For decades, The Walt Disney Company was a peerless leader in brand development and management. Long before business schools had even defined such concepts, Walt Disney knew that there was Walt Disney, the man, and "Walt Disney" the concept.
Disneyland may be best known as a "theme park," but in essence it was conceived a brand experience. Even if attractions and themed lands like Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrowland weren't based on a specific movie, TV show or "entertainment property" (as the phrase is known today), they defined Disney simply by being part of the experience. Prior to their appearance at Disneyland, no pirates had sailed the seven seas in a Disney movie, 999 "happy haunts" were not part of a pre-existing TV series. But because they were created and brought to life by Disney, they became Disney.
Likewise, when he introduced the concept of EPCOT to the world two months before his death, Walt Disney had never revealed publicly his fascination with urban planning and design, transportation technology and sociological issues. But as soon as Walt Disney talked about EPCOT, it, too, became Disney.
When the EPCOT Center theme park finally opened 16 years after Walt's death, it wasn't easy to see how it correlated to his final dream. It was filled with rides, shows and attractions, and even if they weren't the "city of tomorrow" Walt once promised, they were identifiably Disney. They took everything his organization had perfected in the previous five decades and combined them in a way that had never been seen before. The dinosaurs of the Universe of Energy, the dramatic storytelling of Spaceship Earth, the silly inhabitants of the World of Motion, the Dreamfinder and Figment ... all of these things were unfamiliar and new, yet unmistakably Disney.
Disney used to be in charge of its brand, used to revel in the unspoken message that it could define itself any way it wanted to do so. The moment something was created by Disney artists, it became Disney.
Where, then, did Disney lose the ability to define itself?
When did Disney change from being in the creativity business to being in the "brand-management" business?
There can be fewer better (or worse, if you prefer) examples of this than EPCOT Center.
From 1978 to 1982, Disney embarked on a massive marketing and publicity blitz to ensure that every American (for these were, by and large, the days before instantaneous, international communication) knew that "Disney" was now defined by the concept called "EPCOT." Anyone with any awareness of entertainment and popular culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s knew that EPCOT was the newest Disney creation ... even if they didn't quite know what it was.
Viewed from the perspective of today's (ahem) more enlightened marketing perspectives, what Disney did would be seemingly impossible today. The company that was known for lame comedies starring Don Knotts and Dean Jones was dominating the news with a bold message that everything you knew about Disney before would have to be rethought. Disney didn't just mean pixie dust and cartoons, it meant something unexpected, bold and totally out of the ordinary.
That's one of the reasons that it's so disappointing to walk through EPC--, um, Epcot today. Later this month, Disney will introduce a new "Kim Possible" activity at Epcot's World Showcase. Instead of learning about other cultures, sampling their wares and cuisine, and experiencing the underlying message that we're all in this together, Epcot guests can take active part in a commercial for a Disney cartoon. World Showcase just happens to be a great spot for this kind of "synergistic" brand enhancement.
Already, we've seen the Three Caballeros become the representatives of thousands of years of Mexican culture; a journey through the history of this awesome civilization has become a great way to sell some more Donald Duck plush toys.
And, of course, we've seen the awesome mysteries of the oceans that surround us become a tune-filled, happy ride through Nemo's undersea home, with the other high point of Epcot's Living Seas pavilion being a chat with a cartoon turtle, while the real ones go more or less unheralded.
EPCOT Center once "branded" Disney as a remarkable organization that created theme parks unlike any other in the world, with extraordinarily detailed experiences that surrounded guests with truly three-dimensional sets, "actors" and spectacle, that brought a sense of story, purpose and theme to previously unimagined heights.
Had that EPCOT Center concept been allowed to flourish, grow and change, with an eye toward maintaining the notion that "Disney" did not need to be narrowly defined as "benign entertainment for children," it could have been extraordinary.
EPCOT once had a remarkable brand, one that could have been further explored and developed and turned into something that could stand alongside "Disney" as meaning the best that imagination has to offer.
Now, EPCOT is just a meaningless word within the "Disney" brand, and all of its promise and hope have been drained. As a brand opportunity, is has been squandered. It's just 162 acres of staging ground for "brand managers" to play in ... even as they ignore the very concept of what a "brand" actually is. Or could be.