I visited Universal Studios this spring for a quick vacation. Although my wife and I were going down for a hotel opening, we had a chance to visit the
parks during our stay. We love theme parks and rides, and have fun like big kids.
I noticed a few interesting things about the experience that made me think about brand strategy. Maybe it was because the work I left behind was still
fresh in my mind, or that a theme park is basically a giant brand (containing many smaller brands and properties). It was hard not to think about it, even
though my wife suggested I not think about work during vacation.
Instead of following my wife's suggestion, I came up with some brand strategy lessons we can learn from theme parks:
1. If you are going on a water ride, plan to get wet.
One day we went on a Jurassic Park-themed water ride. It was hot and I love Jurassic Park, so the combination of cooling off and having dinosaurs yell at
you was too much for me to pass up. When our turn came, we jumped into the front seats of the log boat, and everyone around us started to explain how wet
we would get. The people in the boat in front of us were covered head to toe in rain ponchos; only their faces peeked out.
Why ride something designed to get you wet only to hide under a plastic sheet? Don't get in the log if you are afraid to get wet.
We see this a lot when we talk to companies struggling to keep up with current marketing and advertising strategies. They're terrified of getting a little
wet, and remove all risks to the point where the move is so ineffective it's not even worth it.
Taking the safe route is almost never the best strategy. If you want to have an experience that matters, you have to jump into the boat, grab the bar and
get hit with some water.
2. Recognize the wait is part of the experience.
Universal is starting to get it; the park is starting to build an experience around the 20-minute wait for rides. Waiting is not fun, but you can use it as
an opportunity to immerse people in the story you are trying to tell. Disney has been a master at this for a long time-it builds an experience, not just a
ride. I now have trouble going to places like Cedar Point, which only has rides with long sets of bars keeping people in line.
Universal's Harry Potter area makes you feel like you are in the Harry Potter world. The walk through the castle has story, diversions, great styling and
even direction changes. You can't see that far ahead, which is brilliant. I have no idea if I am turning a corner to get on the ride or join another line.
This mastery of a brand experience puts Universal in a new league.
Brands need to take a hard look at the sale experience to learn how to build fans. Too often a company or brand thinks it's all about the transaction, not
the lead up to or lead out after the sale. Would you rather sell to someone once, or have steady business for years to come?
Most companies want an immediate return on investment, not long-term relationships with customers. Build the best waiting line and follow-up, and your
transaction problem will resolve itself tenfold.
3. Get better at something; don't just keep up with the Joneses.
It had been a few years since I was last at Universal Studios, but there weren't any new roller coasters since my last visit. The new "rides" are more
immersive, have smaller footprints, are more about the lead-in story and, for the most part, are improvements on the "chair-coaster."
On these new rides, you either sit in a theater that seats hundreds (this makes it easier to get groups through the line faster), uses a large screen and
3-D glasses to give you the sense of motion, or in a chair that stays on rails and takes you through an immersive 3-D/4-D experience.
Roller coasters, for the most part, are old news. They are already about as large and fast as they can be before they start killing people through inertia.
The world of chair-coasting is infinite, and provides many more opportunities for riders to engage with the brand's experience. It also allows a wider
demographic to take part. A little kid might be scared to ride the Hulk roller coaster, but willing to sit in a car in the Spiderman 4-D ride).
Many companies add products and services to stay relevant to moving markets instead of reinventing their core products to be category leaders. People,
times and tactics change. The roller coaster race may be over, but it's time to get into 4-D technology.
Many companies would keep building new coasters, even when the market no longer wants them. Staying up on the direction products, customers and needs are
going should allow a brand to reinvent from within to match that new world, not just add a division, product expansion or cheaper version of what the
Enjoy the ride
People go to theme parks to have fun, get a little frightened and have an experience they can't normally have. People connect to companies and brands for
the same reasons. If your customers, clients or targets don't enjoy the experience, or the experience is something they can get anywhere, then why should
they choose you?
Enhancing the experience could be as simple as making sure the person who answers the phone has a positive attitude. (How often do you experience horrible
phone calls? I'm looking at you, Comcast.) Maybe you can allow your brand to have a personality. Be a little funny, and don't take yourself too seriously.
Only little kids ride the merry-go-round. If you really want to build fans, think bigger.
A version of this article originally appeared on