How Disney Creates Fantasy Through Story

Jerome ConlonJune 17, 20207674 min

Innovation should be a top priority for every organization, and today I want to shine a light on one of the most innovative and creative leaders in business history, Walt Disney. Could you learn anything from Disney? Nike CEO Phil Knight thought so, and while I was the Director of Brand Planning and Marketing Insights at Nike, he directed me to study Disney’s business practices to see if we could discover anything of use to us.

Disney built a media and entertainment company that stands today as one of the world’s most powerful, one that has won more Academy Awards than any other in history, created a cinematic art form, and also invented a new kind of American vacation destination. Disney’s work counts adoring fans on every continent, but also critics who have decried its smooth façade of sentimentality and stubborn optimism, and its feel-good re-write of American history.

Dream. Inspire. Execute.

Walt Disney’s initial experience and expertise was in making cartoons, and although he later created Disneyland, he was not trained as a theme park designer, social architect, or civil engineer. But he was a creative visionary, a soulful leader, and dreamer who challenged his teams to stretch towards new forms of entertainment, creating in the process an entertainment brand unlike anything that had come before.

Disney’s vision was also his personal quest to create fantasy worlds that made people happy by entertaining them in funny, compelling, and heartfelt ways. He developed characters with pathos and heart so audiences would develop a deep interest in the dramatic outcomes of his stories, and after many years of cartoon making, he came to understand that he wanted his company and trademark to become known as “The Premiere Storytelling Entertainer.” He never lost sight of this vision as the Disney Company expanded and evolved over many decades.

Walt Disney, the brand visionary, created a compelling future for his company and for the entire entertainment industry by guarding and guiding what Walt Disney Presents would come to mean in defining a brand of fun, family entertainment. He used his storytelling genius to inspire people to join him in fulfilling his dreams.

The Disney organization created many innovations in storytelling and film production, which included new animation techniques to achieve greater realism, a unique artistic style, storytelling ingenuity through the invention of storyboards, stop motion photography as an aid to animation, and the Disney studio was the first to match sound to movies.

He established artistic quality standards and a scientific approach to animation, and created a new university to teach those techniques. The Disney organization invented Technicolor so that cartoons could be seen in color, and invented countless, wonderful stories and characters, all toward the end of “making people happy.”

An Inspiration Quest

About twenty-five years after he founded Walt Disney Studios, Disney realized that he needed to diversify the company, and his search for inspiration took him all over the world. Disneyland itself was largely inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and through his studies he gradually came to understand that his goal was “to create a living, ever-changing entertainment.” Later, while on a South American goodwill tour during World War II, he found the inspiration for the Disneyland feature rides Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise, and the Tiki Room, and his personal fascination and hobby with quarter-scale model trains also led to several theme park rides.

Disney pioneered the use of storyboards as a technique to set the direction of a feature length cartoon, and he designed and directed the development of Disneyland using the storyboard, through which he was able to communicate the essential nature of the kind of theme park he wanted to build.

A key insight behind Disney’s remarkable genius was revealed a few days before he died in December 1966. His last piece of business advice, delivered to a few animators from his hospital bed was, “Get the story. The story’s the most important thing. Once you’ve got the story then everything else will fall into place.

The same thing applies, of course, to storytellers in all media, which includes those who create, develop, and manage online brands, for a brand in one important respect is nothing more than a story told to entertain, entice, and engage.

These core ideas and others can be found in my latest book The Brand Bridge – How to Build a Profound Connection Between Your Company, Your Brand, and Your Customers.

At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive at critical moments of change through online strategy workshops. Please email us for more about our storytelling workshops.

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