Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Opposite of Brand

For decades, The Walt Disney Company was a peerless leader in brand development and management. Long before business schools had even defined such concepts, Walt Disney knew that there was Walt Disney, the man, and "Walt Disney" the concept.

Disneyland may be best known as a "theme park," but in essence it was conceived a brand experience. Even if attractions and themed lands like Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrowland weren't based on a specific movie, TV show or "entertainment property" (as the phrase is known today), they defined Disney simply by being part of the experience. Prior to their appearance at Disneyland, no pirates had sailed the seven seas in a Disney movie, 999 "happy haunts" were not part of a pre-existing TV series. But because they were created and brought to life by Disney, they became Disney.

Likewise, when he introduced the concept of EPCOT to the world two months before his death, Walt Disney had never revealed publicly his fascination with urban planning and design, transportation technology and sociological issues. But as soon as Walt Disney talked about EPCOT, it, too, became Disney.

When the EPCOT Center theme park finally opened 16 years after Walt's death, it wasn't easy to see how it correlated to his final dream. It was filled with rides, shows and attractions, and even if they weren't the "city of tomorrow" Walt once promised, they were identifiably Disney. They took everything his organization had perfected in the previous five decades and combined them in a way that had never been seen before. The dinosaurs of the Universe of Energy, the dramatic storytelling of Spaceship Earth, the silly inhabitants of the World of Motion, the Dreamfinder and Figment ... all of these things were unfamiliar and new, yet unmistakably Disney.

Disney used to be in charge of its brand, used to revel in the unspoken message that it could define itself any way it wanted to do so. The moment something was created by Disney artists, it became Disney.

Where, then, did Disney lose the ability to define itself?

When did Disney change from being in the creativity business to being in the "brand-management" business?

There can be fewer better (or worse, if you prefer) examples of this than EPCOT Center.

From 1978 to 1982, Disney embarked on a massive marketing and publicity blitz to ensure that every American (for these were, by and large, the days before instantaneous, international communication) knew that "Disney" was now defined by the concept called "EPCOT." Anyone with any awareness of entertainment and popular culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s knew that EPCOT was the newest Disney creation ... even if they didn't quite know what it was.

Viewed from the perspective of today's (ahem) more enlightened marketing perspectives, what Disney did would be seemingly impossible today. The company that was known for lame comedies starring Don Knotts and Dean Jones was dominating the news with a bold message that everything you knew about Disney before would have to be rethought. Disney didn't just mean pixie dust and cartoons, it meant something unexpected, bold and totally out of the ordinary.

That's one of the reasons that it's so disappointing to walk through EPC--, um, Epcot today. Later this month, Disney will introduce a new "Kim Possible" activity at Epcot's World Showcase. Instead of learning about other cultures, sampling their wares and cuisine, and experiencing the underlying message that we're all in this together, Epcot guests can take active part in a commercial for a Disney cartoon. World Showcase just happens to be a great spot for this kind of "synergistic" brand enhancement.

Already, we've seen the Three Caballeros become the representatives of thousands of years of Mexican culture; a journey through the history of this awesome civilization has become a great way to sell some more Donald Duck plush toys.

And, of course, we've seen the awesome mysteries of the oceans that surround us become a tune-filled, happy ride through Nemo's undersea home, with the other high point of Epcot's Living Seas pavilion being a chat with a cartoon turtle, while the real ones go more or less unheralded.

EPCOT Center once "branded" Disney as a remarkable organization that created theme parks unlike any other in the world, with extraordinarily detailed experiences that surrounded guests with truly three-dimensional sets, "actors" and spectacle, that brought a sense of story, purpose and theme to previously unimagined heights.

Had that EPCOT Center concept been allowed to flourish, grow and change, with an eye toward maintaining the notion that "Disney" did not need to be narrowly defined as "benign entertainment for children," it could have been extraordinary.

EPCOT once had a remarkable brand, one that could have been further explored and developed and turned into something that could stand alongside "Disney" as meaning the best that imagination has to offer.

Now, EPCOT is just a meaningless word within the "Disney" brand, and all of its promise and hope have been drained. As a brand opportunity, is has been squandered. It's just 162 acres of staging ground for "brand managers" to play in ... even as they ignore the very concept of what a "brand" actually is. Or could be.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

It 's very odd that you posted this as I posted something similar on several weeks ago.

EPCOT Center's classic attractions no longer exist. The Disney spirit that they held was swapped out for something less than that and hence the Epcot of today.

It's really a shame that every other Disney Park in the world retains it's classics but EPCOT has none.I think that's the essential part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

It 's very odd that you posted this as I posted something similar on several weeks ago.

EPCOT Center's classic attractions no longer exist. The Disney spirit that they held was swapped out for something less than that and hence the Epcot of today.

It's really a shame that every other Disney Park in the world retains it's classics but EPCOT has none.I think that's the essential part of the problem.

bluesky said...

