We all know Disney as the huge conglomeration it is, but like any business, it started small and faced many obstacles along the way, particularly financial challenges. But despite hard times and mistakes, Walt Disney used his own magic to not only bring his vision to life, but create a brand that is known and loved worldwide across generations. How did he do it, and what can you learn from the great Walt Disney?
Disney’s major strength was in marketing, and was a pioneer in branding, brand stretching and merchandising. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was the first ever full-length animated feature, and was also the first film to have a complete merchandising campaign on release. By constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries, Disney went from a moderately successful animation studio to a complete entertainment experience – with theme parks, merchandising, cruise ships and so forth. Nearly 25% of Disney’s revenue comes from the sale of consumer products.
Here are the top 5 Disney marketing strategies:
- Surprise! – Disney added surprise to his business model by giving away prizes at Disneyland. All you had to do was be there to win.
- Stories – Walt knew that the story was the real reason people enjoyed his attractions. Every Disney feature has a story behind it. People relate to these stories.
- Connecting a brand to feelings – Disneyland was known as “the happiest place on earth,” and who doesn’t want to be happy?
- Talking to customers – Walt Disney was often seen walking around Disneyland talking to visitors. At other times he’d go to see a Disney movie and get people’s reaction to the picture.
- Attention to detail – you know that something special is about to happen as soon as you enter Disney properties. There is magic in even the most ordinary objects, for example Disney’s street signs are rabbit ears.
This was not Walt’s strongest point, and in fact he nearly ran the business to the ground several times. But he did learn to stay out of finance, and hand over responsibility to the experts. Fortunately, Roy Disney understood his primary job was to realize his brother’s dreams. He was the businessman while Walt was an artist led by inspiration. In the end, the company flourished precisely because Disney was such an indifferent businessman.
There were also a few clever tricks along the way, worth considering in any business:
- Get your pricing right – The first Disney animation was a series of black-and-white cartoons featuring a rabbit named Oswald, produced for Universal Studios. When Universal refused to give Walt a raise he quit drawing Oswald.
- Brand value – Walt set up a private company that owned the merchandising rights to his name, allowing the business to charge for use of the name. Walt Disney Productions paid $46.2 million to buy the company back in 1981.
- Adaptability – Disney made it through the Great Depression and World War II by dedicating his studio to producing health, education, and propaganda films for the U.S. government. It also produced short comedies aimed at boosting national morale.
- Capitalising on assets – The company did not produce any new feature films during World War II, but in 1944 it re-released Snow White, bringing in much needed revenue without much cost. Thus began a strategy of re-releasing films every 10 years, and later regulating the availability of Disney films on VHS and DVD.
While the value of the business was largely attached to Walt Disney’s name, Walt recognized his strength was in story design, not actually animating, and for the business to grow he would need to learn to delegate and let others create his vision. By the time the brothers built their studio in Burbank, California, they employed more than 1,000 people, including animators, producing hit after hit.
While we can’t all become the next Disney, there is much to learn from the young entrepreneur who started a studio in his uncle’s garage.