5 marketing lessons from Disney to emulate

Walt Disney evokes powerful memories and is adept in social media, listening, conversing and taking action to create new memories and new fans.

The Walt Disney Company is a juggernaut. Obviously. With its recent acquisition of Star Wars and Marvel Comics, Disney is attempting to own the rights to every bit of your childhood nostalgia.

It’s a wonder that Disney’s marketing can be so nimble. This gigantic company that owns ABC and ESPN often deploys creative social media campaigns that would mire much smaller companies in the minutiae of sign-offs, chains of command, and petty office politics. Disney relates to its fans very efficiently. We can learn a marketing lesson from Disney about how to connect with fans.

While the Disney parks in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, Hon Kong, and Shanghai account for only some of Disney’s revenue, they are arguably the most public-facing parts of Disney. The Disney parks offer an immersive experience that digital interactive platforms won’t approach for another decade or so.

It is the marketing of Disney’s parks and resorts that we’ll look at now. The Disney parks are where I have my most personal experience with the brand. I am a longtime Disneyland Resort annual passholder (aka “passhole,” a loving moniker reportedly used by Disney cast members) who has visited the Disneyland Resort nearly 1,000 times. Yeah, I know. I’m that guy.

Celebrate your anniversaries

Anniversaries create trust. We’ve all seen signs that say “Hepburn’s Hats, est. 2002.” Reminding people how long you’ve been in business alleviates suspicions you’ll steal their money and spend it on dice and Zima. But if you are in the business of reliving and creating memories, then anniversaries are extra important.

Every few years Disney launches a new campaign to lure people to visit its parks and resorts. Most of them sound the same, variations on “Celebration of Dreams” or “Magic is Everywhere.” Think of a mattress store and its “Countdown to President’s Day Sale.” Zzzzzzz.

Marketing is hard to keep fresh, and milestone anniversaries can be a useful differentiator—a idea on which to hang a marketing campaign. 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of Disneyland. And the resort is laying it on thick, finishing many long-anticipated refurbishments and spit-shining the parks. They hope potential visitors will think, “Oh man! Has it really been 10 years since I visited? We gotta pack up the kids and head back this summer!”

People love their own photos—so put them in your campaigns

Everyone who has ever hit a Disney park has, under the dust bunnies, a photo album ( these days, a digital file) of their vacation moments. Disney knows this. And while it invests in professional photography recreating faux vacation moments, it knows that the most authentic marketing resides in real-life photo albums. Disney taps into them regularly. A few years ago, Disney parks featured visitor photos in its TV commercials and at nightly in-park gigantic projection shows.

The lesson? Tap customers’ photos—no matter if you’re a local restaurant or a national plumbing company. People love to share, and their images can be the most authentic representation of your brand.

Let fans own your brand (because they will anyway)

You can create messages. You can participate in conversations about your brand. But you will never, ever own your brand again. It’s in the hands of the masses now. I’m not the first to make this observation, and I won’t be the last.

Disney gets it. It didn’t always. But it does now. Sure, it still fiercely protects its trademark. But for its parks, it more and more recognizes the importance of letting fans create and celebrate. This is evident in Dapper Day at the Disney Resorts. While not officially organized by, or associated with, The Walt Disney Company, the Days—in which thousands of visitors hit the parks dressed to the nines—are welcomed by Disney, which hosts related events in its hotels.

Disney has embraced even potentially more-controversial unsanctioned Disney park events like Gay Days, when tens of thousands of red-shirted LGBTQ individuals and supporters hit the parks to show their pride. And I’ll be damned if the parks don’t just happen to be well-stocked in red balloons those days.

Respect your history and listen to fans

With the sole exception of Coca-Cola, Disney exploits nostalgia better than any other brand, particularly in its parks. This is evident in its throwback posters for old and new park attractions. For example, from posters touting the long-standing Enchanted Tiki Room:

… to posters for the modern addition of Radiator Springs Racers:

But nostalgia is more than visual. Nostalgia gets built into products and park attractions themselves. Take, for example, Luigi’s Flying Tires. It was an attraction, based on the 1960s Disneyland Flying Saucers, that opened in 2012 at Disney’s California Adventure, For years, older park fans had yearned on social forums for a return of this attraction. The bajillion-dollar California Adventure Cars Land expansion showed Disney was listening.

That leads to the next lesson…

Know when to let go and keep your image fresh

You know what people forgot about the Flying Saucers? They sucked. Despite nostalgia and the coolness of resurrecting a beloved attraction, Luigi’s Flying Tires, like its predecessor, was boring. In reality you sat on a giant air-hockey puck and tried desperately to get a little movement by leaning side to side.

Park attractions aren’t cheap to create. You can imagine how easy it would be to let a less-than-popular attraction exist for many years to hold costs down. But Disney didn’t do this with the Flying Tires. After three years of less-than-enthusiastic reception, Disney closed Luigi’s and promised a new ride in 2016.

The lesson? Love your past but don’t cling to it. Refresh yourself often without losing the good stuff.

I can think of a few other Disney examples of this premise…

Drew Hubbard is a social media and content marketing strategist and owner of Foodie Content Studios. A version of this article first appeared on iMediaConnection.

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