Lessons in Brand Strategy Learned at a Theme Park

If You Go on a Water Ride, Expect to Get Wet

I had a chance to visit Universal this past Spring for a quick getaway vacation. Although we were going down for the opening of the new hotel, we had a chance to visit the parks over the days we stayed. It was not that hard — we still love theme parks and rides, and still have fun like big kids.

I noticed a few interesting things about the experience that triggered my brand strategy mind throughout our time there. Maybe it was the work I left behind that was still fresh, or just the fact that a theme park is a giant brand unto itself (containing so many smaller brands and properties), that is hard to not think about it…even though my wife suggested I don’t think of work during this time of vacation.

Lessons in Brand Strategy While Visiting a Theme Park

(instead of being on vacation, like my wife suggested):

1. If you are going on a water ride, plan to get wet.

We waited in a line to go on a water ride. It was hot and I love Jurassic Park, so the combination of cooling off and having dinosaurs yell at you was too much for me to pass up. So our time came, we jumped into the big log boat, in the front (to which everyone started to explain to us how incredible soaking wet we should all plan to be by the end of the ride). The interesting thing was the boat in front of us in line contained a large group of people covered from head to toe in rain ponchos, only their little faces peaking through.

Why ride something designed to cover you in water and then hide under a plastic sheet, avoiding water like the wicked witch of the west? It’s not poison water, and it’s also the PURPOSE on the ride. To have a little water get on you is going to happen. Don’t get in the log if you are afraid to get wet.

We see this a lot when we talk to companies that have struggled to keep up with current marketing and advertising strategies. They become terrified of getting a little wet, removing all risks to the point where the move is so ineffective that it is generally not worth even changing. Going the safe route is almost never the best strategy. Sometimes you have to jump into the boat with both feet, grab the bar, and get hit with some water if you really want to have an experience that matters. Also, those dinosaurs are not real — they just look that way.

2. The wait is still part of the experience.

Universal is starting to get it. They are starting to build an experience around the 20-minute wait that adds to the 90-second ride at the end of the turnstiles. Waiting is not fun, but it can be used as an opportunity to get people immersed in the story you are trying to tell. Disney has been a master of this for a long time — build a whole experience, not just a ride. I now have trouble going to places like Cedar Point, which is mostly just the ride with a long set of bars keeping people in line. The new Harry Potter area allows you to feel like you are in that world. The walk through the castle has story, diversions, great styling and changes direction a lot — you can never see that far ahead of you (brilliant: I have no idea if I am turning a corner to get on the ride, or into another line). This mastery of experience of brand (and Harry Potter is a brand) from start to finish puts them in a new league.

Brands need to take a hard look at the space around the direct experience of a sale to learn how to build fans. Too often, a company or brand thinks that it’s ALL about the transaction, not the lead-up to, or lead-out after, the sale. Would you rather sell one person one time, or sell one person to do business with you for 10 years? Most companies are targeting the first one — immediate ROI, not long term relationships with customers. Build the best waiting line and the best follow-up, and your transaction problem will resolve itself ten-fold.

3. Get better at something, don’t just keep up with the “brand Joneses”

It had been a few years since I was last at the Universal parks. Since my last visit, they added exactly 0 new roller coasters. The new “rides” are more immersive, have a smaller footprint, are more about the lead-in story, and for the most part are improvements on the “chair-coaster” (this term is now TM Brent Eastman). You are either sitting in a theater that seats hundreds (easier to get groups through the line faster) that uses a large screen and 3-D glasses to give you the sense of motion, or in a chair that stays on rails and takes you through an immersive 3-D/4-D experience. Roller coasters for the most part are old news. They are about as large and fast as they can be before they start killing people from inertia. The world of chair-coasting is infinite and provides WAY more opportunity to engage with the brand’s experience. It also allows a wider demographic to take part (a little kid may not ride the Hulk roller coaster, but sitting in a car in the Spiderman 4-D ride seems less scary).

Many companies add products and services to stay relevant to moving markets instead of reinventing their core products to be the leader of a category. People change, times change, tactics change. The roller coaster race may be over — time to get into the 4-D technology and be great at it. Many people would keep building new coasters, even when the market no longer wants a bigger faster one. Staying up on where the direction products, customers and needs are going should allow a brand to reinvent from within to match that new world, not just add a division, a product expansion, or a cheaper version of what the leaders are producing.

Enjoy the ride

People go to a theme park to have fun, maybe get a little frightened, have an experience they can’t have on a regular basis.

People create a connection to a company or brand for the same reasons. If your potential customer, client, or target isn’t enjoying the experience, or it’s something they can get anywhere, then why choose you? It could be as simple as making sure that, when your phone rings, the front line has a positive attitude (how often do you encounter a horrible front line phone call? Looking at you, Comcast…). Maybe it’s allowing your brand to have a personality — be a little funny, don’t take your self too seriously.

Only little kids ride the merry-go-round. If you really want to build fans, maybe try to think bigger.

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Brent Eastman

Brent Eastman is the Chief Brand Alchemist at Alchemy. He comes with over 25 years experience building brands, launching products and rebuilding company culture from the inside out. He has worked throughout the US and Japan in many industries and in many functions, preaching the virtues of Brand Consistency (sometimes even thumping brand books in the process).

Brent, a Buddhist Monk and Japanese Swordsmanship Teacher brings his diverse background into his daily work with clients.

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