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5 Invaluable Marketing Lessons Disney Movies Teach Us

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Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.” Those words can be applied to many sectors of life -- and business. But let's consider their value for one area in particular: movies, especially movies from The Walt Disney Co., which are pretty involving to, say the least.

It isn’t just the 5-and-younger set who have Disney in their dreams. In 2014, Boulder, Colo.-based startup accelerator Techstars partnered with The Walt Disney Company to create the first Disney Accelerator. The second year of the 13-week Los Angeles-based incubator kicks off this month.

For aspiring entrepreneurs with visions of media and entertainment success, the program offers a modern-day fairy tale: $120,000 per team, mentorship and a demo day in October with potential investors, all so founders can create companies centered on products and services as diverse as connected toys, mobile games and virtual reality systems. Program participants have included Codarica, which teaches kids to write code, and content marketer Sidelines.

Techstars managing director Cody Simms shed some light on what might be the happiest accelerator on Earth.

What was the impetus for the Techstars/Disney combination?

Disney approached Techstars about partnering for Disney Accelerator because they believed we had the right experience in creating industry-leading accelerators. It was clear after talking through Disney’s vision that together we could create a powerful program that helps entrepreneurs meaningfully advance their businesses.

Why does this sector need a dedicated accelerator?

This is an incredibly exciting time across the board in the media and entertainment world. Technology continues to play a more central role in how media is created, consumed and distributed. From social networks providing altogether new distribution platforms to the ubiquity of mobile devices, content is increasingly becoming more direct-to-consumer.

Outside of content, there are major sea changes underway: virtual reality, connected toys and wearables, to name a few. It all represents a huge opportunity for the media and entertainment ecosystem: for consumers who want content on demand, for entrepreneurs looking to pioneer new business models and products and for the storytellers who have new creative avenues at their disposal.

What will help a candidate stand out when applying?

First and foremost, we are looking for great founding teams with strong ideas and a clear ability to execute. Then we’re looking for companies with truly transformative ideas that can have an impact on the media and entertainment industries.

What resources are available to teams that are accepted?

Companies invited to participate in Disney Accelerator gain access to hands-on mentorship from top Disney executives including CEO Bob Iger and his staff, seasoned entrepreneurs, investors and other executives from the entertainment and technology communities.

In addition, all participants benefit from becoming part of the growing global Techstars network of more than 5,000 mentors, investors, alumni and corporate partners. The accelerator provides a dedicated Disney Accelerator working space, and each company is offered $120,000 in investment capital to help further their business.

Besides use of the Disney name, what can participants expect from an accelerator inside a for-profit company?

Participating companies receive access to resources and relationships from across The Walt Disney Company, such as The Walt Disney Studios, Disney Animation, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, ESPN, ABC, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Disney Consumer Products, Maker Studios and Disney Interactive.

How has Disney continued to support alumni from the inaugural class?

Tyffon, maker of the hugely successful ZombieBooth app series and a participant in Disney Accelerator, worked with Disney Parks and Resorts to create and launch the Show Your Disney Side photo app that allows fans to magically transform into their favorite Disney Parks characters. The product was really born out of the mentorship and connections that Disney Accelerator provided and is an innovative, shareable and unique way to bring some of the park experience to mobile phones.

Audiences certainly think so. Last week's release of Finding Dory has been eating the competition, while Disney’s global revenue hovers at $52.47 billion. Surely this entertainment behemoth has a thing or two to teach us about how to make consumers bring out those wallets and actually be happy about it.

But, there's something else about Disney movies,too: We don't realize the tons of lessons we can learn from each of those world-favorite movies Walt Disney Studios produces and which so many of us love so much.

1. Entertainment sells.

We humans crave stories. It’s almost always a pleasure when ads can entertain (about the profitability of funny ads -- that’s open for debate).

The titans of advertising always knew this, and over the course of years, many advertisements have proven to be memorable basically due to the entertainment factor that's been thrown in (sex in advertising is also a somber reminder of the effectiveness of entertainment when it comes to marketing).

Disney, at its heart, is a storyteller, It sells superheroes, action, drama and more (not to mention CDs, DVDs and branded merchandise).

