New Delhi: Nine decades ago when it made its first public appearance in a black-and-white short American film called Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse did not know it would go on to become the world’s most adored cartoon character.

As it turns 90 this week, the Walt Disney mascot and arguably, the most iconic cartoon character of the 95-year old company shows no signs of slowing down the popularity trail, even in India.

“It’s quite amazing how much the character of Mickey Mouse has endured given that the world has changed drastically since 1928," according to Abhishek Maheshwari, country head, Disney India. “Over the years, everything, including our consumption patterns, has changed so much. I think the character attributes that Mickey stands for are very universal—optimism, fun, laughter, family, those never go out of style and I think that has been one consistent thing with Mickey."

Mickey exists in all of Disney’s verticals, Maheshwari said, including television, gaming and theme parks, but its popularity is most visible in consumer products: it is probably the only character that spans every category and age segment, easily emerging as Disney’s single biggest and most versatile consumer products brand. Today, Mickey-inspired products are available in a variety of categories, including apparel, back-to-school, toys, accessories and more, offering something for everyone.

According to estimates by Consultancy firm Deloitte, the overall licensing and merchandising (L&M) market in India is around Rs. 870 billion, which constitutes nearly 5-7% of global industry valued at nearly Rs. 17,500 billion. The merchandising market is evolving rapidly in the country, with the generation that grew up watching animated content evolving into first-time jobbers.

Disney India ventured into adult apparel in 2008 and tried to capitalise on the growing nostalgia for Mickey Mouse in 2012 and 2014 through various renowned apparel designers. These associations were few and intermittent. But all that’s changing now with the character-based apparel market growing at over 25% per year, and is estimated at Rs. 2-2.5 billion currently.

Deloitte estimates Disney products are sold across more than a million retail touch points in India, including over 2,000 modern trade outlets. The company works with more than 150 licensees across categories and is present across major online platforms. Disney India’s merchandise business, valued at 1,500 crore in FY16, is estimated to grow to 2,000 crore by the end of FY17.

“The Mickey range across brands has styles from almost all categories such as T-shirts, shirts, track-pants, skirts, dresses, sweats, shirt dresses, jackets and so on. The styles are designed to reflect the quirk of Disney characters along with the DNA of the brand," according to Vineet Gautam, chief executive officer and country head, BESTSELLER India.

BESTSELLER brands, including JACK& JONES, ONLY and VERO MODA, not only dedicated collections to Mickey in the past with huge success, but were coming up with special 90th anniversary offerings. While sales usually depend more on the trend and style in comparison to the category of the product, BESTSELLER always tries to come up with its own take on Mickey with an eye on the fashion-conscious target audience, according to Gautam.

“Disney characters have always been a favourite with our target audience. Mickey is an iconic character and holds sentimental value that rekindles the nostalgia of laughter, fun and imagination associated with childhood. More and more people are opting for these products as they relate to these Disney icons and it reflects their sense of style. Also, we always present our own take on Mickey that resonates with the fashion-forward youth," Gautam said.

When it comes to content and products, Disney itself made sure Mickey’s evolved to cater to different audience segments, Maheshwari added. The visualisation for the same character is different when Disney designs products for kids versus for adults or male versus female. The motifs and silhouettes on a Satya Paul sari are much subtler compared to the designs on toys, stationery or school bags for kids.

Mickey is also present on television, a vertical comprising nearly half of the company’s overall business in India. The character first showed up on Doordarshan towards the late 1980s and is currently seen in Mickey Mouse animated shorts, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Mickey and the Roadster Racers on Disney Channel and Disney Junior. Clubhouse garnered a total of 191,000 impressions between August and October according to data from television monitoring agency BARC. According to data from Disney, over 2017, content on Mickey Mouse reached out to 122.7 million fans across Disney Channel, Disney Junior and Disney XD in India.

“Our stories and characters have evolved with time. However, personalities and attributes of characters remain the same. For instance, with Mickey Mouse shorts, the animation style and characterisation remain consistent, while the background, narrative and situations are more contemporary in nature," according to Maheshwari.

However, the journey on video platforms isn’t quite as easy as in the retail business. Sujata Dwibedy, executive vice-president, head of buying and trading, at Amplifi India, the media investment arm of Dentsu Aegis Network, said Mickey remained one of the eternal favourites for younger kids, mainly five-year olds and below. But that may not be quite enough.

“Mickey’s cuteness and niceness appeal to parents too and they don’t mind if the kid is watching Mickey shows. However, the difference today is that kids also get introduced to other characters across kids channels and there are multiple Disney as well as other international, South Asian and Indian characters which compete for screen time and lure the kids," according to Dwibedy.

Disney’s own purchase of Marvel Entertainment in 2009 spawned a host of movie and cartoon franchises that have been brought to India. The company’s current television library includes multiple series based on universes such as Star Wars, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Ant-Man and Guardians of Galaxy, to name a few, besides Mickey& Friends. Plus, there is local content. To be sure, data from BARC shows Indian offerings such as Motu Patlu and Japanese animation film Shinchan Movie The Spy, on Nickelodeon and Hungama TV, as the top programmes for the kids segment.

“Mickey animation has always done well overall but it’s not in the top 10 shows. There are a lot of great new things, localisation has become a thing in India right now and home-grown as well as Japanese shows are dominating," said Rajiv Chilaka, founder and chief executive officer at Greengold Animation Pvt Ltd. “It continues to remain popular but it’s not a rating-spinner in India at least."

So does brand Mickey have reasons to worry? Not really.

“Mickey may appeal specifically to younger kids, but people of all ages relate to it," Dwibedy said. “Its impact lasts much longer than any other character. All other characters come and go but Mickey remains with kids even when they grow up."