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Three Branding Lessons from Disney

Earlier this spring, I was fortunate enough to spend 18 hours on a bus filled with teenagers as I accompanied my wife, a school band director, on her band’s trip to Disney. Truth be told, the bus ride went incredibly well, and after 4 movies, half a book, and a few mildly uncomfortable bus seat naps, our group arrived at “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

My wife, Abby, and me on Main Street, USA

Now, I’d been to Disney once before (ironically enough on MY high school band trip) so I had some idea of what to expect, but I was incredibly excited to view the massive operation that is Disney through more mature eyes, eyes that are now honed for design, marketing, and brand messaging. It’s a designer’s curse to notice poor kerning on menus, or be irrationally angry at the sloppy ampersand on a shop sign, but this is DISNEY we’re talking about. They’re commonly regarded as the definitive authority on crafting immersive experiences, and when you start paying attention to the details, it’s easy to see why.

A wall outside a storefront in Tibet at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Between the stonework, the hand-painted Coke ad, and the bicycle, the sense of place was very well established.


A sign from the queue for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The font selection, border style, and colors all call back to late-19th signage.


With that in mind, I did my best to keep my branding brain at least somewhat engaged and came away with three big lessons that I think most organizations can apply to their own marketing and messaging practices.


Lesson 1: Every Employee is a Brand Ambassador
Whether talking to a custodial worker or Cinderella herself, we were met with the same warm, welcoming, and cheerful demeanor. Little girls were consistently addressed as “Princess” by cast members, and even the most disgruntled guest was greeted with a smile. Disney’s staff of thousands all work together to create the magical atmosphere at the parks.

People are the cornerstone of any business, and without unity within your staff, customers may get a different impression of your company’s identity, depending on who they talk to on a particular day. Mottos, mission statements, core values, and other defined attributes of your company’s identity should be coherent, understandable, and easily relatable (if you haven’t defined those, we can help!). And they should be made very clear to your employees. Ensuring that your staff communicates the message behind your company accurately and with consistency is essential to building a strong brand reputation.


Lesson 2: Even Minor Lapses in Consistency Can Break You
Part of the fun of examining Disney from a design perspective was seeking out any lapses in their efforts, any cracks that revealed anything less-than-magical behind the candy-coated facade. From the moment I set foot on the property to when the busses rolled out of the lot for the final time, there was only ONE moment where my mind was pulled out of the illusion.

Imagine: you’re aboard a space station, walking through its corridors on your way to your shuttle, bound for new adventures in the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Out of the portholes, you spot a planet drifting by in the distance, a shooting star or two, and a galaxy, slowly spinning in the background.

You enter the loading dock, bathed in cool blue neon, and the stars lazily pass overhead. Up until this point, the designers of Space Mountain have you utterly convinced that everything you’ve experienced is authentic.

Then you turn the corner, and are greeted with this:



A brightly lit, bare concrete hallway, with only the faintest attempt at theming . Oh, right, we’re in Orlando, not Alpha Centauri! Then you immediately board the train, illusion broken, and take a thrilling two-minute ride through the dark. It’s still fun, but it’s just not the same.

In a similar vein, you can be doing many things right, but all it takes is one poorly executed advertising campaign, a hasty rebranding, or even a simple website outage to severely alter a customer’s perception of your company. It’s crucial that every piece that defines your brand – text, image, website, printed materials, etc – is working together to maintain a coherent and consistent identity. Unfortunately, people remember lapses more than they remember successes.


Lesson 3: Even the Most Serious Adults Appreciate a Little Magic
The other guests at Disney were surprisingly varied; the crowd wasn’t exclusively families with young children. While waiting in line for several rides, we ran into countless adults who were having as much fun as the kids around them: newlyweds on their honeymoon, business executives taking a break from a conference, older couples on vacation – people who, outside of Disney, might have trouble wearing mouse ears. But everyone, whether a dentist, a welder, or a dog groomer, can appreciate a bit of humor and fun in their too-serious lives.

The ability to loosen the reigns a bit and have some fun with your brand can have incredibly positive results. You might be a major manufacturer of industrial equipment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pretend to be a spy agency for a day (seriously, we did this for a client). Injecting a bit of whimsy into your branding can bring a new energy to an otherwise static brand.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The people working behind the scenes at Disney’s parks are some of the most talented creatives on the planet, and studying their work can lead to some valuable insights from which everyone can benefit. In the meantime, I returned from my vacation relaxed and refreshed (yes, even after another 18 hours on a bus full of teenagers) and eager to get back to doing great work for our clients.