Sunday, March 15, 2009

Marketing EPCOT

Determining your audience is one of the most important tasks a marketer can perform. It's important to have a thorough understanding of who likes your product, who might like your product, and who just absolutely never will like your product, no matter what you do. It's also increasingly important to find out if you have "brand ambassadors," people who love your product so much, they'd go out of their way to promote it.

So, it's hard to be convinced that, despite its formidable marketing army (which, if rumor holds, will be trimmed significantly sometime early this week), Disney really does understand EPCOT.

There's no doubt Disney understands the concept of a theme park. It definitely gets the idea of a Disney theme park ... so much so, that its most innovative (if that's the right word) development in the past five years has been rebranding all Disney theme parks under the generic "Disney Parks" moniker. Live in Tokyo? You're living near a "Disney Park." Live in the Western U.S.? You live near a "Disney Park." Visiting Paris? You can go to a "Disney Park."

Perhaps, following this logic, a consortium of marketers representing fine art museums could establish a marketing campaign that rebrands every museum, from the Whitney to the Guggenheim to the Smithsonian, as "Art Museums -- Where Fine Art Lives." The "Disney Parks" concept seems that ludicruous ... yet it has stuck.

The Magic Kingdom-style parks are easy. Disneyland, The Magic Kingdom in Florida, Tokyo Disneyland and Euro Disneyland all fit a clearly identifiable mold of what a "Disney Park" should be -- there's a castle, there are cute and cuddly characters, there are rides and attractions for the family, parades and "pixie dust."

But a quarter century ago, Disney made a clear step away from that basic mold. With EPCOT Center, Disney-MGM Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure and (to a much lesser extent, the awful Walt Disney Studios in Paris, Disney expanded the concept of what a Disney theme park could be. Now it wants to go back on its word.

The problem with that is, in differentiating its parks, Disney understood (through research and hard work) that different members of the family, different types of tourists, different kinds of Disney fans, different age groups ... they all wanted different things. Some wanted thrills. Some wanted "magic." Some wanted to learn. Some wanted to explore. Some wanted visceral excitement. Some wanted active discovery. There was no one "prototypical" Disney theme park guest, so it stood to reason there should be no one "prototypical" Disney park.

Which gets us to EPCOT. It was the first expansion of the Disney theme park concept, opening a year before Tokyo Disneyland, and by far the most unusual. EPCOT Center deliberately sought to be the "anti-Magic Kingdom." From its design to its theme, there was nothing overtly "Disney" about it, except the Disney name. EPCOT was intended to be a brand unto itself, to establish its own meaning and own set of principles.

Opened just as a huge revolution in technology was set to change the world as we knew it, EPCOT presaged these changes and promised that they would lead to an explosion of prosperity for all the peoples of the world. EPCOT gambled that guests would welcome the chance to have a different part of their mind stimulated, to find excitement not in 999 happy haunts or sailing over London, but in the boundless opportunity presented by our own creations.

So, Disney (at least for a time) knew exactly what EPCOT was ... but from the beginning to today, you have to wonder: Did they know who it was for?

EPCOT is not for a family of six who wants to spend their time being passively entertained. EPCOT is not for small children who want desperately to dine with a princess or pirate. EPCOT is not for people who find the news and documentaries boring and pointless. EPCOT is not for guests who feel education is meaningless. There are many people EPCOT most decidedly is not for, and on those guests EPCOT Central passes absolutely no judgment. Many people can spend three days at the Magic Kingdom and feel entirely fulfilled. They can make a side trip to Disney's Hollywood Studios and ride some thrill rides and see some shows and never really come face to face with "reality." Even Disney's Animal Kingdom presents the kinds of experiences that most of us (not "them," but, frankly, most of us -- all of us) will never see: African savannahs and Asian jungles feel as exotic and fantastic as a splash down a cartoon mountain.

So, who is EPCOT for?

EPCOT is for the many millions of people who want to discover something new on vacation. The same people who are targeted for "Adventures by Disney" (real-world excursions around our actual planet) are the families and guests who are ideal EPCOT guests. Kids who love science, the arts and social studies. Adults who like learning and exploring.

There are many, many different target groups that are the ideal EPCOT consumer.

Trouble is, Disney seems to have stopped breaking down its demographic outreach in those ways. EPCOT is now just part of Walt Disney World, which in turn is part of "Disney Parks," and as such, it must conform. There is no room for it to be unique or challenging.

Soon, I hope and believe, Disney will come to realize that its greatest asset, what truly sets it apart from any competitor, is the variety of its parks. Each one is truly different from the other. The more they become the same, the less reason there is to bother visiting multiple parks. If you've had a Nemo experience at Animal Kingdom, do you really need it at EPCOT? If you've dined with the princesses at the Magic Kingdom, is it a necessity to do it in World Showcase?
Maybe for some. Not for others. And those others are where Disney's growth opportunity lies.

In this down economy, Disney has to start looking at ways to really make itself different and distinct. The "sameness" of its theme parks just is not going to be able to sustain. They've been turned into commodities, not concepts.

