I’m just back from a 3-day trip with my 6 year old son and parents to Disneyland, Paris. His first ever trip abroad, Disneyland was instinctively the Marvel fan’s obvious destination of choice.
As it is for most small people, some 60 years after the opening of the first theme park.
And it was this; unwavering, time-defying, promise of “a ticket to happiness”, that made me intrigued to experience from the inside the branding that is so meticulously crafted across the globe, generation after generation, by PR pros.
Of all the brands in all the world that represent “corporate image” The Walt Disney company is widely renowned as one of the best, and one of the longest (not merely surviving) but thriving. So how do they do it? Their well-oiled PR machine is, in my opinion, a very important element:
Firstly, long before we all jumped on the content marketing bandwagon, Disney Parks were describing themselves as being built on “storytelling” and “experiences”. They understood emotional engagement between brand and consumer in a way many others couldn’t – making every single visitor feel special, ensuring they experience the ‘magic.’ Disney also focus on ‘consistent global messaging’ across all 11 theme parks which is no easy task! The one thing Disney understands is the power of the emotional connection and it’s a skill other brands can only seek to emulate.
From the very beginning, before the first park even opened, Walt Disney utilised public and media relations, securing a deal with the ABC Network to run a weekly TV show to promote the park almost a year before the gates opened in exchange for retail rights on the site. Ratings figures showed some 90 million viewers for the live televised, celebrity-packed opening ceremony.
Walt Disney himself was the leader of his organisation when it came to understanding that feedback and constant improvement was the key to success. He was known to walk around the park himself, asking customers for feedback. In the days before social media, it wasn’t as easy for him to simply read emails, tweets or Facebook comments, and yet he sought out even the hardest criticism, so he could leverage it to do better. He wanted to see what many other bosses would avoid or hide.
The Disney company as an overall brand has a huge legacy to live up to, and yet they continue the ethos that the only way to succeed in this mammoth challenge is to adapt and continually improve. Media relations and traditional PR remain a stronghold of their modern strategies (as they should for any business, in my opinion) and the opening of each new attraction still commands special media events. But they have also embraced modern technology, like the very successful use of behind-the-scenes Podcasts during their 50th anniversary “Happiest Celebration on Earth” campaign. To this day, inventions like the “Mobile Magic App” (allowing visitors to locate their favourite characters inside the park) show a continued commitment to digital advancements and interactive customer experiences.
Corporate Social Responsibility is an important facet to deliver and promote in any business for the community within which is operates. It’s not surprising then that Disney, given its size and income, donates some $300 million + in charitable giving annually. But they also run more interactive programs ‘on the ground’ such as VoluntEARS where cast members give up their time for local causes.
Even the happiest place on earth receives bad news, including several tragic accidents in the 90s and early 2000s. Granted Disney weren’t always adept at dealing with these, preferring to stay silent, which only fuelled the media fire. However, after a second accident in 2000 resulting in a 4 year-old living with brain damage the company complied with investigations and broke their silence, hiring a new VP of Strategic Communications and implementing a safety public awareness campaign, turning the reactive negative into a proactive positive. When the next fatal accident occurred in 2003, they were ready, issuing an immediate statement of condolence followed by the CEO travelling to hold a press conference.
As brands begin to leverage online influencers and bloggers in campaigns, Disney was doing it long before everyone else. Way back in their 2006 campaign “Year of a Million Dreams” Disney commissioned American portrait photographer Anne Leibovitz to create a series of photographs with celebrities recreating famous Disney scenes (such as Scarlett Johansson’s Cinderella) appearing as print adverts in magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. in 2013, as part of the “Share Your Disney Side” campaign, the company invited internet celebrities and bloggers to document their experiences across YouTube, Tumbler and Vine.
Of course Disney gets its fair share of criticism and there will always be those who feel that what they do is more financial than emotional, but I can’t fault the overall (decades-long) good industry work of this brand and it’s PR-pros. They know their audience like no other (still do, given the phenomenal success of Frozen) but they also see beyond the product, to the longevity of their messaging. They create their own brand champions, working from the inside-out, hiring staff on attitude rather than aptitude and seeing them as their foremost PR people. They move with the times but they stay true to their founding legacy, their ultimate goals and that authenticity has never been more important than in this super-transparent digital age.
I had a great time, I spent A LOT of money (damn you Mickey Mouse) but as any parent will tell you, if there is one place on Earth where your inner child will come alive, where your own child’s eyes will widen in amazement and delight, you can guarantee you’ll find that place at Disneyland.
And at the end of the day, delivering on your brand promise is the most important element of them all.