Disney is one of the world's most iconic brands, with sub-brands that span many industries. With so many moving pieces, how has Disney grown its brand while staying true to its core values? What are the challenges they face going forward? And what is the brand all about?
Our branding experts analyze the Disney brand and explore what has made them so successful for so long.
Read the Transcript
*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.
The Disney Brand Promise
Chris Wilks: There's a whole lot we could cover today, but just so we can frame the topic better for listeners and keep us on the rails here, today, we're going to narrow our focus to what we think of Disney as a brand.
More specifically, how well does Disney manage their multitude of brands, and how does their brand promise impact their various business units? So real quick, just to get started, let's define their brand promise. What is Disney's brand?
Cynthia Stipeche: Well, let's look at the mission of The Walt Disney Company. Their mission's to entertain, inform, and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling.
So if you look at that, just the number of properties that they've acquired. They've gone beyond broadcast and movies and into streaming. And they've got theme parks and resorts and toys and the products and education programs. It all ties back to that unparalleled storytelling.
Bo Bothe: Well, look all the way back to Walt Disney. I think Walt's mission was to make people happy. And you had this whole 'Happiest Place on Earth' vibe. I remember as a kid that was kind of their thing -- this is the happiest place on earth. And Walt Disney would walk out and talk about that before all of his shows. That's the ethos of that brand, right?
And as they've grown, it's been interesting to watch them add brands and things that might contradict that or change that. If your job is to make people happy, but you're sharing news that may make people sad, a more corporate change in the mission around storytelling tends to happen.
Chris: Do we think they do a good job of staying true to that mission statement?
Cynthia: I think they do a great job at it, and they have to. I mean, when you look at what they've become, it started with Walt and Mickey. But they are a large conglomerate. They've got a lot of brands, and you have to stay true to that mission.
Acquisitions and Brand Integrations
Bo: Yeah, and referring to your employees as 'cast members' and the whole storytelling thing is a big part of it. We were talking about Waking Sleeping Beauty and the kind of rebirth of Disney animation. That's always been a theme through everything they do.
And if you look at the acquisitions they've made of Marvel, ESPN, Fox, etc. they're all incredible storytelling mediums. They may not be the same media that they started when it was just cartoons, but it does fit. And the way that the stories are delivered -- look at some of the 30 for 30 and the stuff they do on ESPN -- I mean, it's not just about reporting the news. It's about telling a story or a narrative.
Cynthia: Right. And I think you also have to look at how strategic a lot of these acquisitions have been. Obviously, it's like yourself. Disney fans are -
Chris: ...nerdy. The official term is nerd.
Cynthia: Loyal! You geek out to Mickey, right?
But they have been really strategic about who they've acquired. Think about Marvel. You've got a fanatic fan base. It is similar but it's a little bit different. It skews toward the comic book crowd. It's a smart move.
And even for Star Wars, it's the same thing. It's a fanatic fan base. I think it lines up with who their audience already is, and it expands it out into a bigger universe.
Chris: We were watching Master Class with Bob Iger and he talked about the acquisition of Marvel. He had a little bit of trepidation, at least at first, because it doesn't necessarily align since there's violence and maybe is a little bit more adult kind of ideas. But the way that he was able to, come to terms with the idea that it fit was that Marvel is this incredible storytelling brand.
Cynthia: ...with a fanatic fan base.
Chris: Right! And it has that built-in fan base, much like Disney.
Bo: Yeah but do you see how dark some of those old Disney cartoons were? I mean, you got a whole forest of thorns grows around an entire castle that falls asleep. I mean, it's not like Disney's never pushed it and put fear or sadness into the stories they tell.
The Marvel stories, like the stories of Captain America falling on hard times or losing his long lost love or whatever it may be, those are all stories that are aligned with Disney.
Chris: So, I'm curious, how do we think they're able to integrate these brands into the fold the way that they have? Because there's often pushback, I think, early on.
Cynthia: Yeah, fans from that specific property or whatever, they start to panic like, "Oh, they're going to soften up the whole story and make it too sweet."
