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Marketers can learn a lot from Mickey Mouse

I’m often judged for spending three weeks alone in Disney World but that doesn’t faze me.

When I tell colleagues that I chose to spend three weeks alone in Disney World I’m often confronted with polite confusion (and extreme judgement). I’m sure there’s also a good ol’glug of pity too, but it doesn’t faze me. I learned a lot from my time in Disney’s theme parks, with lessons that have really helped me in my career. Let me explain.

The Disney group’s unifying purpose is to entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling. And it’s the company’s theme parks that really bring this to life.

Lesson 1: Part of your world, immersion is everything

There are over 12 Disney parks around the world, with one thing in common: an incredible level of care spent immersing people in an environment. The theming is best in class: sights, sounds, smells, even temperature are controlled to keep visitors enveloped in the ‘land’ they’re in.

Sight lines — what guests can see wherever they’re in the park — are cleverly considered to keep things in-keeping with the area’s theme. Forced perspective (a design trick to make things seem taller or smaller than they really are) plays with scale. Soundscapes and scent-pumps evoke anything from bustling turn-of-the-century American Mainstreet to a far-flung alien outpost. The reddish pavement colour is even planned to make the sky seem bluer in photographs.

A special shade of ‘Go Away Green’ was developed to trick visitors into overlooking any elements that aren’t designed to be seen. Visitors immerse themselves in an alternate reality, easily rekindling make-believe (and making spending money all too easy).

The lesson here is to value the power of immersion. If brands could put half of this consideration into crafting their touchpoints — everything from the two dimensional to three dimensional — then customers can truly ‘feel’ what your brand is all about, and lose themselves in the experience you offer.

Lesson 2: Happily ever after, blending customer and business needs

No good designing the perfect theme park if the experience of visiting isn’t also near-perfect. Disney has spent a great deal of time and energy understanding how people ‘use’ their parks — and how they can turn it to their favour.

Take the iconic entrance leading up to the castle called Mainstreet USA. This is the ‘most magical’ reveal of the park, where visitors rush in at opening, and heave out at closing.

Raised on an incline, it slows the initial rush in the morning, and helps tired guests slope out in the evening. Upbeat, peppy music plays in the morning to encourage crowd dispersal, swapping to more melodic tones by the evening to encourage people to take their time and maybe do some shopping. Vents at knee level pump out savoury coffee scents in the morning to make people hungry for breakfast, switching to sweeter smells in the afternoon to trigger sugar cravings.

Mainstreet USA is a masterclass in taking existing customer behaviours and needs, and fulfilling them for mutual benefit. Disney recognises the change in behaviour along a literal customer journey (a walk up the street), and uses multi-sensory tricks to intensify need and inspire purchases. If your brand can meet customer needs right as they present themselves — and make the need feel even greater — then you’re on to a winner.

Lesson 3: You’ve got a friend in me: valuing your fans

Disney details keep die-hard fans hooked. Backstories linking rides like the Haunted Mansion to Big Thunder Railroad, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Jungle River Cruise are present only in minutiae and props. They go over the heads of most visitors; but for legions of fans that keep coming back, this detail is invaluable. It’s very geeky, but folks love to ‘decode’ the links, sustain and interrogate the back stories.

Move over QAnon — countless YouTube videos posit theories, and staff in the park ‘play along’ with guests. Some of these back stories and theories get incorporated into ‘official’ cannon — such as the latest Jungle River Cruise film.

Disney understands the value in keeping their biggest fans close to the brand. Letting them get involved in plots and gameplay makes them feel valued. It’s an extension of conventional marketing wisdom: 50% of loyalty programme members say that receiving special treatment not available to other customers is important to them.

The lesson here is to keep your best (and most vociferous) customers close, giving them priority access to things like sales and insider info to fan the flames of fandom.

Lesson 4: Be our guest, a worthwhile data exchange

From queuing to paying to carrying tickets, there are a few niggling pains that Disney has worked to diminish.

A few years ago, Disney created MagicBands. These NFC enabled wristbands enabled guests to do away with ‘real’ money and pay with a simple tap. In exchange for tracking real-time movements and spend, guests can forgo their hotel room key, park ticket, and even queuing. Everything became frictionless (and a lot easier to spend money).

Last year Disney took all the learnings from the Magic Bands to develop Disney Genie. This app aims to make every visit as ‘magic’ as possible. Using data collected and modelled over millions of visits, an AI Aladdin’s Genie presents a personalised plan of what to do and when, based on real-time and predicted crowd levels. Taking into account specific preferences, users benefit from a curated plan that’s made just for them.

The key lesson here is not only obtaining customer data with a worthwhile data value exchange but using it to the advantage of customers and commerce.

So there we go, four lessons from Mickey Mouse for marketers. I can’t promise you a happily ever after, but I hope there’s at least some magic here for you to sprinkle over your future marketing work.

Jacob Lovewell is a Senior Experience Strategist at RAPP UK

This article originally ran in Campaign in April 2022

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