Meanwhile, the marketing that most other companies deploy just, well, stinks. There’s no entertainment in many of the ads you see. There’s not even a tinge of personality. Traditional ads are just plain boring. Even online ads are no good, as Derek Thomson of The Atlantic has opined.

Companies aren't stepping up: Yahoo didn’t know what it could it do with the large audience it had. Twitter still struggles to make sense of its ever-growing user base. Facebook is catching up with advertising revenue. And Google has yet to be pushed off its throne.

So, why doesn't so much of the advertising out there work? Because there’s nothing interesting about facial creams and protein shakes unless you make it so.

But the entertainment factor can certainly help. Just ask the geniuses behind an entertaining brand like The Dollar Shave Club.

2. Long live memories.

There are things about Disney movies that make you relate to them on a personal level. If nothing else, each of these movies leaves you with the characters forever etched in your memory. Mickey Mouse is a great example of how Disney made a simple cartoon character an icon.

In all probability, the very concept of using sports mascots has in large part been directly borrowed from Disney’s mastery of brand relevance, achieved through using characters that relate to you on a personal level.

Marketers, too, do well with mascots, when they do it right. Tell me if you don’t find Mailchimp’s “Chimp” cute enough to remember the brand! And Mailchimp isn’t even close to the success of Disney. See?

3. Goal alignment and strategy.

If you would forgive me for inserting a line here about "strategy," Disney’s movies have a lot going on backstage. You'll see this if you ever visit a Disney theme park. There’s leadership excellence there, along with cohesive planning and a culture that’s hard to miss.

Customers are "guests," and jobs are "roles." Employees are "cast members," and everything they do shows you a method in the chaos. As for Disney Studios, those cast members all work hard to produce movies that enthrall, captivate, entertain and mesmerize you. It all seems like magic, but there’s sheer hard work behind every pixel that moves.

At Disney, too, everyone speaks one language. Each person has a role. The company is still a top-down operation that grants almost unlimited freedom to team members. Together, they take risks. They come up with ideas that sometimes go against the accepted flow (Marvel’s Dead Pool, anyone?).

Marketing demands integration into every other business function. For most businesses, however, marketing is just a function. It’s an afterthought -- one that comes after operations, legal, compliance and human resources.

4. Disney movies are fun.

In fun, there’s value. Disney movies take you into another world, give you a dose of the unreal in real time and make sure that you stay glued to your seats. Action, drama, emotion, animation, digital effects and sound effects are included, and 3D and 4D versions of these movies keep you engaged even more.

The movies' stories themselves are gripping tales of heroes and villains, good versus evil and even occasional self-questioning. There’s a lot that happens in a Disney movie.

As such, the movie trailers, post-movie marketing, posters, branded paraphernalia and everything else that happens before and after a Disney movie provide another round of action and drama. Not to forget the tidbits YouTube and TV entertainment shows spit out in the form of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with cast and crew and “how we did it” mini-documentaries.

Businesses, in contrast, do marketing the way they do accounting. Standard. Protocol-based. Stiff tone communication. No heart. No Soul.

While not all industries can take the liberty of “being fun,” of course, there are ways to make your marketing stand out by using both traditional and digital marketing activities.

There’s no reason for a 'boring' industry or business.

Even the most boring of industries can find ways to make their content marketing and social presence stand out. Write the way you speak; be specific; let your sense of humor show; tell your story visually. And think the way Corey Wainwright of HubSpot did when he pointed out: "I believe that marketing is made boring. Really, there’s nothing boring about making a billion dollars come inbound."

Or, as Ronnel Smith of Moz put it, “Content is only as boring as your outlook.”

Boring brands are a cop-out. Because everything is an opportunity. Disney has been able to pull off years of customers patronizing characters similar to Mickey Mouse -- and those characters should have been boring, too. But they haven't been.

Instead, Disney makes it happen. So do other companies: Apple’s iPhone isn’t boring. Land Rover’s boxy design doesn’t fail to sell. BMW’s mini should have been left forgotten in a garage by now. But that hasn't happened, right? Even after decades. There's got be some lessons there.