The Walt Disney Company has started an ambitious and risky march toward the one corner of childhood it does not already dominate: newborns.
Late last month, the company quietly began pressing its newest priority, Disney Baby, in 580 maternity hospitals in the United States. A representative visits a new mother and offers a free Disney Cuddly Bodysuit, a variation of the classic Onesie.
In bedside demonstrations, the bilingual representatives extol the product’s bells and whistles — extra soft! durable! better sizing! — and ask mothers to sign up for e-mail alerts from DisneyBaby.com. More than 200,000 bodysuits will be given away by May, when Amazon.com is set to begin selling 85 styles for a starting price of $9.99 for two; Nordstrom and Target will follow with more Disney Baby items, including hats.
“If ever there was an opportunity for a trusted brand to enter a market and provide a better product and experience, it’s this,” said Robert A. Iger, chief executive of Disney. “I’m extremely excited about it.”
The endeavor dances close to a flame. Disney has suffered harsh criticism in recent years over products directed at the very young. The fiercest battle has involved Baby Einstein, the Disney-owned maker of “developmental and entertainment” videos and toys for babies and toddlers.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit organization, claimed victory in 2009 when Disney, apparently acknowledging that the products did not turn babies into geniuses after all, offered some Baby Einstein refunds.
But Disney has moved on. In this new venture, the company gains access to the maternity hospitals through a company called Our365, a business that sells bedside baby pictures. Our365 pays hospitals for exclusive access, and companies like Disney pay Our365 to promote their own products. Our365 also has Fisher-Price and Procter & Gamble as clients. It is unclear whether mothers know of Our365’s financial ties to these companies.
Certainly hospitals have given new mothers gift bags for decades. In recent years, however, more have banned the practice, citing criticism that free baby formula, for example, discourages breast-feeding. Privacy also is a concern. “This is taking advantage of families at an extremely vulnerable time,” said Jeff McIntyre, director of national policy for the advocacy group Children Now.
Elizabeth Carter gave birth to her daughter Olivia on Jan. 19 in Piedmont, Calif., and was given a Disney Cuddly Bodysuit as part of an Our365 photo package. “It surprised me that Disney was in there promoting something right as the baby was born, but we figured as new parents we weren’t in a position to turn free things down,” she said.
Mrs. Carter put the garment on her hours-old baby immediately. “And I have to say Olivia looked fabulous, much better than the rough, bulky thing the hospital had her wearing,” she said.
Disney estimates the North American baby market, including staples like formula, to be worth $36.3 billion annually. Its executives talk about tapping into that jackpot as if they were waging a war. “Apparel is only a beachhead,” said Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products.
As such, the company does not intend to stop with bodysuits, which are playfully adorned with Disney characters like Simba from “The Lion King.” Also planned are bath items, strollers, baby food and an abundance of other products — all pushed with so much marketing muscle that Disney Baby may actually dent operating margins in Mr. Mooney’s division in the near term. But this is a long-term play, and it could have its greatest value far beyond the crib. Disney Baby is also intended to draw mothers into the company’s broader web of products and experiences. Mr. Mooney is working on a loyalty program, for instance, in which pregnant women might receive free theme park tickets in return for signing up for e-mail alerts.
“To get that mom thinking about her family’s first park experience before her baby is even born is a home run,” Mr. Mooney said, adding that a surprisingly large number of families do not become consumers of Disney products until their children reach preschool age, when they start to watch Disney Channel programs like “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
Disney as a whole is working harder to reach younger children. Disney Junior, a new channel for preschool viewers, will arrive on Feb. 14. Disneyland Resort in California will soon start a yearlong celebration of the It’s a Small World boat ride, giving Disney Baby a marketing tie-in. Walt Disney Studios, meanwhile, will release a new Winnie the Pooh movie in theaters in July.
Disney already operates a line of licensed products for infants, but results have been limited because Disney has relied almost entirely on simple licensing deals with companies like Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies diapers. Grouping baby products under one brand that is controlled and heavily marketed by Disney represents a bigger opportunity, Mr. Mooney said.
The model is Disney Princess, a brand created by Mr. Mooney 10 years ago by uniting the likes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In doing so, Mr. Mooney transformed a $300 million annual business in individual doll sales into a $4 billion brand.
But other giants already are operating in the baby business. One is Gerber Childrenswear, which owns the trademark to the name Onesie. Why does Disney think it can succeed?
Mr. Iger, who has a month-old granddaughter, says Disney has an opportunity to leverage its brand. “It’s about making something easier and providing them with a personalized, high-quality product,” he said.
Rachel Bernstein, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is pregnant herself, said she was concerned about marketers using hospitals as customer hunting grounds. “But Disney is a nice company,” she said, “and I think my patients would actually be thrilled to get free Disney stuff.”
The strategy is “frankly overdue, at least given Disney’s strong track record in other childhood niches,” said Philip Kotler, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and co-author of “Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit.”
But Professor Kotler added one asterisk. “There are bound to be critics — moms and dads who think Disney is already too powerful a force in the lives of children,” he said. “Disney needs those moms who are getting a free sample to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I’m savvy enough to realize what Disney is up to, but I don’t care because this is a really great product.’ ”