Brand Management Hurdles: Mary Tomlinson Interview

Hummingbird CreativeBranding & Creative

Mary Tomlinson, former Director of the Disney Institute - Hummingbird Creative Group
Hummingbird Creative Group’s CEO, Wendy Coulter, and VP of Operations, Dan Gregory, recently interviewed Mary Tomlinson, former Director of the Disney Institute regarding brand management hurdles faced there.

Wendy: “We are here this morning with Mary Tomlinson, former Director of the Disney Institute. We wanted to talk with you about brand management hurdles you faced. Please give us a little bit of background on the Disney Institute and the brand history.”

Mary: “There’s an area within Disney that was kind of a lakeside area. It had 585 villas, and they built a performance center and a spa. They built classrooms and decided that this would be a whole new way to approach the way people did vacations. The goal was really to attract more of a non-family market, or families with children over 12, so that you could come and literally stay in this community. You could walk to everything, and you could decide if you were going to take multiple classes throughout the day. So, you might take photography in the morning, culinary at lunch, horticulture in the afternoon, a lecture in the evening, or go to a movie in the movie theater. So, it was this whole concept that he believed could attract a whole new market to Disney.”

Dan: “So, it sounds like he was really approaching a completely different market, which always challenges a brand.”

Mary: “Yes.”

Wendy: It sounds like he found a beautiful neighborhood that led to a really great idea. That is so easy to get on board with right?”

Mary: “Well, the facility was gorgeous. You know, Disney does everything with quality and excellence, so it was wonderful. There were 800 employees there that managed the facility and taught the classes, and the people were fabulous. The facility was fabulous, so getting on board was easy for those of us who thought it would extend our market reach. Then, challenges started to pop up. One is the market we were trying to reach, these non-families, looked at our marketing materials and thinking it looks great, but this is at Disney World, so how can you take learning seriously? I think there’s going to be kids running around everywhere. There’s going to be Mickey Mouse everywhere. So, we don’t see this being sophisticated enough, or intellectually stimulating enough. They thought it was going to be too “Disney”. That was part of our challenge with the external audience. Internally, there was a lot of consternation about Disney even being in this business. Michael was a visionary, but there were many within the organization who felt that we were not about learning and intellectual dialogue. They believed we should only be about fantasy. When I went to run the Disney Institute, I found lots of adjustments from the Disney brand. For example, I was hiring PBS types, not necessarily Disney types. That’s the type of people we needed. I found that in order for us to really legitimize this intellectual dialogue, we needed to do conferences that were intellectually challenging. If it were there today, we would be doing a political conference. We would be having hard dialogue like conferences on cancer at the time. Well, as you can imagine, this gave a lot of the true Disney folks the heebie-jeebies, because their philosophy was all about the fantasy and getting away from the real world. They didn’t want to be the real world. So from a branding perspective, both with internal and external, there were huge challenges in trying to get this business up and going and really delivering on the original vision.”

Dan: “I could see from an operational perspective, getting that message across to housekeeping or the traditional operational areas, required a lot of communicating. Were there specific things or a specific thing that was powerful in helping people to bridge that Disney-learning gap?”

Mary: “Well as the leader you really have to be very inspirational in telling the heritage story. How we came to be, communicating the vision of what we want to be and communicating about people who have come and taken the classes and programs and what they said about it. How they loved it really helped them understand that this was kind of a culture within a culture and how could we maintain the Disney standards of excellence and customer service. At the same time it related to learning and it related to the sophistication of what we were trying to do and the type of people that we were serving. So much of understanding your culture and your branding gets back to, “Who are your customers and what is important to them? What are you trying to create with the environment for them?” So as we would talk, we had lots of fun things I did to really connect with people. I did a “Day in the Life” program. I was a housekeeper for a day and I would show up at 7 o’clock when they were getting ready. I would get my costume and I would be with them and understand their world. By doing that throughout the whole resort, I had the opportunity to connect with them and be able to communicate what we were trying to do and how it truly was Disney. However, we were doing something different and unique that no one else was doing. So when you get the right people to get excited about that, they just deliver. I mean, we were able to double the operating income to $65M in two years. It really was a growing success externally.”

Wendy: So when you think of the Disney Institute brand and you talked about some of the internal challenges that you saw as that nuance of that shift came out, what about the indicators, or the things that you looked to that said, “We’re on task. Our brand is really resonating. We may have some internal stuff going on, but how do we know that we are really hitting our stride as far as communicating and externally delivering that brand?”

Mary: For us it was mostly about occupancy, attendance at the programming, focus-groups done before and after and talking to our customers, so they were starting to get it. We started to be advocates and tell others, so business itself attracting the target audience that was articulated was really starting to work. We could see that grow because it was a new market. At that time, although Disney has done a lot of work since then on market segmentation, their property was 43 square miles. So a lot of what they’ve done with their target segmentation is, “If you are a young couple with no children, what are the menu of items that would be fun for you at Disney? We’ll market those to you. If you are a family with young children, what is the menu of items that we will market to you? Etc., etc.” So, being able to start to grow a market of these young singles at the Disney Institute, which was the target audience we were trying to reach, was our main metric. A lot of guest satisfaction surveys were done as Disney does a lot of surveys, so we knew we were really starting to connect and obviously the profit margins tell you whether it’s working or not. So much of what we were trying to do was just kind of being held back with the concern that, “Do we want to be known for Disney hosting a cancer conference?” I understand that hesitation, but if you’re truly going to live out the brand then you can’t sanitize it. If you sanitize it too much, then the audience coming in will feel, “This is Disney sanitized. You say you’re really about creative inquiry and dialogue, but only if it’s happy subjects.”