Thank you for the new read Epcot82. I always come here to see if you have anything new posted. I have to take exception with a few of your points though. While I agree that most of the Imagination has been sucked out of Imagineering. I have to say that I saw the 2009 vacation planning DVD which showed the Kim Possible "attraction." I would have to say that as an adult I love World Showcase! But I remember a time as a preteen/teenager; I hated World Showcase and thought it was very dull. The new hand held Kim Possible unit allows you to interact with different things around World Showcase. You can make statues pop up out of the water or make smoke come out of chimneys. All the while exploring World Showcase on a treasure hunt. I think it will make preteen/teens get excited about being in this area of Epcot. And who knows, they just may learn something along the way. Until I actually saw exactly what they were proposing, I also thought it would be lame. But after seeing it in action, I can see why tweens and their families could have a lot of fun with these. Also, not to be nitpicky, but... Isn’t the Pirates ride based on the old Disney’s Treasure Island series? I could be wrong there, but I believe that to be the case. Keep writing. I enjoy reading your work.

Epcot82 said...

EPCOT Explorer, I had not seen your piece, but would love to if you can post a link.

Bluesky, I really appreciate the comments you post -- always insightful. In the case of EPCOT, what bothers me is that they've "dumbed down" the experience for everyone. Instead of adding creative elements that are "kid and teen friendly" without diluting the rest of the experience, they've specifically created a commercially-oriented addition that isn't something most adults would be interested in doing. Go back a couple of years to my post on splitting up the family -- it's exactly what Disney theme parks were originally designed NOT to do.

There could have been more creativity, more imagination, more originality put into this. Why not create a non-character based treasure hunt that really educates while it entertains, something that is truly in keeping with the "old" vision of EPCOT?

As for Pirates ... I've never, ever heard that. Given the time and setting of Pirates (1850s New Orleans), I don't believe there was any connection. As far as I've ever heard, Pirates was a wholly original design and story, like The Haunted Mansion a couple of years later.

AnonyMOUSE said...

EPCOT82, if you'll look at my blog you'll see that synergy is possibly my least favorite thing ever. It alone is ruining the parks. So, it's easy for me to agree with you here.
The Kim Possible project, specifically, is one that I've been meaning to address. It's one of a few perfect examples of the fact that Disney is ignoring the ideal that they set up: you don't need a brand-name for a project to work. "Disney" is really all it takes. But now, they are trashing any original IP's that come along and embracing the mediocre popular concepts that have made them famous in film or TV. It ruins the "timeless" aspect of the parks - and has rendered them no longer entertainment classes of their own, but instead outlets for already established properties.

Tuckenie said...

You know... I agree with a lot of this but I have to take exception to the Kim Possible bashing. It was created as a temporary thing a couple years ago to promote the last season of the show and when it was taken out at the end of that summer there was actually a very vocal guest outcry about it. The show has been canceled for two years since then and interest is still pretty high on the attraction. Sure there's something to be said for keeping everything timeless and unbranded but there's also something to be said for having an attraction to help younger guests (and those young at heart) enjoy themselves while remaining mostly unintrusive to other guests. Plus the show is no longer being made so there's hardly an argument for it being meant as a commercial.

Same goes for the Mexico ride. If it's just a commercial for plush toys then show me the plush toys. I'm in a position to know there is less Donald plush available at WDW now then ever before.

Maybe Disney is just being inept on the follow through but the synergy argument would work better if they were using it to promote something they were still selling. Sure there's some catering to the lowest common denominator going on, but this blog seems to be ignoring the fact that nobody was going to the rides that were replaced.

Epcot82 said...

If there were a guest outcry for more churro carts, Bugs Bunny walkarounds and free chili for everyone, does that mean Disney should listen?

The argument that guests want something and therefore it should be done is a specious one. If you recall, back in the 1930s when Walt Disney produced "The Three Little Pigs," he was beseiged by requests for a sequel. And, of course, his famous reply to the call for "More pigs" was, "You can't top pigs with pigs."

It's a lesson today's Walt Disney Company should learn. The philosophy didn't do too badly for that doddering old grandfather called Walt, now, did it? He had some extraordinary business secrets, and yet they are ignored today.

Giving the public exactly what it wants gets you exactly what you deserve.

I'm not "bashing" Kim Possible, by the way, I'm just saying it does NOT belong at Epcot and question, frankly, whether it's a theme-park-worthy "attraction." This is something that Disney should have launched as a localized, traveling promotion when the show was on air and successful.

But Epcot has always suffered from that philosophy: Give the guests what they want.

The public wanted a dumbed-down Epcot, and Disney gave it to them.

bluesky said...

