Marketing & Branding

Branding Lessons From Walt Disney World, Part 1: Designing the Customer Experience

Last year, during one of my family’s many trips to Walt Disney World in Florida, my dad and I took a behind-the-scenes tour of Magic Kingdom called the Keys to the Kingdom Tour. Besides exploring the utility tunnels that weave beneath Magic Kingdom, viewing Splash Mountain from behind, and entering the Haunted Mansion through an employees-only corridor (which was just as creepy and richly detailed as every other inch of that ride), I also learned a great deal about how the Magic Kingdom was designed with customers in mind.

Many months later, I encountered two business articles that, though not about Disney, seemed to fit the branding and design techniques I got a glimpse of during my Magic Kingdom tour. With those articles in mind, two takeaways from my Disney trip stood out to me the most.

Don’t underestimate the importance of designing the customer experience.

Don’t just expect your customers to visit your stores and use your products. Instead, actively design their experience so that you have some control over their perception of your brand. Kingsuk Das of the strategy firm Jump explains how companies can shape a consumer’s experience by crafting a “script” for the brand.

A script, according to Das, is basically the set of expectations we have when entering into certain experiences. We expect very little customer service from a fast-food place, but that food better be ready for us right away. On the other hand, at a sit-down restaurant, we wait much longer for our food but expect to pay extra for excellent customer service. Many companies differentiate themselves from the competition by tweaking these sets of expectations and designing a new script for their brand.

So, what story are you telling your customer? How does that story diverge from the other stories being told in your industry?

Disney World – a different kind of theme park.
Disney World – a different kind of theme park.

Disney World, at its core, is a theme park. With a theme park, you’d probably expect the script to include thrill rides, lots of walking and standing in line, overpriced food, and the heat of summer. Disney’s script is very recognizable as a theme park, but the company also twists expectations and has designed the place as something more: an entire world of fun and escapism, completely separate from real life.

Disney’s script for Magic Kingdom revolves around creating the “Most Magical Place on Earth,” a fantasy world where dreams come true. Therefore, every inch of the park is meticulously designed to make such a world come to life. Disney has used various tricks to achieve such results, and also insists on firm employee policies so as not to “ruin the magic” for visitors. Here are some examples, culled from my Magic Kingdom tour:

  • Draw the consumer’s eye to the main event. A combination of forced perspective and angling Main Street USA slightly uphill makes the focal point of Cinderella’s Castle seem larger and grander. Main Street’s design also slows down all the kids trying to run (uphill) toward the rides when the park opens in the morning, and makes it a little easier to walk back to the exit when you’re exhausted after a long day.
  • Main Street Bakery
    The smell of cake is a lie!

    Use industry tricks to enrich the customer’s environment. The bakery, one of the many shops on Main Street, always smells heavenly as you walk by. That smell, however, is actually a manufactured aroma pumped over Main Street to entice tourists to come inside. (The waft of cooking hot dogs from Casey’s Corner is real, though!)

  • Keep behind-the-scenes work … behind the scenes. The Utilidors, Disney’s underground service tunnels, allow employees to travel between the different “lands” of Magic Kingdom without disrupting the experience for consumers — so that a Tomorrowland employee doesn’t end up in 1800s-themed Frontierland, for instance. Deliveries, ride operations, and many administrative services are also handled in the Utilidors, so that customers are less likely to see anything that clashes with Disney’s magical-world script.

How do other companies do it? Apple’s pristine, white-washed stores adhere to a script that stands out from competitors. As Das describes, “Apple has created something very different from the cold, ‘hands-off’ nature of traditional high-end stores, while avoiding the clutter of a warehouse store like Best Buy.” And Starbucks’s coffee-shop script extends to the cozy design of its stores as well as to the pseudo-Italian names of its drinks.

What other companies have you encountered where you feel that the script is markedly different than its competitors’? Do you think that it’s given the company an edge in the industry? How else does Disney World challenge your expectations for a theme park?

Stay tuned for the second lesson we can learn from Disney World, coming this afternoon in Part 2!