Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Cure for What Ails You

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.

P.S. Today, the same day that Disney's latest Broadway effort, The Little Mermaid, received excoriating reviews, Disney said it had boosted Bob Iger's pay 7 percent to $27.7 million. A year. And what was your salary increase last year? (I'd be particularly interested in hearing an answer to that question from Disney employees!) Disney also announced that its annual shareholder's meeting will be held in that Disney-shareholder Mecca of Albuquerque, N.M. The rationale? That's the setting of High School Musical. Yes, of course. Makes perfect sense. It's fascinating to see how The Walt Disney Company continues to quite literally run away from its critics.


Anonymous said...

I agree that Disney is great at maintaining their creative properties (Heck, how old is Mickey again), but their actual hits are rare. I recall some of their animated films...Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Atlantis...all decent films with bad box office numbers. What happened to those? FLUSHED AND FORGOTTEN.

I think Disney has tried to innovate but for the past decade they've failed. With Epcot, it has been the same. They tried and made something great but now the best they can do is maintain what they have. Epcot's only brand will be a theme park. Sorry.

As I said before in previous posts, Disney is the mecca of escapists. The company hasn't produced anything remotely related to a documentary in a long time. Its to the point where they have a real show of artifacts exhibit in the America pavllion called "National Treasures" but it has nothing to do with the films. It shows that some people are pushing this synergy, while others are trying hard to maintain the integrity of the park's purpose.

While I think its bold to suggest an Epcot brand, I doubt it will happen. Epcot has always been a brand of sponsorship and letting third parties have a presence in the park. Perhaps if the park had a different internal set-up, it could be turned into an evergreen property.

As for Disney employees reading this blog, I think the ones with actual power don't post here. Engaging with the community via blog commenting is pretty damn inefficient. Disney wants to have a dialog, they're going to make sure they are in control. Look at's their style, not this. Any angry "creative" is more likely a lower rung mailroom flunkie with an inflated sense of importance.

Anonymous said...

High School Musical, that is really pathetic. That if they even bother to look is loathed by almost everyone who is not a female within the ages of 3to 14. They believe now that synergy ie Nemo, Mission Space (based around a massive flop at the box office) and everything else is creative enough. Why can they not create something completely different.

One thing I have pondering lately is how there is no vision of the future like there has been in decades past such as the '50's and so on. Why can't Disney make one for us? Not one Like Robinson's but one that is actually attainable. Inspire us! Show us a world we can't wait to experience. Comparing to what other people's had as a vision of the future ours sucks!

Anonymous said...

The central issue is that Disney would feel the need or want to change course or 'expand its horizons' (no pun intended) by branching out to these things, but if profits are up and general guests are satisfied by consuming the latest Underdog movie or High School Musical stage show, why would they change?

It takes someone else with enough of vision and motivation to show the company what else there is out there. Maybe it's Lasseter, we'll just have to wait and see...

Anonymous said...

"if profits are up and general guests are satisfied by consuming the latest Underdog movie or High School Musical stage show, why would they change?"

Yes. That's it.

That's exactly what's wrong with Disney.

Focus only on profits, and you'll start doing things no one ever imagined Disney would do, like selling off the land that was so hard-won by Walt Disney in Florida, like airing graphically violent TV shows, like pandering to the teenie-boppers, like letting the parks slide creatively while charging more for them.

Disney ought to be held to a higher standard than money. But as Princess Leia said in "Star Wars" -- "if money is all you love, that's what you'll receive."

Money seems to be ALL that it's about anymore.

Anonymous said...

As anywhere else in the world since the past ten years.

Anonymous said...

So...capitalism was invented 10 years ago? You don't think business was cutthroat in Walt's era?

Mark W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

As a Disney employee I can honestly say I never received a 7% pay increase. As a matter of fact most Disney employees are far below middle class. It makes me sick when I receive emails telling me about the profits the company reaps each quarter and then I see my paycheck and it disgusts me. I've been reading all your blogs and can honestly say that if Disney wants their cast to continue creating "magic" they should toss a little more our way instead of to the execs and shareholders.