Bo: ...or investors watch their Marvel stock slow down as it becomes a part of Disney, and there are all those stories too.
Chris: So, how are they able to integrate those brands? And seemingly how do they make those come together and in a synergistic way?
Cynthia: I would say that Disney is confident in who they are, in what they deliver, in the value they bring. I mean, it's a cultural thing.
And I think that with that confidence they allow Marvel or Lucasfilm or Pixar to stay who they are and stay true to their respective fan bases. I think that's part of it too.
It's like we were saying earlier, it's a strategic move on their part to acquire, for example, Lucasfilm and Star Wars. So that it lines up with their values in some way and their mission, what they're delivering. I think the other thing too that goes into their mission is delivering the most innovative experience out there, right?
Being an Innovation Leader
Chris: Disney Parks are a great example of that.
Cynthia: Look at what's been done with Star Wars. It has been innovative. Lucasfilm was really groundbreaking in 1977 with Star Wars. So, that's already kind of baked into it, so.
Chris: You mentioned the innovation part of it. So going back, Walt and the Disney Company were the first to experiment with layered animation. And so, they kind of pioneered that. With Pixar, they (and Dreamworks) were kind of at the forefront of computer animation.
And then moving to the parks. There's so much innovation that goes on there. For example, Star Wars fans who think they're going to soften up the brand. No, they're actually allowing Star Wars fans to be in the movies. You get to go to Galaxy's Edge and Batuu. You get to interact with characters who are from Batuu and they have these backstories, and they immerse you.
In 2021 there's going to be a resort where you take part in a Star Wars story. It's almost like you set sail on a cruise, but you're not actually going anywhere. But it's a two-night thing. You have two nights stay, and it's basically your whole stay is a Star Wars story.
Cynthia: So, think about that. Prior to the acquisition of Star Wars, Star Wars fans had the movies, the books, the action figures. And so it's like it was all kind of in that realm, right? Now, thanks to Disney, you can get inside the Millennium Falcon. You can ride it. You can pilot it, which is crazy. 10 year old me, my head would have exploded.
But this goes back it being a great move on their part. Now, I don't know how happy George Lucas is about all this. But if you think about the brand of Star Wars and then the brand of Disney and this marriage, it gives it all these new opportunities to allow people to experience this immersive storytelling. Which, about as immersive as you could get back in the day was a video game, which is pretty cool. But now you can get into the ships. You can interact with the characters.
Bo: Thinking about it from a branding standpoint, Disney does take it on the chin sometimes. People just like to pick on the leader, right? But I think they are, for the most part, as big as they are, pretty true to what their mission is. I mean, I think they live it. And I think they believe it. And it may not always be the nicest, and it may not always work the best, and it may not always be the most employee-friendly.
I mean, we can pick on everything, but they've been able to hold this together because I think they stay pretty true to what they're trying to deliver. They're not saying they're delivering the most environmentally friendly thing in the world. They're delivering stories and storytelling, and they're delivering experiences. And maybe, they have shifted from the happiest place in the world to the most entertaining place in the world, but those are shifts that brands make. It's kind of hard to live up to the happiest place in the world.
Being Immersed in Disney
Chris: And one of the factors that's made them a successful brand is that the people that work there absolutely buy into that mission. They absolutely believe it. I mean, if you go to a Disney park, for example, everyone is incredibly nice, incredibly helpful.
There are all these stories where cast members, as they call their employees, are not allowed to tell you no, or say "that's not my job," or "that's not my department." If they don't know an answer to something, they're empowered to go and help you because you are the most important person there to them.
So, it's in the language. It's in the buy-in of the people who are on the front lines. And that's a brand touchpoint. And frankly, that's how they're able to draw in people like me. I'll speak for myself. That's what hooked me to the brand. The movies are great, I love the acquisitions, all that kind of stuff, but that was secondary to me. It was always about that feeling and that experience that I got when I walk through those Walt Disney World gates.
Cynthia: When you walk into the park, it's a transformation. A transformational experience.
