Owning Imagination: The Disney Master Class In Branding

Last year I wrote about the Brooklyn Nets and the master class in branding they put on display in their new arena. But if you want to be truly schooled on how to manage a brand, visit Disneyland and see how longtime professionals do it.

This was the very first time I’d ever been to a Disney theme park as a dad, having done Disney a few times as a kid, and once as an adult working on the brand.  I hadn’t really been in contact with Disney for years, and since that time I had kids and became mired in the day-to-day that we call life.  This past weekend we spent three days at Disneyland, and the magic came rushing back. For all I know, it might be chaos behind the scenes, but from Main Street to Paradise Pier, that world is full of tightly choreographed wonder. My boys had never seen “Peter Pan,” and only recently seen “Dumbo,” but they were enthralled

First off, while the brand may have taken its share of beatings over the years on Wall Street, it and its characters are alive and well.  Walt Disney was the Steve Jobs of his day, before anyone had any inclination that there would be a Steve Jobs.  Walt cornered the market on imagination, which is a product that never goes out of style and is utterly limitless in scale.  His characters have inspired other characters, and Disney has purchased many of them, so even if Disney didn’t create Woody and Buzz or McQueen and Mater, they’re all part of the family.  When my oldest son met Captain America, it was an incredible moment for him.  He was literally seeing his imagination in real life.  The brand now covers all stages of childhood through adolescence, creating a virtual monopoly on the imagination. 

I also examined the business of caretaking the brand.  Every ride and every show were in pristine form.  We spent a day at LegoLand during this same trip, an amazing place in its own right, but what I noticed there is that the rides and play areas are deteriorating.  The paint is fading, the wood is chipping and the people working the rides are a little less friendly and a little more focused on the “rules.” At Disneyland, the rides are full of vibrant colors, as if they’ve been painted the day before.  The trash is picked up within seconds of landing on the ground. The self-proclaimed “Happiest Place On Earth” strives to stay on target, never veering from the idea that a smile can solve any problem.

Which brings me to the people. Being a cynical New Yorker who lives in California, I sometimes look twice at people who are smiling for no apparent reason. But when my wife was wearing a “Happy Birthday” button because we happened to be there on her birthday, and literally everyone from the gate attendants to the groundskeepers told her “Hello” and “Happy Birthday,” we got in sync and started smiling. Even when things are about to go off the rails because your kids are tired, you’re hungry and you just want to sit down, a well-placed “Hello” with a smile and a glance at the wonder on your kids’ faces can give you that positive burst of energy, and everything feels good again.

Branding is a difficult thing because when you do it right, it permeates everything you do and creates a guideline for how you interact with your audience. For a company the size of Disney, which has swallowed up Pixar, Marvel, LucasFilm and many others, brand management is no easy task. Disney may not do everything perfectly, but it does the majority right. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like Disneyland, and as a parent I have a newfound appreciation for it. 

I recommend all students of advertising and marketing spend at least two days walking around a Disney resort, looking through the glasses of a marketer and not just a tourist.  You might be a B2B marketer and learn something valuable, just as much as any B2C marketer would.

Plus, you just might have a little fun.

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2 comments about "Owning Imagination: The Disney Master Class In Branding ".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 28, 2014 at 12:07 p.m.
    Lots of lessons for lots of stuff, but many others show they don't have to invest. Would be interesting to see a "study" comparing where Disney does the correct things and the others didn't and where they got it wrong to go sour or where they decided they didn't have to.
  2. David Carlick from Carlick , May 28, 2014 at 11:03 p.m.
    Your brand is what your customers say it is, not what you advertise it to be. Good story, well told. Thanks!