Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Iger's Long Term Strategy at Disney

As you know by now, Disney acquired Lucas Films last week. With that, Disney now owns the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. I'm not surprised by the move. In fact, you can see a pattern emerging to Bob Iger's strategy at Disney, which is quite in contrast to the strategy during the second half of Eisner's tenure at the company. In Eisner's later years, he moved away from simply focusing on the characters as the central driver of synergy among Disney's businesses. He acquired ABC and Miramax, and he owned a baseball and hockey team for some time - among other moves. Now we see Iger refocusing on characters as the heart of Disney's corporate strategy. We see three major moves (Pixar, Marvel, and now Lucas) during his tenure that all involve expanding the universe of characters which Disney can leverage across its many businesses. I think the focus on characters makes a great deal of sense. Here's why...

When thinking about the characters at Disney, we should note those resources are quite valuable because they are highly durable and inimitable. Moreover, Disney can appropriate the value associated with those resources (as Buffett says, "the mouse has no agent"). How then can one think about leveraging such a valuable resource across multiple businesses? A strategist needs to think about how specialized vs. fungible/general the resource is. A highly fungible resource/capability would be something like “brand management expertise” or “innovation” or “risk management.” A highly specialized capability might be patented product formulas or engineering expertise in a very narrow discipline. Fungible capabilities can be easily transferred across lines of business. However, they are often too general/not unique enough to convey a substantial competitive advantage. On the other hand, highly specialized capabilities tend to provide powerful competitive advantage in a particular business, but they lose value very quickly when a firm tries to transfer them to a wide array of businesses. In other words, there are only so many areas in which you can grow based on a highly specialized set of capabilities.

In the 1980s, Disney’s core capabilities revolved around animated character development and deployment. Those tended to be highly specialized capabilities; Disney was able to leverage those capabilities to enter the hotel and cable television business, but ultimately, growth was constrained by the specialized nature of that capability. To move into even more diverse businesses, Disney had to be able to make the case that it had a broader/more general/more fungible capability such as “managing creativity.” That's the argument that Eisner used to move into a variety of businesses that did not have to do with characters (ABC, Miramax, etc.) There are two challenges associated with defining a firm’s capabilities so broadly. First, it is more difficult to make the case that the firm is truly unique and superior to all rivals in that set of capabilities. Second, it becomes rather difficult to discriminate among various options for diversification, i.e., how many businesses have something to do with managing creativity vs. developing and deploying unique characters?

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