Friday, October 16, 2009

Presented By ... No One?


  • It was a surprise to walk up to The Land pavilion at EPCOT recently and discover that Nestle was no longer the presenting sponsor.
  • The Seas With Nemo and Friends has a beautiful VIP lounge (complete with circular logos for "The Living Seas") that mostly sits empty.
  • GM has emerged from bankruptcy, leaving EPCOT lovers to wonder how, if at all, the struggling company can justify or afford continuing Test Track sponsorship.
  • The Universe of Energy has no sponsor, while Wonders of Life is empty lacking corporate backing.
  • The Norwegian government no longer sponsors the Norway pavilion, which has led to little authenticity (unless you believe princesses based on Middle Eastern, German and French stories belong in Norway).

What's going on at EPCOT?

Was it really that long ago that both American Express and Coca-Cola were sponsors of The American Adventure?

EPCOT, or more precisely EPCOT Center, was conceived as a way for both major corporations and individual countries to showcase their new ideas and products, as well as their cultures and tourism potential, to tens of millions of guests every year. On a sociological level, there's little doubt that the Eighties and Nineties left us scarred and less trusting of corporate behemoths. And yet, they didn't go away. The economy is just as ruled by corporate culture as it ever was, we're just a little more loathe to admit it. Scandals, bankruptcies, failures and broken promises left us doubting the collective wisdom of corporations to guide us into the future.

And yet, pessimism has rarely been welcome at Disney. Walt Disney believed that the research-and-development work being done by American corporations was some of the best, most valuable in the world. Now, those corporations are multi-nationals, and America may not be the shining beacon of optimistic progress that it once was. Still ... it's hard to deny that Coca-Cola, Apple, Toyota, Starbucks, Google, Nike, Kellogg's, Colgate, Nestle, Kraft, Ikea, UPS, Citibank, FedEx ... that these brands aren't so powerful that they don't move and shape the world. They do.

It's just that in 20 years, Disney has become one of those powerhouse brands. It has as much power, if not more, as others ... and the last thing you want to do when you've got money is give it to someone else who has money. That's what seems to be happening here. Disney used to have a major "Corporate Alliances" group whose primary job was to develop and work these big-brand relationships. What happened?

How come an EPCOT cast member told me recently, "No one wants to sponsor these pavilions, and without sponsors, it's hard to operate them?"

That comment is problematic on at least two levels:

1) Why don't major corporations want to be sponsors of EPCOT attractions anymore?
Is Disney underselling EPCOT? Or is it overpricing its sponsorship package? To continue achieving its vision -- even in a watered-down form -- EPCOT needs to be a showcase of ingenuity and progress. And to do that, its managers need to be able to articulate that vision. EPCOT affords an opportunity for immersive brand exposure unlike anyplace else in the world. So, why is it that companies don't want to buy in?

2) If corporations aren't going to come to the table, why can't Disney go it alone?
The visionary ability of Walt Disney Imagineering is unparalleled, and Disney could present its own unique vision of the future at EPCOT without the need for sponsorships. Does the $10 million or so a sponsor gives really add to the experience? Or is Disney artistically incapable of creating a traditional EPCOT pavilion run without a sponsor?

Does Disney actually need sponsors to effectively run EPCOT and its other theme parks? Or is Disney overpricing and under-servicing potential sponsors in an effort to ensure that EPCOT, like other Disney parks, simply becomes a showcase for Disney movies, Disney cartoons and Disney merchandise?

Of course, sponsorships do still exist at EPCOT, most notably GM and Siemens. But they seem lately to be the exception rather than the rule, which waters down the experience of EPCOT and its positioning as a place to view and experience the developments that will fuel our future. More and more, it's just an odd, disjointed theme park now.

Given that Tokyo Disney and the Universal parks seem consistently "full-up" on the sponsorship level, you have to wonder if the stateside Disney motive isn't just to get rid of the sponsors altogether so that the only sponsor that matters is the Mouse himself.

17 comments:

Airamerica said...

This is one of those topics that I really think needs to to be considered more and more.

My first visit to Epcot was in 1988 and I had just turned 11. More than anything else on that trip, attraction sponsorship caught my attention!

Sure, I had a fantastic time seeing all that Walt Disney World had to offer but seeing which company was associated with each ride or pavilion really got under my skin and even then, I began to imagine the possibilities.

Today, I'm fortunate to work for my own company and amongst other things we specialise in brand management! I'll admit that this area of the business is in some way motivated by that first trip in '88! Disney helped to form my path in education and then in business...

So, why are so few attractions sponsored now - the reduction started before the world went into financial meltdown!?!

Fundamentally, I think Disney represents a bad investment for incoming sponsors. This isn't because being associated with Disney is a bad thing - their global brand is well respected with the general public and forms a portion of a 3 part problem for sponsors...

1. Aligning with Disney (in any of the parks) is expensive - $10m is a large investment for a 'static' marketing expense in this economic climate.

