Monday, October 06, 2008

If Your Heart's Not in the Dream

There’s no doubt that The Walt Disney Company is a remarkable force in marketing. In the entertainment industry, Disney is respected (though perhaps less admired these days) for its marketing expertise. Disney’s management likes to call it “branding.” In the simplest form, it’s why we get names like “Disney’s Contemporary Resort” or “Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” when in decades past the shorter form would suffice.

Disney has virtually made a science out of the art form of marketing. Through highly paid consultants and outside agencies, through focus groups and incessant testing, Disney has learned its business well.

And yet, Disney’s relentless, inexhaustible marketing machine also has removed any trace of real personality from its products. As Disney Consumer Products head Andy Mooney told the Los Angeles Times a few months ago, the new “Tinker Bell” movie wasn’t made for entertainment value. It was made to make money. Mooney said, “We were fundamentally missing an opportunity in terms of getting Tinker Bell out there as a character. There’s clearly latent demand.”

That’s how Disney thinks: Consumer demand drives creative decisions, not the other way around. And from a long-term value standpoint, the problem is, “the other way around” is exactly how The Walt Disney Company became so successful in the first place.
And all of that, in a roundabout way, brings us to EPCOT.

EPCOT Center wasn’t created because consumers demanded a more adult-oriented theme park dedicated to exploring future technologies and world cultures. If you had asked 100 adults in 1976 if they thought such a place was needed, or even interesting, you likely would have been met with 100 blank stares.

Focus groups weren’t asked if EPCOT Center would make them feel better about Disney or drive their interest in visiting a Disney Park.

EPCOT Center didn’t fill a gaping void in Disney’s theme-park catalog, wasn’t designed to appeal to the company’s “core consumer.”

EPCOT Center was created because it was a great idea that hadn’t been tried.

EPCOT Center was built on a vision. (Yes, you could argue it was a flawed one) It was conceived by creative artists who might have had a limited reach, as opposed to Walt Disney’s, but who were at least aspiring to something new and different.

The consumer proposition came later, as the project was handed off to marketers and merchandisers and publicists, who had the task (enviable, in my book, unenviable to some) of introducing and explaining this entirely new idea to the public.

The idea came first. The selling of the idea came afterward.

The dream was the most important thing.

Twenty-six years later, EPCOT does not fit any sort of “core message” that Jay Rasulo and his marketing team at Disney Parks have devised for the theme parks. That’s a problem. Because while Disney has the collective brain and skillset of thousands of very smart marketing executives, there’s one thing it doesn’t have: a collective heart.

Unfortunately, that’s the very thing that EPCOT and, increasingly “Disney Parks” in general, needs.

Until they can make it into “Disney’s Epcot,” this marketing group, for all of its expertise in other areas, simply can’t sell the thing.

So, instead of trying to understand what they don’t understand (as Pocahontas might say, of learning “things they never knew they never knew”), they’ll keep adding Pixar characters and Disney characters and princesses and kid-oriented activities and cartoons and “magic” to the place until only the architecture sets it apart. And although there will be no good way to explain that giant golf ball, those sleek buildings, the massive pavilions, the unusual layout, and all those weird “country places,” it won’t matter.

It will be “Disney,” as that word has come to be defined. Then they can sell it.

The Disney of today manufactures and markets filmed-entertainment products like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and ever more Pirates of the Caribbean soon-to-be-DVDs, but would not be able to take the bold creative steps that led to, say, Fantasia, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Poppins or The Wonderful World of Disney ... much less Disneyland or EPCOT Center.

In all of those instances, the idea came first. The idea drove the business. And though he is, unfortunately, not recognized for the towering achievements he made to American Industry, Walt Disney’s concept of putting the idea first created a company unlike any other.

Despite his accomplishments, Walt Disney knew he was corny, reveled in it. So it made sense that he would approve of a lyric like, “If your heart is in your dream / No request is too extreme.”

Those who have inherited what Walt Disney built aren’t corny. They want to be hip, cool players in today’s Hollywood. They don’t, as a rule, seem to really understand or appreciate the sentiment behind those lyrics. The idea is secondary; the ability to market the idea comes first.