Mary: “The internal doubts and concerns never really went away. Long story short, as Michael Eisner began to exit the organization, the ideas started to die, and there just wasn’t the support to continue to do this because it was so different. So I think as it related to branding, whenever you expand your brand and you evolve your brand, understanding the challenges and taking it very seriously were critical. This was one of those situations that I think a visionary helped initiate, but because of the lack of internal support and that was on the edge of what Disney could do, ultimately they decided it wasn’t a business that they wanted to be in. Ironically, they took the property and the villas and turned them into Disney Timeshare, which is a big money-maker and it was an easy conversion for them, so that’s ultimately what happened to this brand.

Wendy: Was the timeshare as successful as the Institute?

Mary: More so. That is a very high-revenue organization. The interesting thing they did for the Disney Institute, because you’ll still see the Disney Institute name out there today, is as part of the evolution of the brand, they had all this vacation programming, all those fun things to do. They also brought over the professional programming so all the programming was together, and the professional programming came from the Disney University. These are classes that are taught to professionals around the world. We call it the Disney Approach Series: The Disney Approach to Quality Service, The Disney Approach to Leadership, The Disney Approach to Creativity and Innovation. So, organizations would send professionals to Disney to say, “How do you do that?” and they would take them behind the scenes and they would talk to them about how they did that particular thing. So they closed the Disney Institute as a community, they got rid of all of the vacation programming, but they kept the professional development programming and still offer it today. It is now under the banner of the Disney Institute and they market those. So today, all of those programs are under the banner of the Disney Institute and they will not only host a group at any of our hotels and teach the programs in the convention facilities, but today they will also go out to companies and teach them. So, you’ll hear the Disney Institute name, but it is a much different product than what it was originally.

Wendy: Can you talk about the evolution of the brand a little bit more in terms of Disney Institute and as the internal shifted and they got rid of the property, you were doing more through different kinds of programming. Has the internal culture changed and embraced it more, is the lack of visionary leadership still struggling along, where are things today?

Mary: The Disney Institute paired down to only professional development programs that are teaching people the Disney way is much more accepted internally, right? “We’re going to teach people the Disney approach to customer service. Disney’s well known for that, that’s safe. We’re talking about what we do well, helping others understand how Disney hardwires it all, how they are successful.” So, that’s not going into unknown territory. So, all of those programs are a part of who Disney is, how they’re teaching others about it, so it’s safe because it’s kind of in the wheelhouse of what they do. It’s one little offering that can be offered to a convention coming on site, or to organizations around the world as they come and they learn. The only bumpy tension was when the Disney Institute professional development programs said, “We’d like to go in the tunnel. We’d like to go behind the scenes. “We don’t know if we want people to see that…” Yes you can go there, and so how do we make sure that it’s appropriate, because what you would not want to have happen is to see Mickey Mouse without his head. Ok, we have to be really careful about those things. That was the only, “How are we going to walk through this?” As you can imagine, there are people on both sides of that table that were very passionate about their point of view of, “We have to show it. This is part of who we are” to “We can’t possibly show it. That’s not who we are.” So, that was the only tension, but I think they have figured out the safest paths to go around, behind the scenes, to be transparent to a level that says “Disney doesn’t always get it right” but not beyond a comfort level of “Oh my goodness, this could really ruin people’s perception of Disney.

Branding Trends

Wendy: So, what kind of branding trends do you see today?

Mary: With the organizations that I work with, it still makes me laugh when I ask, “Who is your audience?”, they say “Everyone” and how ineffective that is. That’s just kind of a constant trend. What I’m seeing now is because of the differences in the generations, how uniquely defined they are, having organizations really zero in on who their audience is and both the wonder of Gen X and millennials and Gen Z, and the absolute confusion on who are they? What do they want? How do I talk to them? Most of the work I do is on brand strategy development, but when you talk about implementing and initiatives, all the social media and all the different ways to effectively reach your target audience today, it is a huge new challenge.

How to reach each of the generations in a way that will speak to them, I see as a huge challenge. I am so appreciative of those that really understand the tactical executions for millennials and X because it’s different. I think it’ll be interesting as we continue to watch on a worldwide basis what is happening, how people are feeling. Obviously, domestically with all the differences that people are going through, how they feel about the products that they’re buying, what they need, what will differentiate one from another. I think that will continue to be. For so many of the organizations that I work with, they have a base of customers that they want more of. I think that is great, but how are you treating the base, and how can you help them be even more loyal to you? I think that’s just really key, versus trying to go out and get new all the time.

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