The Disney Dynamo
Lessons from a marketing juggernaut
There’s only slight motion on the ninth deck as I write this screed from The Cove, a secluded adults-only bar atop the Disney Cruise ship Wonder. The Colombian bartender and I exchange intermittent observations regarding the Colombian rebels and their unique revenue generating means, normally referred to as kidnapping for ransom in the U.S.
“Oh, the media, they make it look worse than it is. But to be sure, it is dangerous in places in Colombia.”
No kidding. The snatch-and-grab is a major P&L center for FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to us gringos. If you’re the type of worker who is viewed by your company as indispensable, and if your company might be willing to part with a serious sum of dollars for your intact return, then you, my friend, are almost pure profit. Of course, if you’re someone like me, without staid employers with deep pockets, well, the Revolucionarias would likely reduce their overhead by tossing you to their pet anacondas to see if they could handle 180 pounds of nutrition in one gulp. Or, perhaps they’d compose a betting pool whereby the winner predicts the exact number of minutes a school of red belly piranhas would take to clean me down to a pile of bones.
These images retreat as I consider the power of the Disney marketing machine. If you thought Larry Ellison was cunning, he’s Fred Rogers compared to the crowd that chants “have a magical experience” every time you turn around. To be sure, the Disney Cruise Line is a fairly recent manifestation of the Disney profit machine,
and you can bet it wasn’t an afterthought conceived in some dark bar in Kissimmee. Quite the opposite, the Disney operation is a highly sophisticated cash mill staffed with some of the very best corporate architects walking the planet. They do little without complex analysis and serious number crunching, and they wield the cash holdings to finance staggering propositions with little regard to conventional financial structuring.
A chapter in David Koenig’s Realityland, a startlingly vivid depiction of the inner workings of the Disney juggernaut, is chockfull of the forethought Disney has incorporated right from the genesis of Walt Disney World. One of hundreds of examples exemplifies Disney cunning when they first settled on the Orlando area as the perfect environment to host Walt’s latest vision. Knowing that any news leak of Disney’s intentions would trigger a land grab that would make the California Gold Rush of 1848 look like a librarian’s convention, Walt and company acquired, created, or organized totally disparate resources to slowly buy up the targeted properties in complex, seemingly unrelated deals spread out over time. Remember, Orlando in those days was nothing more than scrub Florida palmetto fields settled too far from either the Gulf or Atlantic to consider it as viable development material at a time when people were snapping up oceanfront land at a brisk clip. By the time a few astute landowners figured out what was up, Disney owned the vast majority of the property required for Disney World, and then threw money at the holdouts until they had it all, and for a fraction of the cost that would have been commanded had the local Floridians caught wind of the plot.
The Disney marketing machine is not composed of nincompoops either. Disney markets fantasy very effectively, and many people are convinced that depriving their children of a trip to Disney is tantamount to psychological abuse. To be sure, the product at Disney is unlike anything in the world. But Disney, more than just about any major corporate behemoth in the world, understands price points. Admission to Disney is painfully expensive, but is set at a point where current load levels confirm it just ain’t so painful as to drive people away. You don’t find many deals discounting Disney tickets…the deals come from bundling Disney theme park visits, hotel stays, flights, cruises, or all of the above, and all mean margin for Disney. Don’t want that deal? Then stay in the Motel 6 down I-4, but you’ll still pay heavily for parking and park admission.
Similarly, the informatics world is laden with price point differentiators, and vendors are challenged with making sure that the whales (the big ticket accounts) feel that they are getting value for their money. In my mind, that’s not just a matter of software functionality, but a matter of carefully calibrated planning and deployment.
From a functional standpoint, the trend toward Web or, more appropriately, browser-based applications has been an inexorable trek that began with the advent of stable networks and assuaged concerns over Internet privacy. My view is that stable foundational platforms are the underpinning of enterprise projects, but the articulation of specific functional requirements, along with their sequencing in terms of project phasing, is also critical…that’s the calibrated planning component.
