Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Are the Muppets back to stay?

Has Disney finally figured out how to deal with the Muppets?

Yesterday, medicine Beg to Differ introduced you to the brilliant new Bohemian Rhapsody parody from the Muppets – but with no brand focused commentary at all. Since then, try we’ve realized that the big story here isn’t the video itself (or the others we’ve included below). The big branding story is the Muppet brand itself and its current caretaker: Disney.

kermit_mickey

Keeping your Beakers and Bunsens apart

A Disneyland attraction that people liked, but didn't recognize the characters.

When I showed the Bohemian Rhapsody video to my kids – aged 3 and almost 5 – they laughed and laughed and laughed, just as my wife and I had done. Of course, they totally missed the parody, but it was heartening to me that they seemed to love the characters and hooted along with that trademark goofy, over-the-top vaudeville campiness.

But when I asked my 3-year old what he’d liked about it, he said: “Those Wild Things were funny.”

Anaheim, we have a problem.

It’s not like we haven;t done our parental duty by exposing him to the Muppets. This is a kid who has an Animal doll, 50 Sesame Street books, and has sat and watched the Muppets on YouTube, as well as the season 1&2 DVDs with the family. But even he couldn’t identify the “Muppet” brand, and couldn’t recall any names except Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Turns out my son is the market in microcosm (I’m so proud). Kids don’t get the Muppets. And I blame Disney.

Disney’s problem with Muppets

Since acquiring the Muppet brand in 2004 Disney has been widely criticized by fans for under-utilizing the Muppets characters and failing to re-invigorate the brand for a younger generation. For an exhaustive insider background, see Jim Hill’s blog post from 2007.

But in brief, I think this verbiage from the February 2004 press release captures the problem in humourless, corporatese:

The transaction includes all Muppet assets, including the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal characters, the Muppet film and television library, and all associated copyrights and trademarks…

Now read that again in your best Rizzo the Rat voice to hear how ugly, inhuman and unintentionally funny it becomes. These are cartoon puppet critters people!

Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he's doing in front of an SUV.
Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he’s doing in front of an SUV.

It’s not easy being green (but it’s worth a try).

And it went downhill from there. Disney efforts have included an aborted attempt to make Kermit more “edgy” for his 5oth birthday in 2005, and a tone-deaf attempt to exploit the lead characters as commercial shills. The Ford Explorer ad shown here is a great example.

Demographic fact: Muppets are loved by nostalgic 30-40 somethings. Frog-leap of logic: Hey! Kermit can sell SUVs!

But through it all, the big problems that were festering under the surface were 1) a failure to generate any significant new Muppets content (or that the new content was bad), 2) erosion of the brand equity of secondary characters, and 3) lack of respect for the real brand qualities that made the Muppets so charming and relevant, and sustain them to this day in the hearts of 4) the brand’s real owners: who are you, me, and hopefully, our kids.

The Muppets of the mind

So that’s why it was so nice to see yesterday’s Bohemian Rhapsody video get hundreds of thousands of hits and quickly become a trending topic on Twitter. It’s also nice to learn that more videos are coming (watch for “Dust in the Wind”, “American Woman”, “Popcorn”, “Carol of the Bells” and “Stand By Me”)¬†and that a new Muppet movie is in the works – among other interesting projects.

But most heartening of all, there’s the tone of the new content – which finally shows signs that Disney actually gets the Muppets. The new stuff is funny, and the characters seem like themselves again. And that’s why I felt like I had to share that video immediately.

To us, the real owners of the brand, the Muppets are about creating a warm space where comedy, pop-culture, kid-culture, and pure unadulterated silliness can come together. The real Muppets in our heads never take themselves too seriously (see the “assets” quote above), and they are also never mean-spirited or even “edgy” (they’re refreshingly nerdy actually – kind of like Queen music).

Oh, and take note: the Muppets in our heads would never sell an SUV, so they won’t help us buy one either.

Welcome back Muppets

But lest we be accused of getting too serious ourselves (we beg to differ!), below are a few more recent YouTube videos featuring some great second-string Muppets.

Bohemian Rhapsody – in case you missed it

Beaker does Ode to Joy:

The Swedish Chef carves a pumpkin:

Sam the Eagle gets patriotic: