Saturday, April 27, 2013

How Disney Blew Its Second-Biggest Brand

In the three and a half years since the last EPCOT Central post, a lot has happened.  More than a quarter of a million people have visited EPCOT Central, a number that's just staggering to me.  Each day, between 100 and 200 people still visit the blog, even though it hasn't been updated since December 2009.

I didn't go away, but I did mostly move on from my bitter disappointment over what's happened to EPCOT Center.

Or so I thought.  Until I began thinking about recent Disney history.

Since 2009, though, Disney has spent more than $8 billion to acquire Lucasfilm Ltd. and Marvel, which joined previously purchased Pixar and The Muppets (as well as smaller, more unusual acquisitions like Tapulous), meaning the company that was built on the creativity of its founder became a company that simply manages the creative content produced by other companies.  To do this, Disney has spent literally tens of billions of dollars, turning its back entirely on its own heritage.

For those who grew up anticipating whatever it was Disney would create next -- an animated feature, a weekly TV series, a theme park, a comic book, a cartoon, a live-action movie -- it's been a disconcerting 10 years.  We've said goodbye to what Disney was and watched Bob Iger's Disney 2.0 become a brand-management company, not too different from the kind of company that stole Walt Disney's own creations away in unscrupulous fashion and insisted Walt create what they wanted.

Disney's expensive spending spree is that it came at the expense of Disney growing its own brands, an activity that ultimately proved too expensive ($10 billion worth of expensive?) and uncertain.  For every Little Mermaid and Lion King, creations that stand the test of time, there was a Brother Bear and John Carter.

But ironically, Disney ignored a brand with massive potential, a brand that could be defined in virtually any way they wanted, and one they already owned lock, stock and barrel: EPCOT.

Other than the "Disney" name itself, EPCOT had enormous brand equity and could have been the second-biggest brand in Disney's stable, all without making a multi-billion-dollar acquisition.  It could have been developed and shaped into a brand that allowed Disney to grow far beyond its core business of entertainment, while also creating enormous entertainment-branding opportunities itself.

Now, to understand why this didn't happen and why Disney instead paid billions and billions of dollars to acquire brands it didn't already own, you have to understand that Disney's corporate teams in Burbank place an undeserved "also-ran" status on their theme parks in Florida.  The parks are great places for corporate retreats or cheap vacations for executives and their families, and of course they're cash cows.  But they're not hip, sexy or cool.  Team Disney Burbank employees chafe at being called "cast members," and they thrive on the wheeling-dealing mentality of L.A.  Backwoods Orlando is just that: second-rate.

So, it's not surprising they would not turn to Walt Disney World for ideas.  On top of that, they by and large have no awareness of or interest in Disney history and heritage.  To them, Walt Disney was a kindly, doddering old man, not a visionary businessman who made Steve Jobs look lazy.  He's a myth, a construct that left the legacy of an exploitable brand name.

They're completely unaware of the serious, impressive research Walt Disney and his core team did into the central ideas behind EPCOT Center.  They are likely entirely oblivious to the plans WED Enterprises once had for the Monorail and the People Mover.  They have no idea that when it opened in 1982, EPCOT Center was a proving ground for technology we take for granted today: touch-screen computers and fiber optics, two-way telephonic conferencing and interactive networking.

That's why it's not really a surprise that Disney didn't build on the $1 billion they spent on EPCOT in 1982 (likely approaching $10 billion in today's dollars) and recognize that they had a great, untapped brand in EPCOT that was just waiting to be exploited.

EPCOT Center opened just five years after the first Star Wars film, and was in large part a similar response to the socio-political culture: People were tired of being told how bad everything was, we wanted optimism and hope.  Now, Disney owns both of those brands, but is actively building only one of them.

EPCOT Center at its core is filled with the very ideals of Marvel super heroes: Technology can be used for good, we live in remarkable times, and humanity is worth saving.  Now, Disney owns both of those brands, but is actively building only one of them.

Discovery Channel (which Disney does not own) has become one of the most successful channels on cable TV, but its programming is not that far off from EPCOT's central concepts of education, exploration and discovery.

