Let’s face it, The Walt Disney Company is ailing. Or, at the very least, languishing.
For every Hannah Montana, there’s a California Adventure-sized problem. With network ratings falling, the writer’s strike seriously impacting its broadcasting future, and a growing national economic problem threatening to impact theme-park attendance, Disney is not, as Eisner used to say, “firing on all cylinders.”
There are bright spots, absolutely. But increasingly, what Disney does well is manage its “creative content,” to “leverage” it across “multiple business units,” to run a company an MBA would be proud to call his own. But creating new content? Well, unless Disney goes outside to find and buy it, it just ain’t happening. The Hong Kong Disneyland fiasco is the latest sign of serious problems, even while Disney does nothing to squash rumors it will continue growing its theme park business in China.
No, folks, Disney’s not the kind of company that produces breakthrough entertainment anymore. You won’t see a Beauty and the Beast, a Snow White, an EPCOT or an Animal Kingdom coming out of this company in the near future.
Now, of course, Disney will never cop to performance issues, not while Bob Iger, Tom Staggs and Jay Rasulo are around; they’re too confident, too economically invested in the company to either admit to flaws or take a huge, daring risk. (I’d love to see them prove me wrong.) In the latest moves to generate some new sources of revenue, they’ve even taken to doing exactly the opposite of what was envisioned in Florida – selling off land and letting more and more outside companies come and build hotels there. Even while resorts like the Grand Floridian and the Boardwalk continue to garner awards and recognition as some of the best in the country (or world), Disney is showing interest in getting out of the resort business.
I’ve always figured, if you’re not in the game, why play?
So, what’s all of this got to do with EPCOT?
About a year and a half ago, I pondered whether EPCOT could actually be a great brand for Disney to develop. All the seeds are there for “EPCOT” to come to mean as much as “Disney” if it were managed, developed and shepherded properly. “EPCOT” could become a major force in our own future world.
As I’ve thought much more about what “Anonymous” recently said, and as I’ve assumed that he’s a Disney employee or executive, I’ve given this some more thought.
Disney needs a new brand. It has done all it can with ESPN – that brand is in “sustain” mode now, with moderate but hardly rollicking growth for the long haul. Likewise, I believe, with the “Disney” name itself. Intent on making Disney into a kids’ brand, instead of widening it and growing it to encompass much more than “fun stuff for kids,” TWDC’s management has painted itself into a corner. Kids and teens outgrow their tastes, and what is hot to today’s kids is rarely hot to tomorrow’s. There’s a certain amount of brand loyalty Disney can expect to retain, but trendy teeny-bopper fun stuff isn’t a long-term growth industry. Just ask the folks who manage(d) Magic Mountain, Debbie Gibson or the almost-unrecognizable, once-hot business called MTV.
What’s needed is a brand that is so defined it’s almost indefinable. Something that can apply to virtually any new creation. Disney used to know this, used to refuse to define “Disney” and let the name speak for itself, to mean quality, family suitability and innovation. It means very little of that anymore, and once lost, it’s extraordinarily difficult to win people back in the short term.
But think about what EPCOT means to those who know it, who understand that it does indeed have a definition beyond the acronym. EPCOT means innovation, it means forward thinking, it means technology, it means global awareness, it means a community mindset, it means experimentation, it means curiosity, it means optimism.
EPCOT can be a magazine. It can be a TV show (or, heck, a TV network). It can be a website. It can be a line of ethnic frozen foods. It can be a “green” household product. It can be garden supplies.
EPCOT can be a clothing label for fashions inspired by other cultures. It can be a line of educational products utilizing technology. It can be a publishing label. It can be a language school. It can be a radio station. It can be a movie label.
EPCOT can be everything “Disney” can’t – it can carry the mark of quality for products that don’t necessarily appeal to kids, but are of interest to a wide range of people.
EPCOT could be what Disney desperately needs: a strategy for the future.
Despite what some say, I don't think EPCOT's a "has-been" at all. Quite the contrary. I think it's quite a "could-be." With an incredibly strong visual icon in both its (original) logo and Spaceship Earth, and such "sub-brands" as Future World and World Showcase, EPCOT's potential is virtually untapped.
Disney is ailing. EPCOT’s good medicine.