April 26th, 2017

Evolve or Die: What Disney Teaches Us About Marketing and Sports

Sports and Marketing

The most expensive words in business are: We’ve always done it that way.”


This is, of course, a paraphrasing of the famous quote by Grace Murray Hopper. Evolution in business is nothing new. But there’s a difference between the slow evolution of righting a large ship, versus the quick and systemic changes that some companies do. Disney over the last few years has been such a company. Their acquisitions of brands like Marvel, Lucas Films, and ESPN have, for the most part been raving successes.

They’ve done some things really well, and some things really badly. And it teaches us which path to take in marketing.

The Right Stuff

Disney acquired three brands over the last 15 years that have been successful for one singular reason. They fit the vision of Disney. They tell great stories, they sell lots of tickets and merchandise, and they are repeatable.

Pixar, Marvel, and Lucas Films do the same repeatable actions that Disney has always done. They’ve all told great stories on the screen and then the merchandising to support ticket sales. Disney changed the brands from 3 or 4 different kinds of brands: children’s movies, comic books, and a brand based on nostalgia and made it a super power of blockbusters.

They made them speak the same language. They were cohesive and they’ve dominated the big screen. They evolved quickly. They didn’t waste time turning a comic book company into a semi-annual multi-billion-dollar movie empire.

How it Translates to Marketing?

Marketers need to be able to create brand cohesiveness in every element of a business. If you’re a small manufacturer your business cards, brochures, sell sheets, website, etc etc. all should have the same point – to move your business forward.

It’s not just about logo design and layout, but the motivation of a brochure should be to get someone on your website that can be tracked. As sales people and marketers we want to learn as much as we can. If our entire marketing presence isn’t on the same page, it’s not having the same vision and we’ll lose information.

It would be like if Pixar decided to create another Toy Story film even though the story has already ended. Oh wait…dammit John Lasseter. So even when you do it right, mistakes happen.

The Wrong Way – Slow Evolution

Sports in general are slow movers when it comes to change. It wasn’t until a 2 years ago that baseball instituted the challenge on plays. A sport that defines a nation, is called the American past-time, wouldn’t attempt to overrule human error for the sake of accuracy. Why? Because they’d always done it that way. There’ve been a number of instances in history where fans have interfered or a play was called wrong. In those instances, history would have been changed by simple changes to the rules; for the better or worse depending on who you root for.

Now take the NFL, the Goliath in the sports world. They’ve never offered a true streaming service. A tool for younger people who don’t want cable to watch football on any given Sunday, Monday, or Thursday night. They’ve relied on outlets like ESPN and network TV to bring us the action. The problem is, we don’t buy TV anymore. Life isn’t like it was in 1996 (when Disney purchased ABC and ESPN) and it never will be again. But it’s taken them 20 years to prepare for this.

Now as of April 26, 2017, ESPN has laid off 100 on-air employees. Everything from staff writers to NHL/NFL analysts for the purposes of cutting costs and looking for more “cross-platform talent” were slashed. They had a die-back because they took too long to evolve.

What’s Our Marketing Takeaway?

It sounds stupid and simple right? Duh, it’s evolve or die! It’s more than that. Disney is a movie maker, it’s a story teller. It’s also a marketing genius and a merchandising genius. Walt Disney would have approved of the purchase of Pixar, Lucas, and Marvel because their core values were the same. They created a fantasy.

There are a ton of web design companies that try to make software. Most fail. We want to be able to make project management software, or marketing software because we see failure points in the systems that are in place. Disney acquires ABC because it wants to translate it’s movie magic to the small screen.

It was an evolution in their business that was both not on brand (in terms of ESPN) but also took too long to follow the trends. The real marketing takeaway is, do it right – fast. When they bought the rights to those first set of brands they adapted quickly – pushing out great films that cemented everything in their brand together.

Moving slowly toward where you want to go will ultimately result in a die-back. If your sales and marketing teams, your agencies, creative staff, and ultimately the leadership aren’t on the same direction and taking action quickly you’ll have problems down the road.

When being like Disney, be the first Disney, not the Disney who just had to lay off 100 people because they couldn’t say, “Hey, what about making WatchESPN for everyone – even without a cable subscription? Do you think it would work?” Then attacking it with the same fervor as the Iron Man series –  they might be seeing something different than this today:


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