Apple has become wildly successful by creating technology that meets every day needs with style and flair.  Explore a little bit about EPCOT Center in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it's striking how similar its mission was to Apple's.

There might at one time have been a line of EPCOT-branded computers and household technology.

There might have been an EPCOT Channel on TV.

There might have been an EPCOT Pictures at Disney to produce exactly the kind of entertainment that Lucasfilm Ltd. and Marvel bring to the company.

There were a hundred ways Disney could have built on the EPCOT brand and all the promise it held, and with far less than $10 billion, Disney could have continued to refresh and renew EPCOT, to have made it, year after year, into the most remarkable showcase for technological and human achievement that anyone has ever seen.

As recently as 15 years ago, no one would have foreseen the ways in which technology became ingrained in our lives, how it infiltrated even the most mundane areas -- and how it led to social networking, which brought our world closer together, bridging cultures and ideas.

EPCOT envisioned all of that.  The pavilions, attractions and presentations of EPCOT Center when it opened are remarkable for the kind of prescience and foresight they contained.

Disney let EPCOT slip through its fingers as a brand.  For a company that prides itself on being the world's best brand marketers, it's rather astonishing to see how Disney failed to notice that right in its own backyard, it had what could have been one of the best-known, most potent brands that relates to virtually every aspect of our lives.

Disney still has the EPCOT brand.  Maybe one day, someone at the terracotta dwarf building will recognize that EPCOT isn't just a place to cram in more Disney and Pixar messaging ... that EPCOT is a brand unto itself that Disney has egregiously ignored, despite its remarkable potential.


David Landon said...

Welcome back! You've been sorely missed!

This is something I've thought a lot about as Bob Iger has acquired more and more intellectual property even as the company under his leadership neglects the significant IP it's always had. There seems to be this assumption that any brand that originated outside the Disney company is inherently more desirable. It's empty-headed corporate thinking, and it's a shame that it's all Disney seems to be capable of anymore.

It's great to hear from you again. I don't know if you're already on Twitter, but if not please know that there's a nice community of EPCOT Center aficionados there. We have great conversations, and we'd be thrilled and honored if you'd join us.

Again, welcome back!

EPCOT Explorer said...

Excellent post! You've echoed and elaborated on tons of thoughts I've had about Iger since he took the helm of Disney and began his 'brand management'. Where Disney once created and strove to lead the industry, he's reduced Disney to just managing and buying and making money in the easiest way possible. Disney's RISKS are what made them special. EPCOT Center was a risk. Snow White was a risk. Disneyland was a risk. And all of those were original, groundbreaking, achievements that set the industry standard. Disney needs to wake up and realize that they have all the power in the world to take these risks again and make new things. Remaking EPCOT to be more like its old self would be a wonderful first step.

And it is SO good to see you back. You were one of the "original" Disney bloggers that inspired me to start writing about Disney in an academic fashion, so I want to thank you for that and would hope that you stick around. Dave makes a great point... a ton of us are on Twitter, you'd be welcomed there with open arms.

Thanks so much for this post and for all your great work.

- @EPCOTExplorer

Epcot82 said...

Thank you for letting me know you're reading. Being of a "certain age," I've struggled with the idea that I'm not sure whether what I've done has been meaningful to people, and you've told me it has. I appreciate that more than I can begin to tell you.

EPCOT Center to me represented a new frontier of possibility, a blending of creativity and information that was unlike anything I had ever seen. To see it turned into another stage for more Disney marketing still pains me. Even all these years later, EPCOT remains filled with so much unrealized potential, it still is awe-inspiring, despite what has happened to it.

Thank you for reading EPCOT Central!

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. Sadly the same can be said to Tommorowland at all the theme parks. From what I've read about Walt, the Blade Runner theme, the crowed eye lines of the claustrophobic layout that it has become does not come close to the clean, positive future of tomorrow he had envisioned. Both EPCOT and Tomorrowland suffer from one thing, laziness of design. A lack of imagination and loss of vision is more than apparent in both locations.

sir_grapefellow said...

