NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Macy's (M) - Get Report Thanksgiving Day Parade is an American tradition. But the march from Central Park to Herald Square isn't just for family entertainment --- it's also a way for companies to boldly market their brands ahead of the holiday season.

The concept of having helium-filled creations in the parade began when Macy's designer and puppeteer, Tony Sarg, came up with an idea of upside down marionettes in 1927. The first of these was a version of Felix the Cat. The following year, these spectacles were filled with helium.

The parade each year is watched by more than 3 million people on the streets of New York and an additional 50 million or so on television.

While many of the balloons are owned or created by Macy's, others are designed by companies. Macy's enters into a partnership with the companies that own the rights to characters.

For companies that have a family-oriented, joyful character, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade offers people a chance to get excited about a company's brand in a new way and become part of a historic lexicon, said Gary Singer, CEO of Buyology, a consumer and branding market research firm.

"There's almost no negativity as a part of this," Singer said, explaining that the parade's positive attitude and associations are beneficial for companies to be a part of.

For this reason, Singer said the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as a branding opportunity is "about as good as it gets."

Here's a look at some of the companies that will be featured in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

has been a staple in the parade since 1934 when Mickey Mouse, Pluto and the Big Bad Wolf first marched into Herald Square.

Having one of the biggest presences in the parade through the years, Disney has come a long way from these classics. This year the company will feature three children's favorites: Kermit the Frog, Sailor Mickey (Mouse) and Buzz Lightyear of

Toy Story


Kermit first debuted in the parade in 1977 and the Muppets made a live appearance during the parade in 1979 to promote

The Muppet Movie

. The balloon ripped in 1985 and again in 1991, which led Kermit to be retired from the parade.

After an 11-year hiatus, the new Kermit balloon debuted in 2002. It's 36-feet wide, 78-feet long and 60-feet tall.

This year will be extra special for the lovable green frog, as his newest movie hits theaters on Nov. 23.

Sailor Mickey will be representing the Disney Cruise Line in which a fourth ship, Disney Fantasy, will set sail in March 2012.

This is the fourth reiteration of Mickey to appear in the parade. In 1977, Mickey was unable to appear in the parade due to strong winds.

Sailor Mickey is 33.6-feet wide, 48.1-feet long and 60.9-feet tall.

Buzz Lightyear is also part of the parade this year representing Disney Pixar. The latest and final

Toy Story

movie won an Oscar for best animated feature in 2011.

For Disney, being part of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is about reminding people that the company is part of their "past, present and future," Singer said. For characters such as Mickey Mouse that have become a regular part of the parade, it is a chance to update them and surround them with newer characters such as Buzz Lightyear, he added.




debuted its

Kung Fu Panda

balloon last year and Po the Panda will be returning to the parade route.

Po, the title character of the series, stands at 34-feet wide, 42-feet tall and 46-feet long.

Kung Fu Panda 2

will be released on DVD on Dec. 13.

For Dreamworks, having the panda in the same parade as the iconic Snoopy in what Singer called the "academy awards of characters" attempts to convey that the panda has the same stature as these famous characters.

Dreamworks has previously been part of the celebration with its


balloon in 2007.



(MCD) - Get Report

iconicRonald McDonald will be ice skating through Central Park in this year's parade.

This is the second version of the clown balloon. Ronald McDonald became part of the Macy's parade in 1966, the same year he became the face of the fast-food chain.

In 1997, the Ronald McDonald balloon fell quickly during the parade. Ronald returned to the parade in 2000, sporting ice skates. The balloon is 28.8-feet wide, 76.4-feet long and 48.6-feet tall.

Parading through Manhattan helps this icon go back to his roots of being a fun clown and bringing out child-like joy, Singer said. Some of the negative chatter that often plagues McDonald's regarding advertising fast food to children might disappear with a glance at the clown's grin, he added.




(AFL) - Get Report

duck is making its Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade debut this year on a sleigh and sporting a scarf.

The balloonicle -- a balloon powered by an internal vehicle -- is 35-feet tall and quacks the signature "Aflac" chirp.

The Aflac duck is joining the club of larger-than-life characters and will reap the benefit of being mentioned as one of the new additions to the parade, which provides Aflac with some additional airtime, Singer said.

The Aflac duck has a long-standing partnership with Macy's to raise money for children battling cancer. In its 11th year, the Aflac Holiday Duck (which is sold at Macy's) has helped raise nearly $3 million for the cause.




(ENR) - Get Report

bunny has been "going and going" in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade since 2004.

The balloonicle, wearing sunglasses and flip flops, was among the first balloonicles to appear in the parade.

In 2007, the Energizer bunny became more of a spectacle when it flew right by the end of the parade route.

The Energizer bunny might be getting less attention lately in a competitive market, so Singer suspected this might be one of the company's biggest marketing efforts to keep the rabbit iconic and heighten brand awareness.

Coming out of its recent restructuring, Energizer has been struggling with higher costs, which have weighed on its profit.




smiling Kool-Aid man will return to the Manhattan skyline for its second year.

This beaming pitcher balloonicle stands 33-feet tall and is 24-feet wide.

Kraft previously had a presence in the parade with its Macaroni & Cheese mascot Cheesasaurus Rex.

Kraft has been investing lately in new products and has been forced to raise some prices due to higher costs.



, a division of


(CMCSA) - Get Report

, is the broadcasting home of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and reaps the benefit of about 50 million people plopping down on the couch to watch this program.

The parade is a much-needed boost to the struggling network, which has been in fourth place behind Fox, CBS and ABC during the fall season. The network has been forced to cancel two series,

The Playboy Club


Free Agents

, with a third,

Prime Suspect

also nearing extinction.

The Macy's parade received a 12.8 rating in 2010 and was up 2% from the previous year's local-market average.

NBC has been the official broadcaster of the parade since 1955, though CBS airs its own program on Thanksgiving Day.

The parade airs on NBC starting at 9 a.m. in all time zones.

-- Written by Alexandra Zendrian

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Alexandra Zendrian

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