Friday, January 12, 2007

A Brand-New Idea for EPCOT

All right, all right, I admit it right up front. I'm not going to literally offer a brand-new idea, since I’ve weighed in on this subject before. But last week’s massive, brilliant media blitz by Apple made me think again about the incredibly lunkheaded “branding” decisions Disney has made in the past decade or so, particularly as they relate to EPCOT.

For a company as seemingly obsessed with “branding” as Disney … what gives?

Cinderella Castle has about as much to do with EPCOT (or Disney-MGM Studios or Animal Kingdom, for that matter) as the Grand Canyon has to do with Miami. You don’t hear anyone reasoning that since they’re both part of the U.S., they can be interchangeable. Yet, there’s the castle on every bit of “Disney Parks” merchandise – including that sold at EPCOT.

It’s rather extraordinary to me to think that a company as allegedly “brand”-driven as Disney (I put that word in quotes since it is so overused and, as Roy E. Disney once said, “Brands are for cattle”) has completely overlooked and subordinated the EPCOT name. By stripping it of the power it had for the first half of its life – removing the word “Center” and officially making it a “lower-case” name – Disney made a strong statement that it didn’t much care what “EPCOT” meant.

If I were the folks in charge of today’s Epcot, I’d be making damn sure that every executive at Disney recognized the underutilized, forgotten value of the brand.

For the average person, today’s world is increasingly shaped by two things: the fast-changing world of technology and the events and actions of our fellow humans on other parts of the globe. We have a never-ending need to understand the ramifications of the technology we have around us at every moment, from exploration of the heavens, the seas and our bodies, to its practical applications in communications, transportation and what we eat, to how it allows us to tap into our creative minds in ways our ancestors couldn’t imagine.

Wait a second – space, oceans, bodies, communication, transportation, food and imagination … why do those important subjects seem so familiar to EPCOT junkies?

On the other hand, we are realizing that the way people live in far-off nations affects us here in the U.S. and vice-versa. More and more, we are realizing how inextricably connected we all are, how we need to understand and appreciate other cultures.

Huh? Learning about and appreciating other nations … gosh, that rings a bell.

Yes, indeed, exploration of the subjects that so many people in today's world hunger to know more about was the very reason EPCOT Center was created in the first place. Twenty-five years ago, we were given a remarkable gift, a place we could go to learn about our world, and just as our global society is finally at the point where they can appreciate it, Disney is turning Epcot into a place that increasingly resembles every other “amusement park” in the world.

But what does any of that have to do with EPCOT as a brand? Plenty. Just as Apple is realizing that the more “categories” it can control, the more people associate it with something they can’t live without; just as Google is realizing the more information categories it can reign over, the more people will think of it as indispensable; there’s a huge opportunity for the word “EPCOT” to come to mean “the way we make sense of our world.”

EPCOT-branded magazines, EPCOT-branded TV shows, EPCOT-branded accessories, travel gear, toys and apparel all would be welcome and logical ways to capitalize on the unique qualities of the theme park and the themes and concepts behind it. And, hey, they also might make a lot of money for Disney and propel the company into a whole new direction – one that ultimately can come to have a hold on more than just 9-year-old kids and tweens who like Hannah Montana.

Disney, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, is huge, it contains multitudes. ABC and ESPN learned that, Disney Channel learned that, Walt Disney Pictures learned that.

Theme parks, alas, have not. Instead of creating different, unique identities for each location, theme-park executives have been trying to shoehorn all of these different experiences into one “brand” name – even going so far as to overload EPCOT stores (as an example) with bland, boring “Disney Parks” merchandise that can be found in every other park in the world.

Why would Disney care so little about a brand name that could be so strong? Why would it shove EPCOT over to the corner instead of recognizing it as a potentially lucrative “new” business, one that could grow, change and expand into almost every area of our lives? Why would it not recognize the enormous potential of this one word – a “new” brand that it has been sitting on for 25 years?

In this milestone year, perhaps it’s time for Disney to understand just how special EPCOT – the name and the theme park – really is … and how a little attention to that one word could reap enormous benefits far into the future.


Brian said...

Hi Epcot82 - Long time since I left a comment here but I've read everything you posted.

Yes, I've always thought it was odd Disney didn't do more to leverage the EPCOT brand - who in the U.S. _doesn't_ know EPCOT? "Yeah, Epcot is cool. Kinda educational."

I sorta thought Discovery Networks swooped in and grabbed what could have been Disney's with their family of TV channels. But even Discovery suffers (nowadays) from serious problems with going overboard trying to find "synergies" with sponsors in their shows. The shows have become a lot fluffier & shinier in the process - some substance has been lost.

OK, rambling now, but anyways I wanted to say you have a very good point. The Epcot brand, leveraged on its own across a wide range of enterprises, is probably worth far more to Disney than what they're currently doing with it (which is not much.)

