Brand Stories – Disney Marketing drives them with Brand Stories

Disney has always been a story teller.   They develop storylines that connect with the consumer and then develop the products, relationships, and community around that storyline.  Many companies find that Brand Stories are very important to connecting with their consumers…so is this a right strategy for you?   Every company needs to analyze and evaluate how they connect with their consumers, but the entertainment industry is often driven by creating a brand story that connects with an audience, and then they expand the reach of that brand story through other channels, products, and licenses.  


Marketers are often told that storytelling is the key to branding. That your brand needs a story in order to give your products context, meaning, and emotion. The concept of “content marketing” often gets thrown into the argument since it’s such a good instrument for storytelling. Some marketers buy it, others don’t. Well, I had an epiphany today that I believe proves that a compelling brand story increases revenue. And it was inspired by Disney.

Disney tells stories first, develops and sells products second. 

As you may have read recently, Disney has refocused on its core movie franchises under the leadership of CEO Robert Iger. The company has created business groups each focusing on a different franchise – e.g. “Frozen,” “Star Wars,” and “Marvel.” These business groups are responsible for extending the movies into merchandising and experiential opportunities to maximize revenue. From theme park rides to action figures to pajamas to everything in-between.

Disney profits are up 22% in 2014 YOY, revenue up 8%, and Michael Nathanson, senior research analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC, even said:

Some on Wall Street no longer see Disney as a media company and see it more as a global consumer-products company like Nike.

And that’s when it hit me.

Disney’s “content marketing” strategy goes in reverse compared to most brands. Meaning, where most brands start with a physical product and then build a story around it in the form of “content marketing,” companies like Disney do exactly the opposite. They create a brand story – a movie – and then build products around that story.

The concept of “content marketing” may even be the wrong way to think about it.

Is the Elsa doll any less “Frozen” than “Frozen”?

When we see an Elsa doll on the toy store shelf, how should we as marketers define it? Is it a product? A brand experience? Proof of a brand idea? Just a way for the company to make more money?

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Yes to all four. But this product/experience/profit center in the shape of a doll came after the content, or the brand story, not before.

Imagine if “Frozen,” the movie, never existed. And a toy maker came up with the idea of an ice princess doll named Elsa. What would most marketers and ad agencies recommend that the toy maker do to increase sales?

We’d build awareness through advertising (she comes with a wand!). We’d get the doll integrated into some children’s TV shows. We’d have a web site where kids could talk to her maybe and see where she lives. We might even recommend some “content marketing” in the form of a few short films about her posted to her own YouTube Channel.

The YouTube channel would be the extent of our “content marketing” strategy. And it might work pretty well.

But it would be no Elsa as we now know her from the movie “Frozen.”

Frozen is much more than a movie.  (Photo credit: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Content marketing’ sounds like a spoke in the branding wheel. This is bigger.

Isn’t it incredible just how “integrated” most movie franchises’ brands are? I mean, the brand manifestations are laser focused, very creative, and always help their audiences experience the “brand story” in a fresh new way. Roller coasters, video games, bed spreads, action figures, TV shows, it goes on and on. Tight as a drum.

What Disney and most other movie companies are unintentionally demonstrating to us is that “content” should not be thought of as a spoke in the branding wheel. Content is what happens when you have a brand story. And in that brand story is the brand’s idea, the brand’s attitude, and the brand’s point of view of the world.

When a brand has a powerful storyline – in the case of Disney it’s in the form of a literal storyline, a movie – products beg to be invented, experiences naturally want to happen, and the right employees for the brand suddenly appear. Like the “merchandising” of a movie, everything just falls into place.

No, it’s not a small “content marketing” strategy. It’s simply a powerful brand story expressing itself in many different ways that are natural to that brand.

Why should Disney have all the fun?

If Disney can create an epic storyline and then express it with corresponding products and experiences, why can’t our products and experiences be expressions of our own epic storyline?

Think about it. Your products could be central characters. Your employees would live and work to propel the storyline. Your advertising campaigns would be overt representations of the story. Everything that is your company would be rethought using the filter of your brand’s epic story.

I’m not saying every brand needs a movie. But I am saying every brand needs a story.

Nike’s story is one about determination and drive in the sports arena. UPS is a story about efficiency, and their obsession with it. Coke’s story is about happiness and its small role in perpetuating that emotion around the world.

When it occurred to me that movie companies like Disney start with a story and reverse engineer products out of that story, I was inspired. As marketers perhaps without compelling stories, we have to do the reverse: look at everything our company is today and reverse engineer a compelling brand story around it. Maybe even kill off some “characters” that no longer move our brand story forward.

This kind of reverse engineering is what the best advertising agencies do for a living. They build stories for brands that rationalize all past company behavior. Because it’s more than just advertising, it’s everything your company believes, makes, does, and says.

I’ll leave you with a test. If your brand story were, in fact, a Disney movie, would you go see it?

Will Burns is CEO of Ideasicle. Follow him on Twitter @WillOBurns.




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