I’m not convinced that there is always continuity between the image created in the minds of customers (often by internal champions), and the actual complexion of the deployed system. I’ve always been an advocate of “measure twice, cut once,” but that vision is not always shared. There is a pronounced tendency for anxious customers to “just implement the thing,” and many are convinced that the methodology they maintain internally, or adopted from their vendor, will transport them to Oz without having to endure the unfortunate side effects of the twister.
That’s not always the case and, to see this more clearly, let’s return to our friends at Disney…
When you call the Disney help desk regarding questions about the theme parks, cruises, hotels, etcetera, you are quickly directed to polite and highly trained experts who have fielded your question dozens or hundreds of times. The answers are there and not part of some big resolution flow chart. Disney resources are nothing if not professional and extremely consistent. The answers you get from person “A” will usually be a dead match for those from person “B.”
It helps that all of the money Disney has harvested over the years has allowed them to develop very stringent and unambiguous training programs. There are tens of thousands of Disney employees at work each day at Disney World, and they go about their jobs with the focused intent of army ants. It is a miracle to observe in person, but you have to know what you’re seeing. The rides, such as Splash Mountain, are assembly lines whereby passengers are loaded into the log boats with incredible efficiency and urgency. During the course of the ride, most people don’t notice the dozens of little infrared lights in the darkness that bathe all riders so that every aspect of the ride can be monitored by invisible sentinels who will kindly, yet firmly, bark at any wayward passenger standing up in the boats when they assume they are out-of-sight and out-of-mind, even in the pitch blackness of the numerous tunnels.
Beneath the Magic Kingdom exists a labyrinth of service tunnels, cafeterias and offices. Workers descend to break rooms by hidden staircases, so you will never see a Disney employee eating in public. Trash, the tiniest bit, is snatched up by uniformed employees, and every surface in the place is constantly cleansed, polished, and/or disinfected.
If only there were similar protocols for training informatics personnel and customer resources. There are great configuration specialists within major vendor organizations, and there are those who struggle. In several cases, the implementation methodology is more of a sales tool than an actual process ingrained into delivery resources in the same spirit that Disney uses to hammer home process messages to their employees.
It’s a question not only of vendors updating ancient investments in their methodology collateral ? investments that, in some cases, are a stagnant collection of dust-covered policies no longer cogent enough to guide a complex project. It also demands a willingness to accept that customers do not want to be forced to design their own systems: they want expert, grizzled veterans to do that job with properly facilitated input from their subject matter experts. Not all vendors believe customers want to be directed. Rather, it is easier to place the responsibility (and, hence the blame) on the backs of those people in the worst possible position to design their environment… the customers themselves. Beware of a rush to get into a prototyping stage on a complex project with little forethought. Though tempting for the antsy customer project manager, what in fact can happen at this stage — depending on the skill of the vendor configuration consultant — is a tendency to convert an existing homegrown or paper-based system into an electronic one, with little regard to the kinds of process improvements that a little workflow analysis can bring to the table for both automated and non-automated processes.
Experienced configuration personnel can make design suggestions based on previous experiences when it comes to the automated functions. For example, if a customer wants to know what the current backlog of samples for a lab might be, the customer might ask for a report to be generated on-screen, or even printed. An experienced consultant, fluent with the inner-workings of the vendor application might suggest a dashboard display for the sample backlog function; likely a more efficient way of accomplishing the same objective. However, an inexperienced consultant may not push back and redirect the customer to the dashboard option; rather, they might just acquiesce to generating and printing a hardcopy report.
Process improvements not relating to automation tasks are almost never addressed by software configuration personnel. An example of such a task might be that a customer duplicates sample receipt into individual lab groups, thus tying up multiple people doing the same thing in several labs, and perhaps not performing the task uniformly. A process improvement might be to suggest centralizing sample receipt to one location, then simply changing sample location codes to reflect the fact they have been delivered to a lab.
It all will work out in the end. Vendors with contiguous and reliable strategies for deployment will bubble to the top, and those with ambiguous strategies proven to be great on paper, but poor in execution, will sink into the silt.
Hmmm… as I am sitting on the ninth deck of a ship in the middle of the ocean, perhaps I should use a different phraseology than sinking into the silt.
Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.