As that begins to happen -- and I have to believe that with the scrutiny being given to all areas of The Walt Disney Company and corporate America that it will soon -- Disney will have that "a-ha" moment ... "We have different parks, not just multiple variations on essentially the same thing! Wow! And each one has a different audience. Big audiences!"

The media environment has become increasingly fractured, increasingly compartmentalized -- it's easier than ever (though more time consuming) to reach specific target groups, to craft messages unique to them, that will appeal to a specific niche audience, such as those millions who would be completely "turned on" by the concept, ideas and philosophies of a revamped, updated, reinvigorated EPCOT.

As Disney attempts to get smarter about its marketing efforts, hopefully they'll come to this realization: They've been sitting on a gold mine, they just have to find the key.


Scott said...

I wonder if Disney has already HAD that "aha!" moment, and their actions are based on it. I'm all for the parks having more of their own identity and being unique in their own way, very much so actually, but I have a feeling that their market research shows that the things they're doing are the things they NEED to do to minimize the impact of this poor economy on their parks.

OTOH, I hope you're right and they begin to celebrate Epcot's, and other parks', uniqueness.

Anonymous said...

Almost all of your posts write about how to re-brand the park and deal with marketing and management. You never consider the internal structure might be flawed.

Unlike a Disneyland style park, Epcot is basically a showcase for corporate America. Its in bed with various sponsors to fund the park's operation costs. No other park has a sponsor for every attraction. This is an additional layer of red tape you never address. You point out the addition of characters and claim how the park lost its educational focus. Well, consider this: What company or country is sponsoring the addition of characters?

The sponsorship issues are the reason why almost all the attractions in this park are huge and overblown. This is why many of the "learning" attractions you want are gone. Sponsors are not bringing them to the table. Why is the Wonders of Life pavilion not in use as a new ride that has your "awesome" marketing idea? Because the sponsors you're looking for don't exist. Its a huge investment in advertising and the return on investment is lower than ever. Maybe in the 80s having an attraction at Epcot was a hip thing to do, but today investing $50,000 in an interactive web site would get a company a much better return on investment.

Also, consider how ridiculous it is to say who Epcot is NOT for. While it would be nice to think that people come there to learn, Disney has three other parks that attract that family on the concept of escapism. Your posts suggest that Disney completely re-structure the park back to its original intent is bad. You make no effort to suggest how Epcot (or EPCOT CENTER, whatever) would be able to compliment the rest of Disney's offerings. Its like putting a book in a stack of video games and letting the public chose their form of entertainment. While having one outlier present for the sake of "choice" and "variety" might seem like a good idea, its also a sore thumb.

What's even more ridiculous is that you're asking them to re-brand Epcot for a niche audience. With that much land invested into the concept, I doubt they'll be gearing towards a niche anytime soon. Disney's nature films don't even make enough money to get Hannah Montana out of bed in the morning. The company isn't about niche marketing at all. Its big and old school. Disney can't even handle a consumer products or TV property based around education. Where is Disney's version of PBS NOVA, National Geographic Explorer, Discover Channel, or Travel Channel? There isn't one. This is why when the company tries to synergize you get things like Kim Possible and Donald Duck...its the only content they have. The parks are extensions of a brand, not the reverse. How do you expect them to manage an entire theme park around a concept when they can't even develop smaller investments (TV or consumer products franchises) around the education/discover concept?

Anonymous said...

I am a long-time reader of this blog, and often (though not always) agree with Epcot 82's thoughts. Anonymous is VERY, VERY wrong in most of what s/he says regarding EPCOT Central. The comment barely deserves a response, but it was well-written and constructed... just ignorant and off-base.

I'm hoping others will chime in with more detailed rebuttal, but here are some simple observations from a regular reader.

EPCOT Central has brought up the corporate sponsorship angle many times, including the red tape you mention. I trust Epcot 82 can post some links. Don't say "never" if you've only read a few postings here and there.

Disney does not just brand their parks as escapism. They also constantly tout "education" and "the future" as hallmark Disney elements. "Re-branding" Epcot does not have to come entirely at the expense of fun or escapism.

I went on a Segway tour of California Adventure this weekend, and the tour ended with the guides telling us that Walt Disney was always interested in new inventions and technology and how both can benefit humankind now and into the future. We were told our Segway tour had been an example of this vision in action. That little speech was pure marketing, folks, coming as it did in front of the Monsters, Inc. ride.

Finally, Disney IS about niche marketing. That's exactly what Hannah Montana is. Take the millions of teeny-bopper girls to whom Hannah is marketed, change that demographic to, as Epcot 82 says, "the many millions of people who want to discover something new on vacation," apply it to Epcot, and you have simply swapped one niche and product for another.

When I visited EPCOT Center as a kid, it was MANY things: escapist, educational, and inspiring. Truly. Epcot 82 simply believes the park can be what it once was, not in physical form or in content, but in focus and execution. I had not come to realize how different Epcot was until this blog. It's not ignorant or stupid to ask a company that was once on the cutting edge and willing to take risks to be able to do so again.

