Wednesday, November 01, 2006
EPCOT Center: Disney's Taurus?
Last week’s announcement that Ford was finally pulling the plug on production of the car that was once its top seller, the Taurus, elicited enormous press coverage. Among the obituaries for this once-innovative automobile was a beautifully written editorial in USA Today that remarked on Ford’s “well-developed talent for turning success into failure.”
The death knell for the Taurus had a familiar ring all throughout the news media, but particularly in the USA Today piece. Here’s another quote: “They pin their hopes on their next new thing that will have to survive in a ruthlessly competitive market.”
The outcry of disappointment in Ford’s decision bears a striking resemblance to the way The Walt Disney Company has treated its theme parks, particularly EPCOT Center. Rather than upgrade, innovate and put serious thinking into saving and updating its most noteworthy car in decades, Ford decided to throw in the towel, claiming that the car-buying public wanted SUVs and trucks instead of sedans. Not looking back, Ford barely acknowledged how groundbreaking and revolutionary its Taurus was, and how it helped rescue the company from near ruin in the mid-1980s.
Similarly, Disney has claimed that years of study reveal its consumers want Disney characters, thrill rides and basic amusement-park entertainment, and it filled EPCOT Center with those things, ultimately acknowledging that the park had strayed so far from its roots that its original name would be dropped in favor of the simpler “Epcot” – a name, we all know, that means absolutely nothing.
Like Ford, Disney turned its back on its own management in these decisions. Innovative, risk-taking managers had decided to chart a new course, one that would be a gamble but could ultimately open new doors of opportunity for the respective company. They relied on their own expertise, experience and instinct to determine what their company should offer – not simply on focus groups and market-research surveys. In Ford’s case, the result was a home-run, a car that proved to be both enormously popular and influential. In Disney’s case, the result was a solid double, a theme park that tried new things and, by most accounts, succeeded quite well.
Consumers ultimately tired of these innovative offerings, more as a result of a lack of refinements and redesigns in each than due to a flaw in the basic offering. As consumers began looking elsewhere, neither Ford nor Disney responded by upgrading and improving their offerings – in each case, the company essentially let the product turn stagnant. After offering something truly new and exciting, both Ford and Disney suddenly lost the desire to continue trying new things. The innovation stopped.
Ford and Disney turned their attention to what the public claimed it wanted – SUVs in one case, thrill rides in another. Not surprisingly, it turned out that, by and large, the public didn’t want those things from these companies; others did them better. (Witness Ford’s devastating $5.8-billion quarterly loss and Disney’s debacles at California Adventure, the Walt Disney Studios Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland.)
The Taurus and EPCOT Center were both products of an odd era in corporate American history, one in which decades of bold innovation were about to be laid to waste by marketing-driven business decisions. In the Taurus and EPCOT, two American icons offered one final showcase of ingenuity and creativity. Beginning in the early 1990s, each company would be driven not by the desire to create the best and most innovative products, but by pleasing shareholders with the best possible financial performance.
In Ford’s case, we’ve seen what happens when a company is ruled solely by the bottom line and drops innovation in favor of giving the public what it wants; in Disney’s, the final outcome remains to be seen.