Mickey’s DNA: The truth about Disney.

Posted on Posted in Brands, People, Research & Analytics

The first time that I visited a Disney theme park I was in a suit and tie. But I was as wide-eyed and awe-struck as any child on vacation. I was the director of a marketing agency and we were seriously delighted to have won the iconic brand as a new account.

Once ‘behind the scenes’ I was immediately taken by the discipline and rigour with which their marketing was managed. Everything was orchestrated and controlled meticulously and we were quickly drilled in the values of the company and its characters. Our client, whose flamboyant outfit including a bright silk shirt and matching pocket square, quoted frequently from the brand guidelines and stressed the gravitas of the work with which we were tasked.

He left us in no doubt that we were privileged to be entrusted with such as cultural treasure. It was impressed upon us that we were on hallowed ground. This wasn’t just a big client, it was an institution. A much-loved, benevolent and powerful institution.

As many have previously highlighted, The Walt Disney Company bears many similarities with a religious order.  This is overt and deliberate. Indeed, on the pristine white wall behind our client’s desk hung six panels, each a solid metre-square block of vibrant colour. During our initial meetings, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were. When I finally ventured to ask, it was explained in patient if not patronising terms that these panels represented ‘The Core Color Palette’. The six colours were those decreed in the Visual Identity Bible to be the only acceptable colours for use in Mickey’s marketing communications.

I share this with you to because it provides some useful context. Nearly two decades later, I returned to Disney in shorts and t-shirt, and this time with my two children. I was determined to embrace the experience,  to suspend my doubts and enter into the spirit of the perfectly timetabled and choreographed fun. I would not deconstruct the offering, nor dwell on each up-sell, nor yet analyse every ARPU optimising technique. No. I would wear the hat and eat the cotton candy and shake Donald Duck’s hand warmly. (FYI: It’s just a guy in a suit!)

A Special Toy For Every Child
“Disney’s mascots and talismans are infinitely replicable but each has a deep, personal significance for its particular owner.”

It was all going just fine until I spotted a sign above one of the many stores on Main Street, the road down which all must travel in order to enter The Park.

In ornate, Olde World lettering, it read: “Nothing Makes A Child Smile Like A New Toy.”  (Note: Not just ‘a toy’ but a New Toy.)

I stopped in my tracks. Could this really be true? Was this really the zenith of happiness for a kid? Not climbing a tree or playing hide-and-seek? Not making a papier mâché model of a volcano or getting a hug from a grandparent?

For a short moment I considered my own childhood and my aspirations as a parent. From that brief period of doubt came absolute clarity. Just as Starbucks don’t sell coffee and Rolex don’t sell watches, Disney aren’t selling toys.

The core proposition is more fundamental and more primal. It’s the promise of a happy, carefree childhood. As such, it enchants parents as much as it dazzles their kids. And so, as with any belief system, its means of perpetuation is intrinsic.  The fluffy mascots and shiny talismans are infinitely replicable yet each has a very personal significance for it’s owner. With storytelling and rituals the magic is passed from one generation to the next.

By some uncanny coincidence, which a more superstitious person might see as revelatory,  on the day of our return from Disneyland, I was sent the results of a recent study. Nearly a century on, its clear that the love for Walt Disney remains strong…
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