Anonymous said...

In response to Anonymous' comment, please consider that Disney is no longer just a theme park operator, movie studio, publisher, or music producer. Disney is all of these and more. Like it or not, Disney has positioned itself to be the leader in the entertainment industry, and as such it does have a social responsibility to the consumer as well as it's park guests. While I am not trying to imply that Disney is solely responsible for all the educational needs of the world, you cannot deny that its influence over the masses is far greater than that of PBS NOVA, National Geographic, or even the Travel Channel. A fact that Disney recognizes with the recent addition of Disneynature. This is proof that Disney is making the effort to expand it's brand identity.

At it's heart, EPCOT Center, was designed to reach out to the masses and touch them in a way that only Disney could do. EPCOT Center was meant to inspire, entertain, and educate. Was it perfect on opening day? No. Did it have the potential to grow and develop into the theme park that it aspired to be? Most definitely. The problem is that early on, Disney misplaced its nerve. They gave up on the future of EPCOT Center and back peddled. Leaving us with a park that has no true identity, no real soul, and no recognizable theme. It could be argued that this is the true reason why Sponsors are not "coming to the table." If I were a Sponsor in our current economy I would be very careful where I place my marketing dollar, and a theme park without vision and confidence in itself would not seem like an attractive investment for me. Perhaps if Epcot was re-imagined to include the original inspiration that drove it's development, the sponsors would then recognize the strength of Disney's influence over the masses and once again consider sponsoring an attraction at Epcot the "hip thing to do."

You also mention Hanna Montana, Kim Possible, and Donald Duck as being the only type of properties that Disney has to work with. I strongly disagree with you. While I agree that these are their strongest types of properties, I also recognize that Disney has a treasure trove full of characters and properties that they can access at anytime. The problem is that it would take effort and imagination to bring many of these properties to life again, resources Disney seems to be lacking in in recent times. Additionally, consider that the creative power of WDI can wield an amazing artistic sword if given the proper support, or in Disney terms, budget. Evidence Tokyo Disney Sea. Considered by many to be the jewel of all Disney theme Parks, it has a very strong vision, theme, and execution of ideas. OLC knows what they want. Without the aid of Hanna Montana or Kim Possible Tokyo Disney Sea is quickly becoming the new Disney Standard.

After considering these ideas, is it still resonable to say that re-branding Epcot to be more like EPCOT Center is ridiculous? After all, which is more ridiculous, conforming to a universal, mass market type of theme park a la McDonald's, or creating a destination known the world over as a dramatic departure from the norm that inspires and motivates guests to become better and stronger versions of themselves? In the world we live in today I would think that being educated, inspired, and entertained is far less ridiculous than being subjected to yet just another theme park.

Ed Rhodes said...

I don't think Disney doesn't understand EPCOT, it's that Disney's audience doesn't understand EPCOT and Disney is just trying to appeal to that audience. It does kinda suck but that's kinda how it is

Seabase Alphan said...

I'm a newcomer to the site: excellent comments all.
I've a manager at Disneyland, and started at the Company six months after EPCOT Center opened. Outside of the one and only Disneyland, no other Theme Park has my heart like Epcot, and much of what has happened there breaks my heart.

I am interested to see what the recent and well-publicized (and personally painful) restructuring of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts will bring. We on the West Coast, since Jay Rasulo took charge of the division, have seen a Disneyland renaisannce, and uniting worldwide Park Operations as a single division could be extremely good for every Disney Park. Or not. We'll see, but I am optimistic.

I'm not sure that the Company has ever, ever really gotten its arms around Epco, and found that perfect balance of how to honor what the Park is (which is the long-term success of that Park's "brand) and how to make it profitable (otherwise nothing else ever gets done).
I agree with one of the posters: I believe that, in the 21st century it started on October 1, 1982, the "Epcot Model" (as it referred to in our part of the Company) has some fatal flaws.
It has always been problematic that a Park was built with every single "E" Attraction at the front of the Park and all of the charm (and "C" and "D" Attractions) at the back.
What is more problematic now is the entire Sponsorship model.

It isn't just that Companies like General Motors may not have the funds for such extravagance much longer. It's that marketing has fundamentally changed to be more specifically and individually targeted rather than the "firehose" approach of putting the name out there and seeing who it sticks to. It's impacting broadcast television, newspapers, all traditonal advertising media.

Once the Company adjusts to this, as I truly believe the Company can, Epcot will be able to realize its full potential, not only as a profit center but as the truly unique and special place on the planet it is.

Trust me. We will never see a Theme Park of this scale, grandeure, and "reach" ever again.

It can happen. Remember, Steve Jobs is our largest single stockholder. More importantly John Lassitter has final creative and financial control over all of our Theme Parks. In addition to being a complete genius, his very first job was a Jungle Cruise Skipper at Disneyland. It's under his skin.

And, as heartbreaking as much of Epcot currently is, it is not the unmitigated disaster that Disney's California Adventure is. One Park at a time...