The Story Behind Disney’s Marketing Success

(Cue the classic Disney fade-in)

Once upon a time, Alli, a young DJ from Tampa was sent to broadcast from the most magical place on earth, Disney World. Over the following two decades, she would return to Mickey Mouse’s home base countless times, opening parks and promoting attractions on the air. As the years passed, Alli’s relationship with the brand deepened, as did her understanding of the most miraculous marketing machine ever created. Come along as she recounts the story behind Disney’s immensely successful marketing – spoiler alert – this year, it ends with an estimated $69.7 billion in revenue.

After 20 broadcasts, Alli’s name was mounted in the Disney radio station


The Backstory

The first thing I noticed, after being selected by my radio station to host Grad Night at Disney World in Orlando, was how relentlessly on-brand they stayed throughout the entire experience. From the language in the written correspondence to the letterhead and envelope, the immaculate accommodations to the welcome gifts and Disney dollars; every contact, interaction, amenity, and encounter was an event in which I felt completely submerged in Disney. Of course, Disney’s all-encompassing overtures are by carefully crafted design; place the guest in the center of the story and never waiver from the production. Mission accomplished.

Working for Disney, either as an employee or a guest host, requires strict adherence to their regimented rules. Whether I was broadcasting the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom park or simply attending the on-site promotion of the Tower of Terror attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, there was always an orientation laying out the rules and expectations of being a Disney representative.

The rules for actual cast members (as employees are called) are even more stringent, here are just a few:

  • All the parks a stage – regardless of job title, all cast members MUST remain in character in the park, that includes locker rooms and bathrooms (Imagine the horror a lost three-year-old would experience if they came across Mickey Mouse not wearing his head!)
  • All Disney all the time – cast members may not reference any pop culture that exists outside the Disney universe while working. Actors can’t discuss anything their character wouldn’t know about (so don’t ask Elsa her opinion on visiting Hawaii in the Spring!)
  • No duplicate names for cast members – of course, Disney can hire as many Michaels and Mollys as they wish, however, all but the original will have to pick a different name for their tag (just like Disney characters, no two cast members are the same.)
  • Never say these three words: I don’t know. No matter the question, cast members are forbidden from admitting they don’t know something about the brand. If a child asks what Donald Duck drinks with his dinner, they have to make something up, (Duck Juice? Duck-a-Cola? Pond water?)
  • Autograph training: keeping the guest in the center of the story takes consistency. Regardless of their natural handwriting, all actors must be taught their character’s distinct signature so it’s always the same, regardless of who’s wearing the suit.

These in-park rules barely scratch the surface but they do begin painting the picture of how Disney became and maintains distinction as the world’s most powerful brand. Now on with the story…

Drawn by a Disney artist, this was gifted to Alli (and her daughter and husband who also DJs for the brand)

Start at the Ending

Conventional marketing wisdom dictates developing a story around an existing product or service. Call’em Goofy, but Disney does it differently – creating the story first – then building merchandise and experiences around it.

Let’s imagine that Disney started at the beginning the way most brands do, using 101 Dalmatians as an example. Begin by pretending the movie doesn’t exist…

Disney produces a batch of spotted, stuffed dogs and dumps them on a table in front of their marketing team. The crew begins brainstorming how to build awareness around the toys through advertising (collect all 101!)

  • The dogs could appear on some popular children’s shows.
  • Let’s make a video game about their adventures.
  • An interactive website would be neat.
  • How about some videos featuring the dogs on YouTube?

All great ideas that would probably sell a few stuffed animals.

What really happened, however, is that Disney took us on an adventure. They shared a story, inviting us to cheer on puppy parents, Pongo and Perdita, as they save their 15 kids (plus 84 more) from becoming an evil villain’s fur coat! Once we were invested, we couldn’t get enough toys, t-shirts, lunchboxes, jewelry, and trips to their Dalmatian themed resort. Marketing products and experiences around the story are what turned Cruella de Vil into a household name.

Emotions Over Promotions

Successful marketers understand that people interact with human beings (fairies, talking trains, pantless pooh bears, etc.,) not brands. Tug at a person’s emotions and you’ve engaged them, a strategy Disney began mastering in 1923.

Nostalgia is one of the best ways to harness emotion as a marketing technique, as it creates an immediate connection to the product or service. Any parent, who’s also a Disney fan, couldn’t wait to show their kids their favorite childhood movies. I adored my daughter’s Disney phase, as I not only swooned over her delight but had the perfect excuse to dig my life-sized Eeyore out of the attic!

One of the greatest Disney marketing techniques of all time is vaulting their classic stories. Each time a title is released from the vault, the sales for its merchandise shoots through the roof. Nostalgia is also why Disney remakes it’s classic titles every few decades. If you loved the Jungle Book as much as I did, then you took your kid to see the revival in 2016 and bought her all the updated merch…like I did. Life-long loyal customers are the name of Disney’s game, and they are winning in spades.

4 picture Disney Collage
Alli’s daughter Haidyn appeared on the Disney Jr. channel as well as acting as Alli’s co-host at Disney Live, Disney on Ice, and Cinderella’s castle

Target Where They Live

Disney has a deep understanding of who their target audience is and where and how to reach them.  My daughter and my Nana are 80 years apart in age, yet still bond over The Little Mermaid. Disney introduced my kid to Ariel and her pals via television commercials advertising the movie and the myriad of merchandise aimed at overloading her tiny brain with must-have toys, castles (each piece sold separately,) night-lights, cereal, clothes, etc. Disney sold their goods to Nana by producing a Broadway show and advertising it in one of her favorite magazines, Time Out New York. Completely different demos, vastly different channels, yet the outcome was the same – they both went to the show and Nana bought Haidyn all the merch she could carry.

Destination Disney

Our story raps up where it began, Disney theme parks. Ask any kid over the age of three where they want to visit and be met with a resounding, Disney World (or Disneyland!) A veritable rite of passage before puberty, parents feel nearly obligated to provide this life-changing experience for their children because what kind of parent would deny their baby such a gift?!

Ensuring each vacation is an original adventure, Disney is constantly advertising its newest theme, attraction, event, or appearance so it’s never the same trip twice. Weary parents tired of spinning teacups and fairy dust are wooed to the parks with limited-time grown-up encounters like the Lunar New Year celebration or drinking around the world at Epcot Center. Creating a sense of urgency drives 52 million annual visitors to Disney World alone, making it the most visited vacation resort in the world.

The Moral of the Story

Disney’s magical marketing tale teaches us:

  • The key is connecting with your customers on an emotional level
  • Weave your brand into all interactions
  • Know who your customers are and target them where they live
  • Keep your product consistent but engage customers in exciting experiences

Ready to boost your bottom line? Contact us for storytime!

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