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I'm not surprised that the Disney parks have become a homogenized brand. Not withstanding the more obvious notion to compete with the nationwide chain of Six Flags parks, consider the Disney Princesses brand. A unique set of characters who each had unique stories and a rich supporting cast have been forced together into a contrived existence that has nowhere the same appeal. It is a very similar markting strategy to what is happening with the Disney Parks brand.

I agree that EPCOT could become an important brand to the Disney company. It's an excellent idea that I am surprised hasn't been capitalized on since it once held promise for educational materials. I also have hesitations about it. I would hate for EPCOT to be cheapened to the kind of brand that we find on travel gear. On the other hand, I can see an EPCOT brand that represents TV programming, Internet content, and perhaps even travel: all supportive of the inovations and cultural diversity of humanity.

The world had changed significantly since the inception of Epcot. One no longer has to go to a specific place to obtain information on technology or world cultures. We have all that now at our fingertips. Epcot needs to have a more significant Internet presence that goes beyond a few pages at the WDW website that describe the attractions at the park. It needs to become a focalpoint in online communities, knowledge and research that supports the goals of the original park. And at the same time, it needs to reinforce the importance of personal experience -- the importance of visiting places like Epcot to experience first-hand, all the wonderful accomplishments represented there.

Captain Schnemo said...

I was thinking along similar lines when I read the in-house Disney material posted on the Re-Imagineering blog. It quotes Walt:

"And frankly, you can apply that to our entire organization. Every Disney company and division draws strength from the other parts. It's a curious, in fact, a downright incredible phenomena." —Walt Disney

I was thinking why synergy used to be regarded as a positive, but is now reviled as part of the Evil Eisner's plan to kill Disney's previous association with superlative quality.

I realized that, in part, this is because all of the products being "synergized" in the past were unique, top quality Disney creations which enhanced the Disney brand. They didn't just acquire some outside material of varying quality (ESPN, Pixar, unrelated ABC programming, etc.) or copy some existing product or service. Everything was built from the ground up by Disney and therefore exhibited the same attention to detail and quality for which the Disney brand was once famous. This was back when Disney was still inventing genres and forms of entertainment that previously did not exist.

Cramming ESPN or McDonald's where it doesn't belong is the opposite of this behavior.

Consider Disneyland's association with the Disney TV show. Each show was related to aspect of the park (nature shows from Adventureland, futurist and science documentaries from Tomorrowland, fairy tales from Fantasyland, and stories of the Old West from Frontierland).

As you point out, given Epcot's wide range of source material, all sorts of tie-ins would be possible. The associated product would gain visibility by its link to Epcot and Epcot itself would gain relevance as it became tied to new products.

Of course, this all would require Disney to stop being ashamed of Epcot, and I think that is the basic problem. All of these changes we hate are specifically designed to move Epcot further away from what got all of us so interested in it. The cartoon characters, Ellen, and the thrill rides are designed to make the presentations fluffier and less important, relevant, intelligent, and thoughtful.

Disney has decided that people don't want to think on vacation, and maybe that's true, but I think the actual case is that if you want to make people think, you need a clever and engaging presentation. If you just want to occupy their minds while you're waiting for them to buy food and trinkets, you give them shiny objects and whip them around in a circle.

Epcot82 said...

* Disney is ashamed of Epcot: Sad but patently obvious.

* People don't want to think while on vacation: Maybe most don't, but there are literally millions who appreciate having our little gray cells at least mildly stimulated. EPCOT Center used to be perfect for us; there's enough at WDW for those who don't like such things. What about the rest of us?

Epcot82 said...

Brian -- Glad to you know you have been reading. Thank you for your comments! Even if Discovery has gone downhill, it's still good stuff -- we were just watching it last night, actually. To think that the "Discovery space" could have belonged to Disney ...

Epcot82 said...

Dean, just imagine what the right creative and marketing minds could do with ... man, that could be an amazing place on the Internet for young and old, the place kids must visit to do their homework well, the place adults go to be reminded of the education and wonder they once had but have forgotten.

Bear in mind I said the right creative and marketing minds! ;-)

Jeffrey Pepper said...

It's interesting in that it seems Disney did try to push EPCOT as a brand when the park first opened. There was EPCOT Magazine--a Disney Channel program. And they also did a series of educational films I believe was under the name of EPCOT Educational Media. It was all pretty low key and quickly faded. Clearly there were some folks in the company then who did recognize the potential value of an EPCOT brand.

Chris Sobieniak said...

It's interesting in that it seems Disney did try to push EPCOT as a brand when the park first opened. There was EPCOT Magazine--a Disney Channel program. And they also did a series of educational films I believe was under the name of EPCOT Educational Media. It was all pretty low key and quickly faded. Clearly there were some folks in the company then who did recognize the potential value of an EPCOT brand.

I hear you! One of those Epcot films I remember fondly was this...