The Walt Disney Company is a juggernaut. Obviously. With its recent acquisition of both Star Wars and Marvel Comics, Disney is attempting to own the rights to every bit of your childhood nostalgia. It's a wonder then that Disney's marketing can be so nimble at times. The same gigantic company that owns ABC and ESPN is often able to deftly deploy creative social media campaigns that would mire other much, much smaller companies in the minutia of creative sign-offs, chains of command, and other petty office politics. Disney can be very efficient when it comes to relating to its fans on a personal level. So perhaps we can learn a marketing lesson or two from The Walt Disney Company about how to effectively connect with a fan base.
While the Disney parks -- including locations in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai -- account for only a portion of Disney's total revenue, they are arguably the most public-facing parts of Disney. After all, the Disney parks offer a completely immersive experience that digital interactive platforms won't even approach for another decade or so. So it is the marketing surrounding Disney's parks and resorts that we'll be looking at in this article. Plus, it's worth noting (i.e., confessing) that the Disney parks are where I have the most personal experience with the brand. I am a longtime Disneyland Resort annual passholder (aka, "passhole," a loving moniker reportedly used by Disney cast members) who has visited the Disneyland Resort nearly 1,000 times. Yeah, I know. I'm that guy.
Celebrate your anniversaries
Anniversaries create trust. After all, we've all seen signs around town that say things like "Hepburn's Hats, est. 2002." Reminding people how long you've been in business alleviates suspicions that you'll steal customers' money and spend it all on dice games and Zima. But if, like Disney, you are in the business of reliving and creating memories, then anniversaries are extra important.
Every few years Disney launches a new campaign in an attempt to compel people to visit the parks and resorts. Most of them sound pretty much the same. They are usually some variation of "Celebration of Dreams" or "Magic is Everywhere." Think of your local mattress store and its "Countdown to President's Day Sale" promotion. Zzzzzzz.
Marketing messaging is hard to keep fresh. So milestone anniversaries can be a useful differentiator -- a concrete concept on which to hang a marketing campaign. 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of Disneyland. And the resort is laying it on thick, using its 60th birthday to finish many long-anticipated refurbishments and spit-shine the parks as much as possible. The hope, of course, is that potential park visitors will think to themselves, "Oh man! Has it really been 10 years since I visited? We gotta pack up the kids and head back to Disneyland this summer!"
People love their own photos -- so put them in your campaigns
Everyone who has ever hit a Disney park has, somewhere under all the dust bunnies, a cherished photo album (or, these days, digital file) of their beloved vacation moments. Disney knows this. And while, yes, it invests in plenty of professional photography recreating faux vacation moments, it also knows that some of the most authentic marketing fodder resides in those real-life photo albums. As such, Disney taps into them regularly. Perhaps the best example of this was a few years ago, when the Disney parks prominently featured visitor-generated photos in both its TV commercials and in nightly in-park shows via gigantic projections.
The lesson? Tap into your customers' photos -- no matter if you're a local restaurant or a national plumbing company. People love to share, and their images can be the most authentic representation of your brand available.
Let your fans own your brand (because they will anyway)
You can create messaging. You can participate in conversations around your brand. But you will never, ever own your brand again. It's in the hands of the masses now. I'm not the first to make this observation, and I won't be the last.
Disney gets it. It didn't always. But it seems to now. Sure, it still fiercely protects its trademark in many instances. But in the case of its parks, it's more and more recognizing the importance of letting its fans create and celebrate in their own ways. This is evident in events like Dapper Day at the Disney Resorts. While not officially organized or associated with The Walt Disney Company, these days -- in which thousands of visitors hit the parks dressed to the nines -- are certainly warmly welcomed by the company, which even hosts related expos and events in its hotel properties. Even potentially more-controversial unsanctioned Disney park events, like Gay Days, have seemingly been increasingly embraced by the company. On these days, tens of thousands of red-shirted LGBTQ individuals and supporters hit the parks to show their pride. And I'll be damned if the parks don't just happen to be quite well-stocked in the red balloon department those days.
Respect your history and listen to fans
With perhaps the exception of Coca-Cola, few brands leverage the power of nostalgia like Disney, particularly in its parks. This is visually evident in elements as simple as throwback posters for old and new park attractions alike. For example, from the old-standing Enchanted Tiki Room:
To the modern new addition of Radiator Springs Racers:
But it's more than a visual aesthetic. Nostalgia is built into products and park attractions themselves. Take, for example, Luigi's Flying Tires. It was an attraction at Disney's California Adventure that opened in 2012, and it was based on the 1960s Disneyland Flying Saucers attraction. For years, old-school park fans very publicly yearned for a return of the long-gone attraction in social forums. And with the bajillion-dollar California Adventure Cars Land expansion, Disney demonstrated that it has listened.
But of course, that leads to the next lesson...
Know when to let go and keep your image fresh
You know what people forgot (or at least ignored) about the Flying Saucers? They kind of sucked. Despite the nostalgia element and "in theory" coolness of resurrecting a former beloved attraction, Luigi's Flying Tires, like its predecessor, was just kind of boring. For all the hype, in reality you were just sitting on a giant air hockey puck and trying desperately to get a little movement by leaning side to side.
Park attractions aren't cheap to create. Thus, you can imagine how easy it would be to just let a less-than-popular attraction exist for many years for the sheer sake of cost conservation. But Disney didn't go this route with the Flying Tires. After only three years of less-than-enthusiastic reception, Disney closed the attraction and has promised an all-new ride experience in its place in 2016.
The lesson? Love your past but don't cling to it. Refresh yourself on a regular basis without losing the good stuff.
Of course, I can think of a few other Disney examples of this premise...
"Firework show at Hong Kong Disneyland in Hong Kong" image via Shutterstock.