What “Happy Feet Two” Can Teach Us About Our Business

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Let’s talk about the “Happy Feet” franchise, and what these movies can teach us about the business of marketing. Not the business of marketing movies, but about building great creative product and brand.

Quick intro. “Happy Feet” (the original movie) was released in 2006. Directed and co-written by George Miller and beautifully rendered by Australian shop Animal Logic, the film was not built by household names, yet immediately held its place among the creative giants in the genre – Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks.

Everything was right about this flick; the characters were well thought out, working within the story and with each other. The voice actors were pitch-perfect. The animation and rendering, spot-on. The story, solid. And the music were inspiring score sections seamlessly mashed up to flow in and out of dialog and dance routines, producing straight-up delight. They even worked in a “save the planet” message! A+ job, and the Academy of Motion Pictures agreed. “Happy Feet” won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Then “Happy Feet Two” came out. Did it live up to the first movie? Not so much. Our friends at Wikipedia report the film achieved less than 45% attendance than “Happy Feet” (original). Though the creative team for this second installment is largely the same as the first movie, the flick flounders.

Why? What happened? What does the rise and fall of “Happy Feet” teach us?

Here’s a shot at the overall lessons, and they apply to us as smart and creative people who strive to a deliver smart and creative product:

1. Keep it Simple – Sometimes we forget this. We over-design, over stuff with copy, or over emphasize. We want our tagline to be a brochure, our brochure to work as a website, and our website to work as a social media campaign. We pack our ads with copy or we load our radio spots up with 16 benefit messages. You get the idea. The original “Happy Feet” had one main character moving through a clear plot line, and we were all invested in the journey. Second movie had us jumping from storyline to storyline – penguin to puffin to krill buddy team . Too much = turned off.


2. Remember Your Audience  – Specifically remember what they care about. Are you speaking to their needs? Seems intuitive, but in our zeal to design we sometimes forget the folks we’re talking to. “Happy Feet Two” brought back the characters we knew and loved, but then kept snatching them away from us for stuff we didn’t care about.  When marketing makes a similar mistake (not delivering what the audience cares about/is interested in), engagement lands in the basement.

3. Good creative = new stuff – In Marketing you always have to reinvent, always have to bring something new and fresh and amazing to the world. Why? Because by definition creation means making something that wasn’t there before – breaking new ground, leading the way. In “Happy Feet Two” two main characters wrestled with being accepted and accepting themselves. We covered this in the first movie.  The whole first movie.

4. You’re only as good as your last good – Sad truth about advertising, design, and marketing – the industry has a short memory. Your campaign set the world on fire and a year later someone else posted better numbers, now you’re yesterday’s news.  “Happy Feet Two” needed to raise the bar set by the first movie, instead it fell short and hurt the franchise.  Be hard on your own work, strive to be better than your last victory, compete with yourself and your peers. The work and the rest of us will benefit.

5. Invest in your best people – Judy Morris co-wrote the first “Happy Feet” and was nominated for an Annie Award for the effort. She wasn’t in the credits for the second movie. Part of business is that people come and go, but that sometimes breaks up a winning team. Invest in your people, keep them happy and respect the part each one plays in your studio. They are your biggest asset.

The “Happy Feet” movies are overall a creative victory, so kudos to Miller’s teams. They also illustrate the challenges we face each day in our creative business. We can learn from these movies, learn from each other, and while doing so, keep dancing baby.