So they can’t quite understand what happens when your heart’s not in your dreams.

They need look no further than EPCOT.

A few weeks back, a Walt Disney World executive and I were talking about the woes that have befallen my favorite theme park. I reminded him of its origins, its concept, its message, and wondered to him why Disney didn’t try to rebuild that concept.

He smiled at me and said, “Wow, you really believe that stuff, don’t you?”

It made me doubt whether he even knows the lyrics to When You Wish Upon a Star. Or maybe, after 22 years of “Disney marketing,” he’s simply forgotten.


Brian said...

Glad to see you back!

I was just at EPCOT a few weeks back and had a blast - it's still a thoroughly enjoyable place. But I still pine for the days where there was vision & thematic unity across the park - it is indeed incredibly disjointed, and those !*%&(*#$ princesses at Akershus piss me off. :)

I think there's a lack of vision in American industry today, period - there aren't a lot of great leaders around these days, so people go with popularity and go with the crowd--and that's how we end up with "what's proven to work" instead of taking risks. Disney has always had the most incredibly valuable creative assets at its disposal; it *could* be the visionary leader of every industry it touches if someone really wanted to take it there. I will say that huge corporations change extremely slowly, and though there have been some flashes of brilliance since Iger took over I think he has his hands full just trying to repair corporate culture.

Incidentally, I've been doing a lot of research over the past few years into Disney's (the person) character. I actually believe he would have bankrupted the company before he could open Disneyland if he had not had his brother around to keep an eye on finances. Some reports also say that EPCOT almost bankrupted the company - but the guys in charge knew better and were confident and optimistic about its chances for survival so continued pushing forward. Today's market probably would not allow a company to take such a disproportionately huge risk.

EPCOT makes money--and as long as it continues to make money Disney will be happy with it. I would love to see Disney *forced* to really leverage the park & the brand... then we might start seeing creativity.

I really enjoyed your posts with concrete ideas & recommendations for EPCOT's future development - I would love to see more of that soon. :)

-Brian (from Seattle)

Anonymous said...

Unfailingly articulate, you are. I know you must feel like a broken record sometimes, but you have a way of laying out oft-discussed ideas about the parks in clear, newly understandable ways. This article is spot-on--I can't think of many more succinct ways to express what Disney needs to be doing than to say "the idea must drive the business".

I would be interested to know more about your conversation with that Disney executive. What else was said? What were his other reactions? Did his answer to your comments about EPCOT's past seem to imply that he was simply unaware of the park's original message, or that the corporate climate at Disney just chooses to treat it as the stuff of raving fanboy legend? You've made me curious.

Anonymous said...

Re: Brian's comments about Walt and Roy - I think they're right on. Walt without Roy would have been a success, but not as a studio head. And Roy without Walt would have been a bank president or something like that probably. Without Roy, Walt would have bankrupted the studio a couple of times.

I enjoy this blog a bunch too, and hope it continues...

Anonymous said...

Disney isn't sure how to market Epcot because there is no clear narrative to the park. Unlike Magic Kingdom & Hollywood Studios, there is no previous work to market or connect with. Unlike Animal Kingdom, Epcot does not have the setting to place characters in.

The problem is that Epcot was a cool idea without a story. Disney only markets stories. From what I can see, Future World is trying to sell the story of the future but has failed to do that for a while. Likewise, World Showcase is highlighting the past from all over the globe, yet, doesn't have a specific story to bring us along.

Think of the way the Magic Kingdom is set up. Although the various lands do no relate to each other, you have familiar faces and narratives throughout the themes and attractions. When I walk into Epcot, I don't see anything familiar, unless otherwise placed there (Kim Possible?). Epcot functions more like a museum than a theme park.

Epcot82 said...

The future and our role in it is the best story imaginable -- one without an ending but with an extraordinary beginning.

Perhaps the fact that few regard it as a "story," as compelling, is a good commentary on what's happening with our economy and our world at large.

When we lack faith in ourselves, we lack faith in others, too.

David Landon said...

