Nick Westergaard

By Nick Westergaard on June 13, 2011

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8 Innovation Lessons from Walt Disney

Vacations allow you to recharge your batteries — both personally and professionally. On a vacation to Disney World it’s hard not to be struck by the vision and innovation of the park’s founder. If Walt Disney were alive today he’d be thought of not only as the smiling, avuncular photograph we’ve memorialized but as a bold, innovative business leader like a Richard Branson or Steve Jobs (the latter is coincidentally the single largest Disney shareholder today). Walt was really the prototype for this kind of business leader.

Here are eight lessons on innovation from the life and words of Walt Disney that you can readily apply to your business and brands today.

Innovation Requires Action – Disney once said “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I read this with an emphasis on the latter part of the clause. Poke the Box, Seth Godin’s new manual on taking action, tells us you have to jump in, start projects, and, of course, finish them. A lot. Walt knew that taking action was key too. “Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done right.”

Turn Convention on Its Head – Sometimes reversing the norm is just the innovation that’s needed. While starting out in the business and looking for a way to make his mark on the animation industry, Disney observed that many of his contemporaries were taking animated characters and inserting them into live-action shorts. Disney’s breakthrough idea for the Alice Comedies was a simple reversal of this trend by placing a live action central character into an animated world.

Life’s Challenges Can Open Doors – Disney’s greatest creation, Mickey Mouse, was born during his business’ darkest hour. “He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner.” They’d just lost their team of animators as well as copyright ownership of a key character to a sneaky clause in their distributor’s contract when Walt first sketched his iconic mouse. “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”

‘What’s Next’ Innovation – Disney, like all great innovators, never settled. “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Short films led to feature-length films, which led to live-action films, theme parks, and beyond. We always need to be on the look out for what’s next …

Diversify! Innovation often leads to diversification which is healthy for any business. When World War II came and Disney lost most of his animators, his fledgling studio all but shut down. After the war, Disney and his brother and business partner Roy strived to diversify their revenue stream with live-action films, licensing agreements, and eventually the theme parks.

Embracing New Media/Multichannel Marketing – With the development of Disneyland, Walt knew he needed to cast a wider net to let people know about this new offering. In embracing the new media of the day — television — Disney created a platform not only to entertain but also to educate his audience about his new brand extensions. Further, you can look at the early/maturing Disney business as an effective example of multi-channel marketing — new feature content is developed that is further promoted by the the theme parks which people learn about via their TV programming at the time.

Connecting Online and Offline Engagement – In Disney’s day, online engagement was reaching your audience on a different screen — either one at the local movie house or on TV via The Wonderful World of Disney. Walt knew early on that true engagement shouldn’t end when the theater lights came up. He knew that kids would want to “go home and hug Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto.” To continue this engagement offline, Disney began licensing plush toys and other products as early as 1932. Of course, the crowning achievement for Disney’s offline engagement was allowing fans to step inside his storybook worlds at Disneyland.

Nothing Matters More Than the Community You Serve – “We’re not trying to entertain the critics … I’ll take my chances with the public.” It’s easy to forget this especially as new media often gives bullhorns to critics who spend more time critiquing others than building communities of their own. Even in Walt’s day it was easier to destroy than create. Never lose sight of who you are doing this for.

These and many other great Walt Disney quotes can be found (with attribution) at Wikiquote. And on your next trip to Disney World’s Hollywood Studios be sure to take a quick detour from Star Tours and Toy Story Midway Mania (two of the best rides IMHO) and check out the exhibit and film “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream.” It’s educational and inspiring for the whole family and you’ll come away with your personal and professional batteries recharged and ready to go.

Photo via Flickr user JoshMcConnell.



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Nick Westergaard
Email Brand Driven Digital

is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.


2 comments
Rich Hamilton
Rich Hamilton

Great piece! When Walt opened Disneyland in California he dedicated it including the words, "... with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."

I take the "joy" to include the fun people have there, and "inspiration" to suggest we should all learn from Walt's example and apply those lessons to our own lives. Your post helps do just that!