Welcome back EPCOT 82, you've been sorely missed. Excellent thought provoking post as always. Social media is a different beast than since you last posted, maybe we can get analysis such as yours into the proper hands.

David L - can you recommend some EPCOT aficionados on Twitter, would love to jump in - thx!

1967WEDway said...

Wow, now THIS I was not expecting! It's been so long since you've written an update. After such a long absence, it really took me by surprise to find something new from you again. It's a wonderful surprise, though. Despite the length of time, I've never forgotten about your writings. It's wonderful to read from you again, and I'd just like to throw in that your writing has been such a fantastic influence on my life. I still frequently reference your writing when developing my own thoughts on EPCOT Center, a subject that means the world to me and has fascinated me to no end for years. It may be a little late at this point, but I'd just like to say thank you. You and your writing has meant more to me than you could probably guess. I hope this isn't the last we'll be hearing from you again. Thank you for this update, it really is like hearing from an old friend again that I haven't spoken to in a long time.

Hoot Gibson said...

Brilliant!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -Hoot Gibson

Epcot82 said...

Once again, thank you all very much.

David Landon said...

@sir_grapefellow: As for who to follow on Twitter, I strongly recommend:
@ProgressCityUSA (Michael Crawford, operator of the Progress City USA blog and writer for D23)
@MKPony (who writes the unparalleled blog Passport To Dreams Old and New)
@imagineeringdis (official feed of the amazing Imagineering Disney blog)
@HrznsRsrrctd (the guy behind the Horizons Resurrected project)
And you can find me at @futureprobe1982

And once more, I plead with Epcot82 to join us on Twitter. I used to think it was a waste of time, but I quickly changed my mind once I hopped aboard. This blog has been a tremendous inspiration to all of us who love EPCOT Center, and we'd really love for you to join us in our online conversation that never ends.

Salem said...

I can't help but smile, as I found a new blog post this morning. I have been a reader of your site for many years and have checked your site each week -- often just to read a random article of yours.

Welcome back, Epcot82.

Anonymous said...

I want to post this everywhere. Including the comments. #epcotexist

Mark W said...

I'm so glad that you're back writing on this blog again. I've been checking every week or so for years.

bluesky said...

Great to have you back!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back - belatedly. I do enjoy your [often very romanticized] musings and opinions. And, I don't want to cause a myocardial infarction, but I do enjoy the role of contrarion. And so with that...

"Discovery Channel (which Disney does not own) has become one of the most successful channels on cable TV, but its programming is not that far off from EPCOT's central concepts of education, exploration and discovery."

Really? Some of DC's offerings, which have made it so popular, include: Texas Car Wars, Skunk Ape, Buying the Bayou, Buying Alaska, Biker Build-off, and Dixie Divers. And while I enjoy some of DC's shows for the entertainment, they hardly qualify as educational programming (let alone contribute to intellectual exploration or scientific discovery).

I would love nothing more than for EPCOT to become again what it once was (to me). More likely though, success will be seeing it not devolve further.


Anonymous said...

You are back!!!! I have a lot of reading to catch up on!!

Unknown said...

12/24/13 ... I got an early xmas present seeing you had returned!!! I don't know what made me click my mouse on your site but I'm so glad I did! You definitely love old EPCOT, as do I, and I really wish your words could make their way to the top. Unfortunately, no one is listening. Too money hungry. Sad that for first time since I got my seasonal /annual pass since 1984 , next year will be first year I go without. I'll have to reread your old posts to relive the wonder of EPCOT Center I had of my youth.

But so glad to know you're back, and okay, and yeah!!!

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Oh! Such a interesting post! I read your whole blog and it's really nice. Now, I solely understood the EPCOT brand. Thanks for sharing this blog with us. I also want to add something that Brandharvest is the brand design company in India that provide complete brand identity designing services all over India.

Anna Schafer said...

I didn't go away, but I did mostly move on from my bitter disappointment over what's happened to EPCOT Center.brand central