Chris: Exactly. And you're immersed. You're immersed in the surroundings. You're immersed in the parks. You're immersed in that whole experience, and it comes down to the little things. The Magic Kingdom is built a story up, and that's so that nobody who's supposed to be in Tomorrowland is seen walking through Frontierland because that would mess up the magic, right? That would mess up the show.
Cynthia: I'm happy you said that because it really is. It's kind of magic. It's like it looks like magic. Now, there's a lot of engineering and planning that goes into it, but it's delivering on that brand promise.
Bo: It's all true to the brand that they're trying to show.
Cynthia: It feels like it. It feels like magic. And I think that's the start of every movie too. Every program, it's got that essence.
Chris: Again, it goes down to that even lower level where we've mentioned a couple of times. They're not employees. They're cast members. They talk about being onstage and backstage. When they're on break and stuff, they're not on break in the break room. They're backstage. They don't deal in terms of transactions. They deal in terms of experiences. It even comes down to just the language that Disney uses, and that's the buy-in from the people who are interfacing with not clients, but guests.
It's all of these things. It's a common shared language. We read books here at BrandExtract to get a common shared language and it gets everybody pulling in that right direction. And when I look at the brand, to me, that's why they've been so successful. That's one of the reasons they've been so successful.
Cynthia: Because the employees, they're bought in 100%.
Chris: Exactly, the cast members.
Cynthia: The cast members, sorry.
Staying Ahead of the Competition
Chris: So, I'm curious. What do you attribute Disney's success to in this industry for so long? It's not like this industry is without competition. Now granted, Disney is buying up a lot of it, but it's not like it's without competition, and they've been at or near the top for the better part of a century at this point. So, what do you guys think?
Cynthia: So they've purchased Fox, purchased ABC. They've purchased...
Chris: ESPN, History Channel I think, Discovery Channel I'm pretty sure, National Geographic recently. I mean, they're wide-ranging in the properties that they own. And we're talking about stuff mostly stateside, but I mean, they're across the world. They've got theme parks on three continents. They have language schools. They're teaching children in other countries English, right?
Disney lore will tell you that Walt always said that to remember one thing, "it all started with a mouse." To think that it started with a mouse and it has grown into this empire, I'm just curious on your guys' thoughts of how we think it's been able to start at a mouse and become this whole thing.
Cynthia: Well, if you think about it, around the time Walt started animating, there were a lot of animation studios being born at that moment. And even if you look through the entire Looney Tunes type Warner Brothers properties, it's not too different. They have their own parks and everything else.
But with Disney, I think it's that they're so authentic and true to that original promise of magic, the promise of storytelling, that differentiates them in such a way that it's allowed them to develop this fan base that has such a strong emotional connection with them.
Not to pick on anyone, but it's like I don't have that strong emotional connection to Warner Brothers. I just don't. To me, it's like Warner Brothers is a respected brand but it's this kind of umbrella for a lot of other types of programs, but not to the point of Disney. There are some things that have been almost like culturally ingrained and every kid. This is now a global phenomenon, that it's like it's just got that certain Je ne sais quoi.
Bo: Yeah, I mean, I think they've been true to who they said they were going to be. I mean, they have always been great storytellers and they kind of tap into what, at the time, really are controversial issues. But they pose them in a way that they're relatable, and they're not controversial. And the stories they tell, whether it's through experiences with cast members, physical experiences or visual experiences or media, they can tell that story in a way that it can capture a wide range of ages. And I think they trained that.
I think they invest in the right things. They're smart about the acquisitions they make. Iger was talking about having a rabid fan base. Well, it's way beyond the fan base, and it's way beyond being rabid. It's like a belief in something, a relatable kind of quality. All the way back to the mouse, Mickey Mouse is pretty relatable and he's kind of just figuring it out. And I think that it taps into that part of us that wants to explore, and wants to see new things, and wants to think about the world, but in a place that's safe and secure, but in a way that's deeper than just basic entertainment.