I agree with what you are saying about the "brand" of Kim Possible having nothing to do with World Showcase or EPCOT. It seems completely out of place. I really like the idea though. Like you said, have the same "treasure hunt" without the Kim Possible overlay. That would be the best of both worlds. As for the Pirates ride, I could have swore that it was adapted from a movie or TV special from the 50's or 60's. I cannot seem to find any verification online yet, so I may be mistaken. I also hate the homogenization of the parks and shops as much as you do. The unique qualities of the different areas of WDW are seeming to blur quite a bit in the past decade. The closing of the A.C. has pushed me right over the edge. I'm going to be in Orlando for a week’s vacation next week and for the first time ever, the only Disney related thing I am doing while I am there is going to Blizzard Beach (weather permitting.) The rest of the time I am going to golf, lie around and spend a day or two at Universal. 5 years ago you would've had to tie me down to keep me from the Disney parks. I know it is a foamer/snobbish thing to say... But, the last thing that Disney has done in the past decade that really impressed me was Everest. However, last time I was there riding Everest, the Yeti was non-functional and that corner of the cave was dark to hie it. We didn't even see the Yeti. I will be back when the Disney decides it is sick of getting its butt kicked by the new World of Harry Potter and builds something amazing.

Anonymous said...

"The public wanted a dumbed-down Epcot, and Disney gave it to them."

The only change I would offer is that, Disney gave us a dumbed-down Epcot, and the public tolerated it.

Today's Epcot is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. It breaks my heart.

Great column as usual.

-- BigBobxxx

Tuckenie said...

Look I love your blog and your passion for Epcot. I also respect that these are your opinions and you totally have a right to them. I also agree with most of your original post. However I take exception to your response to my post. It's not specious to say that an "attraction" (I really don't have another word for it) that sparks the interest of younger guests in the World Showcase and gives them something to do that they're actually interested in? What's really wrong with that? And don't give me the "Walt said we shouldn't preach to the lowest common denominator and our stuff should appeal to the whole family" spiel. Two responses to that:

1. You haven't done the attraction yourself (I'm assuming) so how would you know it's neither of those things?

2. Most kids are bored at World Showcase, so it isn't appealing to everyone in the family to begin with. Plus this is more involving then just dumping them at Kidcot stations to go shopping.

"I'm not "bashing" Kim Possible, by the way, I'm just saying it does NOT belong at Epcot and question, frankly, whether it's a theme-park-worthy "attraction."

You do in that very statement. Look your problem is more with the branding then anything else. I understand that. It's growing all over Disney and you consider Epcot as sacred ground when it comes to that sort of thing. You probably agree with the original plan of Figment being the only character in the park. However this is nowhere near as egregious as say... SIEMENS being blasted across Spaceship Earth as guests leave the park. Shoot it's not even as bad as walking into Magic Kingdom and seeing Cinderella Castle in front of you.

This is an inexpensive "attraction" of probably a "B or A ticket" status that will be gone in five years and you won't even be thinking about as you ride the new character free roller coaster in Japan. Is it a bad sign? No, just typical of current managment. Should they be spending the money on other stuff like improved entertainment and maybe towards a Russian pavilion? Totally. Plus I want the buses back. And most of Future World should be gutted by a group of futurists and science fiction authors. But till then I'm holding out for the free chili.

PS: I'm almost certain the POTC was an original concept from WED. We could use some more of those, and not just at Epcot. I'll look into it at work today though.

Anonymous said...

Epcot82...Here's the link to the post.

I'm EPCOT Explorer on there too...are you a member of WDWMagic?

Bobby said...

Other comments aside, the Three Caballeros were already the representatives of thousands of years of Mexican culture. As a good-will package film produced about South America and first released in Mexico, Three Caballeros is actually an Disney-appropriate lens for that country. This isn't to say that there are not plenty of issues associated with the representation, but it is at least internally consistent with a Disney tradition. That era of film is historically and culturally significant and Epcot's Mexico is pretty much the only place where we can find that bit of Disney history.

Anonymous said...

Donald Duck is American, Jose Carioca is Brazilian and Panchito is Mexican. One third of the trio "represents" Mexico. Only three of the movie's seven segments involved Mexico.

It's always seemed to me rather insulting that one of the biggest tourist sites in the WORLD would represent Mexico with outdated stereotypes, as it did with "El Rio del Tiempo." But at least that initially TRIED to inject a flavor of Mexico's people and history into the ride. Now it's just about silly cartoon characters.

It's sad, really. It's so trivial it's not even worth being offended by it. But it's just ... sad.

Tuckenie said...

Ok, so what I could find today (there isn't much) seemed to indicate that PotC is mostly inspired by the pirate Jean Lafitte who fought with the US Army at the battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and by the New Orleans' history with pirates. Nothing I found mentioned any TV shows.

Scott said...

Wow. Great discussion on both sides. I tend to think that they're still trying to educate while changing the way they entertain in the Mexico Pavilion. Whether they are doing the best job of it, eh. Same with the Kim Possible thing. We haven't experienced it, but we'll be there next week and maybe my boys will enjoy it more than being dragged around the pavilions by Mom and me (we love the World Showcase), and maybe I'll hear a bit less whining, and maybe they'll get interested in some of those countries too. I don't know.

I don't think either of these issues (the inclusion of the Three Caballeros in the Mexico ride, or the Kim Possible thing) are necessarily a decline by themselves.

Epcot82 said...

Epcot Explorer, thanks for the link! No, I'm not a member, but suppose I should be!

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed it...and YES, please join! We would love to have you.=)