Determining your audience is one of the most important tasks a marketer can perform. It's important to have a thorough understanding of who likes your product, who might like your product, and who just absolutely never will like your product, no matter what you do. It's also increasingly important to find out if you have "brand ambassadors," people who love your product so much, they'd go out of their way to promote it.
So, it's hard to be convinced that, despite its formidable marketing army (which, if rumor holds, will be trimmed significantly sometime early this week), Disney really does understand EPCOT.
There's no doubt Disney understands the concept of a theme park. It definitely gets the idea of a Disney theme park ... so much so, that its most innovative (if that's the right word) development in the past five years has been rebranding all Disney theme parks under the generic "Disney Parks" moniker. Live in Tokyo? You're living near a "Disney Park." Live in the Western U.S.? You live near a "Disney Park." Visiting Paris? You can go to a "Disney Park."
Perhaps, following this logic, a consortium of marketers representing fine art museums could establish a marketing campaign that rebrands every museum, from the Whitney to the Guggenheim to the Smithsonian, as "Art Museums -- Where Fine Art Lives." The "Disney Parks" concept seems that ludicruous ... yet it has stuck.
The Magic Kingdom-style parks are easy. Disneyland, The Magic Kingdom in Florida, Tokyo Disneyland and Euro Disneyland all fit a clearly identifiable mold of what a "Disney Park" should be -- there's a castle, there are cute and cuddly characters, there are rides and attractions for the family, parades and "pixie dust."
But a quarter century ago, Disney made a clear step away from that basic mold. With EPCOT Center, Disney-MGM Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure and (to a much lesser extent, the awful Walt Disney Studios in Paris, Disney expanded the concept of what a Disney theme park could be. Now it wants to go back on its word.
The problem with that is, in differentiating its parks, Disney understood (through research and hard work) that different members of the family, different types of tourists, different kinds of Disney fans, different age groups ... they all wanted different things. Some wanted thrills. Some wanted "magic." Some wanted to learn. Some wanted to explore. Some wanted visceral excitement. Some wanted active discovery. There was no one "prototypical" Disney theme park guest, so it stood to reason there should be no one "prototypical" Disney park.
Which gets us to EPCOT. It was the first expansion of the Disney theme park concept, opening a year before Tokyo Disneyland, and by far the most unusual. EPCOT Center deliberately sought to be the "anti-Magic Kingdom." From its design to its theme, there was nothing overtly "Disney" about it, except the Disney name. EPCOT was intended to be a brand unto itself, to establish its own meaning and own set of principles.
Opened just as a huge revolution in technology was set to change the world as we knew it, EPCOT presaged these changes and promised that they would lead to an explosion of prosperity for all the peoples of the world. EPCOT gambled that guests would welcome the chance to have a different part of their mind stimulated, to find excitement not in 999 happy haunts or sailing over London, but in the boundless opportunity presented by our own creations.
So, Disney (at least for a time) knew exactly what EPCOT was ... but from the beginning to today, you have to wonder: Did they know who it was for?
EPCOT is not for a family of six who wants to spend their time being passively entertained. EPCOT is not for small children who want desperately to dine with a princess or pirate. EPCOT is not for people who find the news and documentaries boring and pointless. EPCOT is not for guests who feel education is meaningless. There are many people EPCOT most decidedly is not for, and on those guests EPCOT Central passes absolutely no judgment. Many people can spend three days at the Magic Kingdom and feel entirely fulfilled. They can make a side trip to Disney's Hollywood Studios and ride some thrill rides and see some shows and never really come face to face with "reality." Even Disney's Animal Kingdom presents the kinds of experiences that most of us (not "them," but, frankly, most of us -- all of us) will never see: African savannahs and Asian jungles feel as exotic and fantastic as a splash down a cartoon mountain.
So, who is EPCOT for?
EPCOT is for the many millions of people who want to discover something new on vacation. The same people who are targeted for "Adventures by Disney" (real-world excursions around our actual planet) are the families and guests who are ideal EPCOT guests. Kids who love science, the arts and social studies. Adults who like learning and exploring.
There are many, many different target groups that are the ideal EPCOT consumer.
Trouble is, Disney seems to have stopped breaking down its demographic outreach in those ways. EPCOT is now just part of Walt Disney World, which in turn is part of "Disney Parks," and as such, it must conform. There is no room for it to be unique or challenging.
Soon, I hope and believe, Disney will come to realize that its greatest asset, what truly sets it apart from any competitor, is the variety of its parks. Each one is truly different from the other. The more they become the same, the less reason there is to bother visiting multiple parks. If you've had a Nemo experience at Animal Kingdom, do you really need it at EPCOT? If you've dined with the princesses at the Magic Kingdom, is it a necessity to do it in World Showcase?
Maybe for some. Not for others. And those others are where Disney's growth opportunity lies.
In this down economy, Disney has to start looking at ways to really make itself different and distinct. The "sameness" of its theme parks just is not going to be able to sustain. They've been turned into commodities, not concepts.
As that begins to happen -- and I have to believe that with the scrutiny being given to all areas of The Walt Disney Company and corporate America that it will soon -- Disney will have that "a-ha" moment ... "We have different parks, not just multiple variations on essentially the same thing! Wow! And each one has a different audience. Big audiences!"
The media environment has become increasingly fractured, increasingly compartmentalized -- it's easier than ever (though more time consuming) to reach specific target groups, to craft messages unique to them, that will appeal to a specific niche audience, such as those millions who would be completely "turned on" by the concept, ideas and philosophies of a revamped, updated, reinvigorated EPCOT.
As Disney attempts to get smarter about its marketing efforts, hopefully they'll come to this realization: They've been sitting on a gold mine, they just have to find the key.