Tapping Into the Emotion of the Disney Brand
Chris: Well when Walt thought up Disneyland, which gave way to Disney World, it gave way to Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong and all these different parks and experiences. He said that what inspired him to create Disneyland was that he wanted somewhere where he could spend time with his children, that they could both have fun. And so, I think another reason why the brand itself has endured is because you've tapped into something so innate to people, spending time with your children. Having fun with your children, who can't relate to that? Who doesn't want to spend quality time with the ones that they love?
Cynthia: But if you think about it, I'm sure there's been a ton of background analysis on that target audience. It's like families, moms, the kids - what's going to resonate with them? So what is going to make sense the offerings at the parks or online or through the movies? So, this is all very thought out, and it's like there is that kind of soft, sweet, emotional, squishy side of it. And then, there's a lot of, I'm sure, deep research that goes into the decisions.
Bo: But the stories, I mean there's the sweet part of it, but it's always pretty deep. I mean, when you really dig into what's behind Star Wars or what's behind Marvel Comics and the issues that the characters have had to go through, all that kind of stuff. I think the best contrast is the contrast between DC and Marvel. I mean, DC is pretty dark. They've got really dark backgrounds.
But most of the Marvel characters are wholesome. But they also have some sort of dark backstory that we can relate to, that were tormented just enough to where it captures the adult part of me or the deeper part of me. And I think that they just do that well.
Brand Challenges for Disney
Cynthia: I also wanted to talk about the Disney+ stuff just as far as challenges because we've talked a lot about kind of the bright side of this but I want to look a little bit at the challenges going forward.
So what are the biggest brand and strategic challenges for Disney as they dive into streaming with Disney+ and diversifying their assets? I'm a little worried for them on this because I think usually they make great bets. Pixar, awesome. Marvel, really smart. Moving everything into Disney+ does worry me a bit as far as it comes to accessibility of the media and those programs that are near and dear to people's hearts.
Bo: I think there was a big thing when DVDs were moving to streaming and they went big on copyright. And they went big on VHS copying. I think they pulled back a little bit on it. Now, they've done a good job of really working to protect their assets but gatekeeping them or being onerous to share these stories could affect them. And so as a Disney+ subscriber, it'll be interesting to see how they roll things out. They did the same thing with DVDs where they wouldn't release some of the old stuff, and then, they'd rereleased them.
So you kind of retool and rerelease and reinvigorate. But I think sometimes, that can be seen as selfish, and this is not that brand. And so it'll be interesting. I think they're a little late to the streaming game too, and so it will be interesting to see how that affects their audience.
Cynthia: Which I get, and it's like they have that care, and they want to respect their titles, movies, whatever. But I think also there's a little bit of being able to cut these things loose, so they live out there in the universe. That way it can reach the audience beyond where you've kind of relegated and corralled, and all these programs can continue to live on.
Chris: Yeah, so with Disney+, streaming is becoming a more and more crowded industry. So, it will be interesting to see if they're able to differentiate. Because I guess Netflix is the giant in that industry, and there's some ground to make up there. So, it'll be interesting to see do they pull all their stuff from Netflix. I know some of it's still there now, but do they ultimately pull everything from all the other competitors?
Bo: And then how sad is my daughter if they do that? I mean, how does that affect the Disney brand over time?
Cynthia: Yeah, because for families who have to pick and choose, and we get more value because everybody has more interest in a different type of streaming service.
Bo: Then you lose diversity, and then what does that do?
Chris: Well, and another threat I guess to Disney, or place where we might question them, is in their theme parks. They're consistently going up on their ticket prices. And there's been a lot written and a lot said about them possibly actively trying to price people out because they want to thin crowds out or whatever.
So, I do wonder. I mean, the theme parks, every time I'm there seem to be pretty packed and crowded. It doesn't seem like they're missing out.
Cynthia: It's a little bit of a balance between business decisions and what you're offering as a brand.
Bo: And how does that affect brand perception and people's alignment with the brand.
Chris: Well, guys, thank you for indulging me. This was, obviously, an episode that I thoroughly enjoyed.