amplifying the noise" behind the product.
"We can make that product much more visible in store as well," he adds. "We are able to offer partners a very strong platform that is often much larger than the platform they would achieve independently. There are a lot of benefits to having a formula that works. We invest multimillions behind our franchises," he adds.
Figure it out
While it sounds like an attractive proposition in terms of the benefits, the key issue for a manufacturer has to be the cost of entering into such a relationship.
Here, Roucoule is a little more sketchy on the details, saying that the type of licensing deal would very much depend on the size and type of firm he was working with.
"We have a typical licensing arrangement, but you wouldn't expect me to share the precise details," he laughs. "What is very important for manufacturers, though, is that they see incremental rises in their revenue and have a new platform from which to operate. Some of our partners have gone worldwide as a result of starting to work with us."
Roucoule is equally reluctant to divulge whether the deals include one-off costs or if Disney takes a cut from each unit sold, preferring to add: "we have flexibility in business models".
One thing a manufacturer can be sure of, however, is that a product stands a far greater chance of being granted a licence if it is aimed at the "more healthy" end of the market.
Since 2006, Disney has been on a drive to achieve its "global portfolio balance goal". This will lead to 85% of the products meeting the firm's nutritional guidelines, which stipulate the total number of calories, saturated fats, sugar, sodium and added trans fats that can be in each portion. The remaining 15% of goods will be reserved for 'treats' and 'celebrations'.
The US has already hit the target, but it is unclear how Disney is doing in this regard in the UK and Ireland.
"We are still progressing towards that goal," acknowledges Roucoule, "there is definitely some progress being made."
However, he was unable to "quote a figure."
It was a similar story when Roucoule was asked what proportion of the sales came from products that adhered to the guidelines, compared with those that didn't.
He did, however, pledge: "My team is very focused on developing healthier products as we work towards that goal."
Solutions for parents
A number of recent product launches have helped Disney to move towards this aim, Roucoule says, while also proving incredibly popular with consumers.
"The Juicy Water products we have developed with Calypso have done brilliantly because they are healthy providing one of the five a day servings of fruit in each bottle but they also taste very good. We have also launched a lot of dairy products with Arla. By using characters such as Winnie the Pooh or Princess, we bring the fun into food."
Maintaining parental trust and providing licensees with 'solutions' is now very much driving Roucoule's agenda when it comes to new product launches.
In addition to developing lunch box products that provide one of the five-a-day, there is a concerted move to create goods that remove "some of the headaches" parents have.
"For example, if they are going on a long journey they will want a product that is easy for the kids to consume on the move and that doesn't cause much mess," he says.
So what if a manufacturer approaches Disney with a suitable idea, but it falls short of the nutritional guidelines?
"Then we work with them to change it," says Roucoule with enthusiasm.
"We would work on issues like this together, either on the line or in test kitchens if the manufacturers have them."
Looking ahead, Roucoule says we can expect a range of new and existing products featuring next year's Monsters University film and, further along the line, a suite of goods featuring the Star Wars brand, after Disney snapped up the rights from Lucasfilm in October.
As for Roucoule, he'd be more than happy to continue working in the food industry, and especially at Disney.
As he says: "If you can't have fun working here, where can you?"