He may have died more than 50 years ago, but Walt Disney’s legacy continues to provide present-day lessons on how to build and run a successful brand.
The Disney® brand may be known for it’s squeaky-clean image and monopoly-like hold on all things magical, but there’s a lot more we all have in common with Walt than may be apparent at first glance. After all, he built the iconic brand from nothing and he certainly failed more than he succeeded in the beginning.
Below are 10 lessons we can each personally learn from Mickey’s creator and implement into our daily grind.
1. You must love what you are doing so that you’ll want to hone your craft. Walt drew illustrations during any free time he had. He spent his nights after school at the Kansas City Art Institute, and later at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago. “Then after I’d been there for a while, I went into technique and studied cartoon technique.”
2. Never give up on something you truly believe in doing. As a teenager in 1916, the live-action silent film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs caught his eye. He was determined to one day release it in a brand new, re-imagined way. He eventually released it as his studio’s first full-length feature film in 1937.
When he released Mary Poppins, it became an instant classic and won 2 oscars. But securing the rights to the beloved character was anything but easy, as can be seen in the film Saving Mr. Banks. Once he received the green light, “he was determined to use every trick and technique his staff had learned in its first forty years.”
3. Never set out to copy what others are doing, set out to do something new. During the 1920s many animation studios were experimenting with placing illustrations in real-live settings. Walt flipped the script with his Alice cartoons. “I was thinking, if I had something novel, instead of parroting the other cartoons, I might crack the market. I’ll take a real person and put them into the drawing.” In 1924 he premiered Alice’s Wonderland and began to make his mark in the world of animation.
4. Have personality! Mickey Mouse was born by Walt on a fateful train ride headed back to California after a devastating meeting in New York. Mickey was the “first cartoon character to stress personality – and I thought of him from the first as a distinct individual. Mickey was simply a little personality assigned to the purposes of laughter.” Walt was so clear on his vision for the mouse that in order to get the image just the way he imagined it he did the voice himself.
In 1937 he released his long-imagined version of Snow White. “The seven dwarfs were natural for the medium. In them, we could instill boundless humor, not only as to their physical appearances, but in their mannerisms, personalities, voices and actions.”
5. Connect with your audience. In 1950 Walt struck a deal with television network heavyweight ABC to have a weekly Sunday night feature, allowing him to promote films like Alice in Wonderland and the unveiling of Disneyland. During the mid-1950s his passions went from 2-D animation to creating 3-D worlds for people to come and experience for themselves and escape their day-to-day lives.
6. Partner with people who do what you can’t. Walt admittedly couldn’t do what he did without his team, namely his brother Roy Disney, who secured funding for all projects, including Disneyland. For all the talent Walt provided in the department of imagination, Roy provided the logistical know-how.
If Walt could dream it, Roy would figure out how to build it. “I had a little dream of Disneyland adjoining the studio. Whenever I’d talk to my brother about it, he’d suddenly get busy with some figures.”
7. Create a community and grow with it. As is true with any business, it’s all about making connections. In 1929, a year after Walt debuted Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, the Mickey Mouse Club met on Saturdays in local cinemas. In 1955, with his ability to broadcast directly to living rooms across the country on ABC, Walt brought the club back in a big way.
He hosted the daily Mickey Mouse Club show surrounded by everyday, ordinary kids. In the 1990s the club was brought back as the MMC, featuring future super stars Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Keri Russell, and Ryan Gosling.
Creating communities was always important to Walt. He discussed his dreams of creating EPCOT – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – in the 1960s. He wanted it to “always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”
In 1982, after his death, EPCOT opened in Orlando, FL. Following his dream for connecting people and ideas on a grand scale, the D23 community was created in 2009 as the Official Disney Fan Community, in celebration of the dream that was created in 1923. With this century’s social media and global reach this community allows fans of the brand to connect with one another, share information and memories, and so much more.
8. Don’t let challenges/setbacks stop you, let them inspire you. One of Walt’s first commercial successes was Oswald, the rabbit. Unfortunately, during a meeting in New York he learned that certain contract loopholes allowed the studio he partnered with to take over complete ownership of his work, as well as control over his artists. Walt lost it all.
Rather than throw in the towel, a bruised and battered Walt took that fateful train ride back to California. It was on that ride that he imagined his most lucrative creation to date – Mickey Mouse. After the success of his animated adaptation of Snow White, he used the profits to build his own studio.
“2 years later I was almost broke, haha, but had all these pictures in the works – Pinnochio, Bambi, Fantasia and then the war came… so many of my [artists] went into the service… so I stopped feature production, it’s all I could do.” However, never one to slow down, the halt on his animated films forced Walt to diversify into live action film.
9. Do something to help others, not yourself. Throughout the parks, whenever an area is under construction, there are signs posted around the grounds with inspirational quotes from Walt, showcasing his fundamental beliefs. Walt was a man who believed in standing in his principles and used them to guide each of his creations.
“You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them.” When he was building Disney World he explained, “Everything in this room may change time & time again as we move ahead, but the basic philosophy of what we’re planning for Disney World is going to remain very much as it is right now. We know what are goals are, we know what we hope to accomplish…. after 40 some odd years in the business, my greatest reward I think is that I’m happy the public appreciate and accept what I’ve done all these years.”
10. Make time to live (and learn). When Walt was 30 years old he had what he described as, “a heck of a breakdown.” He and his wife took their very first vacation (he was 31 years old). He came back relaxed, re-energized, and ready to work.
The biggest lesson we can all learn is that your path is truly limitless. When you hit bumps in the road don’t give up, but don’t keep pushing either. Taking time to be re-inspired and allowing yourself to re-imagine things is crucial.
Walt Disney didn’t start out as an animator who wanted to build one of, if not the, biggest brands in the world. He just wanted to carve out his own niche in the world of animation. He continued to dream big and to stay open to new ways of doing things.
There was never a question of if, only a question of when. He knew what his strengths were and pulled others in to fill in the areas he wasn’t strong in, like securing funding, so he could focus on his job.
So what have been some of your ah-ha moments? How did you take those moments and grow from them? Tell us in the comments below!