2. Exposure to your core target market is restricted - realistically, how many of your present day customers will you reach, in comparison to advertising in other channels

3. You have to fight to grab the attention of the audience with all the 'noise' from Disney swamping you in that location - Disney will only allow you to have very, very limited exposure and creative input in the immediate environment / pavilion / attraction that you sponsor... Not enough to leave a lasting impression, when the next big thrill or ride is around the corner

Likewise, sponsors pose a risk to Disney if they become involved in controversy or worse still cease to exist!

So, we're left with a situation where pavilions and attractions go without brand affiliations. Disney is cautious about who they 'invite' into their space and brands can make their $'s and exposure go further in other ways.

THE only solution I can foresee is to let sponsors come in and truly 'buy' into a pavilion working in 50:50 partnership with imagineers to immerse guests in a shared sponsor / Disney attraction that sells the sponsor's brand and reinforces Disney values. Although, this would take a huge leap of faith and can you imagine how few companies are solid enough for Disney to do this with - not many!

Having said that, The Sum Of all Thrills is a significant step in this direction. It's far more immersive than say Test Track, which lets be honest could be sponsored (right now) by Toyota, Honda, Ford etc just by changing the name badge on the front of the building.

Disney, with Raytheon have taken a little leap - it's someone else's technology mated to Disney values. Could this be the start of something?

Brian Place said...

well said.

I can attest that sponsorships *work* - People Pay Attention.

I may not have understood implications and reasoning behind GE's sponsorship of Horizons when I was young, but that act did more to generate good will in my mind about GE over its competitors than any other advertising they've done since then. A forward-looking potential customer of GEs might remember their EPCOT legacy twenty years ago and give them a nudge towards a sale.

Similarly, Exxon was just a "little less evil" than other oil companies because of EPCOT. Kraft stood out more than other food conglomerates. And so forth.

I heard that the Siemens deal was 10 yrs @ $100 million - what is that, less than a dollar per person who visits per year? I would guess that lots of people who visit EPCOT probably go in without realizing who/what Siemens is - but most leave with a positive impression of them. It's hard to erase that kind of goodwill.

Epcot82 said...

I should have noted, my understanding (from several sources) is that the typical attraction sponsorship package floated by Disney is about $10 million a year, for 10 years, or $100 million total.

Digital Jedi said...

The way I see it now, I think partly the reason you see no new sponsors, either by accident or by design, is that sponsors don't recognize EPCOT as a place to showcase technology. Long ago, it was obvious what the park was about. Now, when you look at it, what's the goal? What's the message? If sponsors view the disjointed effects of some the attractions and design in Future World the same way we do, then I can only imagine that they'd view this one aspect of Disney as sloppy workmanship. If they don't, then it's likely they simply don't see what EPCOT stands for to even be bothered with making the effort to promote something in it.

Future Guy said...

I'm not a fan of the corporate sponsorships. For one thing, the idea that Disney can't operate EPCOT without them is ridiculous. None of the other Florida parks need corporate sponsors to pay for their operation and upkeep. I don't recall Disney announcing a big corporate alliance to help pay for the upcoming Fantasyland/Toontown expansion; they're paying for it themselves.

Secondly, sponsors often have a deleterious effect on their pavilions. Thanks to Exxon, EPCOT's pavilion about the future of energy glosses right over the very real fact that fossil fuels will run out, and that their use is damaging the environment. And despite the very real fact that a future in which everyone on earth drives their own automobile is neither likely nor desirable, the GM-sponsored Transportation pavilion pretty much presents the automobile as the be-all, end-all of transportation. Thanks to United Technologies, the bold original concept for the Seas pavilion was neutered. And today's ImageWorks is little more than a showcase for Kodak technologies that would only be exciting if this was 1995.

When the PeopleMover first came to Disneyland, Ford was approached to sponsor it but declined because they didn't want to sponsor anything that might replace the automobile. I'm sure Walt imagined that the interests of large American companies would dovetail nicely with the greater good of the human race, but things have not turned out that way.

The lack of corporate sponsors in Future World will, I believe, allow the Imagineers to devise more truthful attractions than some of the ones we've seen in the past.

Anonymous said...

Let's be for real. Disney, although dear to my heart from past experiences, is DYEING. It's become a very cheap, bottom line corporation, with it's roots in 'the past'...when it was much better maintained, run, enjoyed by guests, and cast members who actually enjoyed their jobs.

I believe Disney world will become a 'meet and greet' with it's characters, and an avenue for advertising itself. NOT an aveune for sponsorship, nor anything cutting edge.

Anonymous said...

The reason there are not more sponsors is probably quite elementary: who wants to sponsor some other company's cast-off show? Why would an oil or energy company pay $10 million a year to sponsor the Universe of Energy, when it is still Exxon's old show. I would want Disney to commit to a big-budget makeover before I even considered sponsoring the attraction. This is probably how they got HP, and how Spaceship Earth got its makeover. Similarly for returning sponsors, why continue sponsoring an old attraction, like Nestle's (previously Kraft's) Living with the Land?

Epcot82 said...

Anonymous -- That's ostensibly what the sponsorship money goes for, remaking and updating the attraction. Some, like Living With the Land, just work, no matter who the sponsor is. Spaceship Earth fell into that category to a large degree; although on paper the theme changed from "communication" to "innovation," in practice the ride's story is basically the same, and it still works well.

