Saturday, April 27, 2013
How Disney Blew Its Second-Biggest Brand
In the three and a half years since the last EPCOT Central post, a lot has happened. More than a quarter of a million people have visited EPCOT Central, a number that's just staggering to me. Each day, between 100 and 200 people still visit the blog, even though it hasn't been updated since December 2009.
I didn't go away, but I did mostly move on from my bitter disappointment over what's happened to EPCOT Center.
Or so I thought. Until I began thinking about recent Disney history.
Since 2009, though, Disney has spent more than $8 billion to acquire Lucasfilm Ltd. and Marvel, which joined previously purchased Pixar and The Muppets (as well as smaller, more unusual acquisitions like Tapulous), meaning the company that was built on the creativity of its founder became a company that simply manages the creative content produced by other companies. To do this, Disney has spent literally tens of billions of dollars, turning its back entirely on its own heritage.
For those who grew up anticipating whatever it was Disney would create next -- an animated feature, a weekly TV series, a theme park, a comic book, a cartoon, a live-action movie -- it's been a disconcerting 10 years. We've said goodbye to what Disney was and watched Bob Iger's Disney 2.0 become a brand-management company, not too different from the kind of company that stole Walt Disney's own creations away in unscrupulous fashion and insisted Walt create what they wanted.
Disney's expensive spending spree is that it came at the expense of Disney growing its own brands, an activity that ultimately proved too expensive ($10 billion worth of expensive?) and uncertain. For every Little Mermaid and Lion King, creations that stand the test of time, there was a Brother Bear and John Carter.
But ironically, Disney ignored a brand with massive potential, a brand that could be defined in virtually any way they wanted, and one they already owned lock, stock and barrel: EPCOT.
Other than the "Disney" name itself, EPCOT had enormous brand equity and could have been the second-biggest brand in Disney's stable, all without making a multi-billion-dollar acquisition. It could have been developed and shaped into a brand that allowed Disney to grow far beyond its core business of entertainment, while also creating enormous entertainment-branding opportunities itself.
Now, to understand why this didn't happen and why Disney instead paid billions and billions of dollars to acquire brands it didn't already own, you have to understand that Disney's corporate teams in Burbank place an undeserved "also-ran" status on their theme parks in Florida. The parks are great places for corporate retreats or cheap vacations for executives and their families, and of course they're cash cows. But they're not hip, sexy or cool. Team Disney Burbank employees chafe at being called "cast members," and they thrive on the wheeling-dealing mentality of L.A. Backwoods Orlando is just that: second-rate.
So, it's not surprising they would not turn to Walt Disney World for ideas. On top of that, they by and large have no awareness of or interest in Disney history and heritage. To them, Walt Disney was a kindly, doddering old man, not a visionary businessman who made Steve Jobs look lazy. He's a myth, a construct that left the legacy of an exploitable brand name.
They're completely unaware of the serious, impressive research Walt Disney and his core team did into the central ideas behind EPCOT Center. They are likely entirely oblivious to the plans WED Enterprises once had for the Monorail and the People Mover. They have no idea that when it opened in 1982, EPCOT Center was a proving ground for technology we take for granted today: touch-screen computers and fiber optics, two-way telephonic conferencing and interactive networking.
That's why it's not really a surprise that Disney didn't build on the $1 billion they spent on EPCOT in 1982 (likely approaching $10 billion in today's dollars) and recognize that they had a great, untapped brand in EPCOT that was just waiting to be exploited.
EPCOT Center opened just five years after the first Star Wars film, and was in large part a similar response to the socio-political culture: People were tired of being told how bad everything was, we wanted optimism and hope. Now, Disney owns both of those brands, but is actively building only one of them.
EPCOT Center at its core is filled with the very ideals of Marvel super heroes: Technology can be used for good, we live in remarkable times, and humanity is worth saving. Now, Disney owns both of those brands, but is actively building only one of them.
Discovery Channel (which Disney does not own) has become one of the most successful channels on cable TV, but its programming is not that far off from EPCOT's central concepts of education, exploration and discovery.
Apple has become wildly successful by creating technology that meets every day needs with style and flair. Explore a little bit about EPCOT Center in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it's striking how similar its mission was to Apple's.
There might at one time have been a line of EPCOT-branded computers and household technology.
There might have been an EPCOT Channel on TV.
There might have been an EPCOT Pictures at Disney to produce exactly the kind of entertainment that Lucasfilm Ltd. and Marvel bring to the company.
There were a hundred ways Disney could have built on the EPCOT brand and all the promise it held, and with far less than $10 billion, Disney could have continued to refresh and renew EPCOT, to have made it, year after year, into the most remarkable showcase for technological and human achievement that anyone has ever seen.
As recently as 15 years ago, no one would have foreseen the ways in which technology became ingrained in our lives, how it infiltrated even the most mundane areas -- and how it led to social networking, which brought our world closer together, bridging cultures and ideas.
EPCOT envisioned all of that. The pavilions, attractions and presentations of EPCOT Center when it opened are remarkable for the kind of prescience and foresight they contained.
Disney let EPCOT slip through its fingers as a brand. For a company that prides itself on being the world's best brand marketers, it's rather astonishing to see how Disney failed to notice that right in its own backyard, it had what could have been one of the best-known, most potent brands that relates to virtually every aspect of our lives.
Disney still has the EPCOT brand. Maybe one day, someone at the terracotta dwarf building will recognize that EPCOT isn't just a place to cram in more Disney and Pixar messaging ... that EPCOT is a brand unto itself that Disney has egregiously ignored, despite its remarkable potential.