Marketing & Branding

Branding Lessons From Walt Disney World, Part 2: Taking Cues From Theater

In part 1, I discussed how Disney World actively designs the customer experience, thereby elevating its “script” above those of its competitors. My second takeaway from Disney’s Florida theme park is related, but also worth mentioning on its own.

Take your cues from theater and cinema.

Theater and cinema are all about creating worlds for an audience. And if Disney World is about anything, it’s about immersing its customers in the varied fantasy worlds the theme park offers — an element very important to the brand’s script. No matter the script, though, the consumer’s very first impression of any brand is going to have a huge impact on his or her overall experience.

Paul Valerio of the design firm Method compares a customer’s first brand experience to the overture of a musical or the opening sequence of a film. An overture sets the tone of a show. The sampling of various upcoming songs gives the audience a sense of the mood and structure of the production, priming the audience members for what comes next.

Here comes Disney World! Get excited!
Here comes Disney World! Get excited!

The opening sequence of a film often accomplishes the same thing. Valerio’s example,Raiders of the Lost Ark, opens with a fairly long jungle sequence that has little to do with the rest of the film. But the sequence acts as an indicator of what this movie is going to be: a fast-paced adventure inspired by B-movie serials from the 1930s and ‘40s. As Valerio puts it, “Once the entire audience has been on that wonderful opening ride, they are all on the same thematic page, no matter how they entered the theater.” Such is the goal of a brand overture: to prime your customers for what comes next.

So, what tone or style establishes a customer’s first impression of your brand? How do you get consumers to pay attention and prepare them to experience all you have to offer?

Disney’s theme parks are highly influenced by theater, including the idea of an overture. Here are some elements of Disney’s branding to consider:

  • The Railroad Station hides the castle from view.
    The Railroad Station hides the castle from view.

    Thoughtfully design the entrance to your company’s physical and/or virtual storefront. As you approach Magic Kingdom from the parking lot or bus stop, you can’t see a thing: trees and other greenery mask what’s lying beyond the entrance. Even as you pass through the ticket turnstiles, all you see is the Railroad Station overhead. These design choices are deliberate, so that once you do enter the park, you finally turn the corner, and BAM — there stands the castle in all her glory. Just as a camera forces you to watch scenes in a certain order on film, the Magic Kingdom is specifically designed so that you enjoy the entrance the way Disney wants you to, leaving you excited and in the mood to experience more.

  • Invest your employees in the idea. Disney also reinforces the theater idea among its employees. All workers are called Cast Members; everyone wears costumes, not uniforms. Additionally, Disney strictly enforces that Cast Members stay in character while “on stage” — that is, in the park with guests — so as to maintain the suspension of disbelief.

How do other companies do it? Valerio uses IKEA as an example of a retail overture: “At the front door, there are paper tape measures, shopping lists, and pencils. What’s the message? You are going to be doing most of the work here yourself, and there’s so much stuff to see, you’re going to need to take notes.” Valerio also mentions West Coast fast-food chain In-N-Out, where details such as an open kitchen clue customers in to the food’s freshness and why it takes a little longer to complete an order.

So what can we learn from all this? In short, pay attention to what story your brand conveys to your customers, and look to film and theater for inspiration. You probably don’t have the endless resources available to Disney, but don’t let that stop you: even just how you design your website conveys the tone and story of your brand. But if you want to see how the experts do it, go to Disney World! And take your family with you! You won’t regret it.

Can you think of any other stores or websites that use an overture to influence your perception of the brand? Do you see overtures in other areas of Disney World, such as EPCOT or Hollywood Studios? Most importantly, what’s your favorite ride at Disney?

Image credit to knight0323 and daryl_mitchell.