There's no reason a new sponsor to UoE, for instance, wouldn't be able to completely redo the attraction. And just as you expect a landlord to paint and patch up a house or apartment when you move in using your deposit money, you'd expect Disney to use the future fees to completely redo the attraction to meet your needs and expectations.

The bigger question to me is, why isn't this happening? Does Disney just not have a strong enough sales team? Is anyone actually focused on this as a priority? Or is it simply not something Disney wants to do? And if it's the latter -- does that mean that we're fated to get parks around the world that all feel the same, even if their outward "theme" is different?

Dylan Kenny said...

I have a suggestion for you! EPCOT needs only one sponsor: Google.

Think about this for a moment...the company more responsible for our modern times than any other single company would be perfect fit for EPCOT both Future World and The World Showcase! Think of all the innovation and entrepnurship that google represents as opposed to the dead and dying companies of yesteryear that are still with Disney as corporate sponsors now? I could go on and on but just wanted to get this out there. It would be a huge cost for one company to float the entire park in that fashion but if anyone could do it google could.

If anyone reads this that actually works at Google or has any connection to them tell us what you think!

Anonymous said...

i believe it was said well enough above (by airamerica?), but worth repeating that sponsorship of a pavillion is likely more static than most companies want to be. doesn't allow for much (any?) flexibility, or course correction, or targeted marketing... it is what it is for a pretty long time. so, if you can't adjust the message to address changes in the market, the product, the audience, then does just having your name brand/company associated with the pavillion matter much?? i'd guess not.

regarding whether disney can go it alone? probably... including whatever monies come in for World showcase, sponsorships is likely near $1b over 10 years. not a paltry sum.

Anonymous said...

Then again, Anonymous, $4 billion in cash and stock for Marvel wasn't a paltry sum, but Disney didn't blink. Nor was $7.4 billion for Pixar, which really hasn't proven worth it purely from a numerical standpoint. Or $3.2 billion for Fox Family -- the rebranded ABC Family has done all right, but hasn't exactly proven to be the business miracle that Disney hoped it would be. So, there's $15 billion that Disney spent to improve its standing in films and TV ... which aren't actually, when you get right down to it, Disney's core businesses (though, economically, broadcasting has become that). And yet, it can't devote $1 billion over 10 years to the capital improvement of its prized theme-park possessions? Hm. Oh, but it CAN spend $1 billion to remake the creative failure of California Adventure ... which happens to be 30 miles away from Disney headquarters. (And for $1 billion, we'll get a bunch of Pixar characters! After all, Disney has to justify that $7.4 billion SOMEHOW.)

Anonymous said...

fair enough, but the fact that they've wasted bigger sums of money doesn't discount the fact that $1b is still a lot. especially when you consider they don't seem to keep money fluid between major business units. and then there's the old ROI... even if that hasn't panned out for Pixar.

plus... it's not really a matter of they "can't", they simply won't... or don't see a reason or a need for doing so. DCA, from what I've read, was a withering mess. so throwing $1b at that will hopefully correct their problem. not sure ECPOT is failing enough to get similar attention.

Dan said...

I'm concerned by the lack of focus on EPCOT's upkeep and changes to rides. The worst part is that EPCOT is still really popular, so that means the money-driven execs won't spend the money to make big moves. DCA is not as popular, so the moves are profit-driven. EPCOT will only continue to wither until the execs decide to focus on making changes. That's definitely not their focus now, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Just so you know, GM recently stopped staffing the lounge at Test Track and it is now a Disney run conference facility. GM employees no longer have access to the lounge.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they can get Charmin to sponsor Journey Into Imagination. :)

will said...

i would say the y.4 bill forpixar is paying off. there last movies are doing great and lassater and camutel came on board to fix disney animation. btw: disney's core business started as movies and animation not as theme parks. oh and alot of those deals were for stock not 7.4 bill in cash (e.g. 1 share of pixar was worth a certain amt of disney shares).

I agree the princesses in Norway don't fit, but from a marketing prospective it does. E.g. the meals where not selling out. therefore to make more $$$, disney imported the princesses, now every 8 yr old female wants to eat at norway. secondly the travelogue is dated and needs to be reaplced. but for those who say norway has no authetic experiences was not there this summuer. in the stave church was an historical exhibit on vikings. hmmm norway, vikings?? fits pretty well to me.

christopher said...

Why not have an epcot pavillion sposored by the people? they sell bricks at My (or at least did) for over 100 dollars each. why not take that idea to a pavilion. There are million and milions of disney fans out there.

I am one of those people that has been to disney since i can remember. I remember the first year EPCOT center opened. I spent NYE 1999 with my family and friends there. It has been one of the most inspirational things in my life. I was really dissappointed on my last trip there. I really want to help revive this place. 10 million a year seems cheap to me.

If you had a sponsorship program between individuals, maybe if you donate over 10,000 you can have access to the VIP room any day of the year. if you donate less you only have partial access. this place needs a serious upgrade, but only a few pavillios would make a massive difference on the overall experience.