There was an episode of the excellent British satire "Yes, Prime Minister" where a snobbish civil servant argued that, by subsidizing operas and art galleries rather than soccer and rugby, the government was giving people what they ought to have instead of what they wanted.

For the first decade or so of its existence, this is what EPCOT did. It gave people what they ought to have; it attempted to raise their awareness of our potential as a species and of the way folks live in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, both capitalism and democracy are based on giving people what they want, no matter how bad it is for them.

Of course, there are corporations and government officials who skillfully trick people into desiring what the corporation or government wants them to have, but this ploy is never used to get people to want something that's good for them.

All in all, I'm truly amazed that there ever was an EPCOT Center. I'm just glad I got to experience it.

Anonymous said...

If people only got what they wanted, Walt Disney would have been out of work. Steve Jobs, too. Bill Gates. Thomas Edison. George Lucas. Steven Spielberg.

You make it sound as if opera can't co-exist with rugby. And that's the big fallacy.

That's difficult for marketers to understand -- that something can be complex and challenging. Those aren't easy attributes to market.

But that doesn't mean you should give up. Giving them what they want is a sad surrender cry from someone who doesn't have foresight or imagination.

Matt said...

what a great article. glad your back. it's frightening when I keep hearing of execs with this mindset/attitude.

I guess all we can do is just take in the park while it still has some semblance of the past.

Me said...

Fantastic article! So glad to see EPCOT Central posting again! I couldn't possibly agree more, and I don't doubt that the marketing exec said something like that, because I see it every single day...and its very sad to watch.

The good news is, there are those of us who still understand that lyric, and especially understand EPCOT Center, and someday things are going to change for the better. The EPCOT of the mid-late 1980s will never exist again, but someday, I hope and dream of an EPCOT that can atleast approximate the sense of total wonder the original concept fueled in people all over the world.

Eric Hoffman said...

I think the " really believe that stuff..." quote is a glaring indication of the sort of generational “loss of belief” that seems to be a natural progression in life. The son stops believing in the same things the father (or grandfather) did and can even become antagonistic towards those old beliefs. Let’s just hope the "son" (current Disney leadership) believes in something, ANYTHING with redeeming value to it.

Your point about how the dream or idea used to lead development seems to me what gave us something like Figment. He is a character with NO external movie tie in at all. I think his slow strangled, painful ongoing demise is indicative of the lack of any truly original ideas for Epcot and/or the creative will to come up with one.

I suppose we all long for the days when new and original ideas flowed like water from the Disney fountain. Wouldn't it be refreshing to see new characters, stories and attractions based solely on a good idea?? Think it is even possible again?

Anonymous said...

How did you come to speak with a Disney exec in the first place? Was he roaming around the park? If so, that's a step in the right direction at least.

Epcot82 said...

Sarah -- No, I am a former Disney employee who retains ties to theme-park folks both in Anaheim and Florida. As much as I'd like to think that might give me the ability to express these views directly to them, there are two problems -- 1) none of them actually have the ability to do anything at all constructive (and they are painfully aware that their system is a top-down one that is closed to any sort of creativity or entrepreneurial opportunities) and 2) only a couple of them think there's anything wrong in the first place. The exec I spoke with is not a good friend -- but a friend of a friend. He has been with Disney a long time and is very happy making his very large salary in Orlando and would never do anything that would jeopardize that lifestyle, which probably places him in the top 5% of all Central Florida residents ... and he's not even terribly close to "the top" in the Disney structure. He's going to hang on to that by not rocking the boat -- and, no, he doesn't have any particular affinity for Disney or its products. In fact, he came from what you'd commonly think of as a "consumer goods" company -- and Disney loves to hire executives like that.

Michael said...

Fantastic post. The only problem with it is that it's so sadly true.

I've long said that if Walt had just gone by what people said they wanted, we'd never have had Disneyland. What made all of Disney's great projects great is that they were things that people never knew to ask for in the first place. No marketing survey could have predicted them.

EPCOT, more than any of Disney's parks, needs a guiding hand that understands the park's message and cares about how it's presented. Joe Rohde is there to ensure the philosophical integrity of Animal Kingdom; who will speak for EPCOT?

Fantastic, spot-on post.