Disruption as sweet as sugar

Business nous as hard as nails

Type “Disney Business” into the search bar on Amazon, and dozens of book titles appear.

The global phenomenon led by Mickey Mouse has inspired volumes of words, so we mere mortals can glimpse the secrets of its success. Not a big surprise, given the £134bn valuation. But – really, really – what’s the simplest business truth behind that ever-lasting Cinderella Castle logo?

Disruption is a magical property

For many, the output of Disney is too saccharine-sweet. A La-La Land of impossible dreams presented in a dumbed-down package, the lowest of common denominators.

But even those who don’t buy into the ideas and ideals it presents have to admit how good Disney is at retaining its economic influence and cultural relevance.

Founded in 1923, Disney has done two things in its 93 years. Firstly, it’s kept true to its core values. But secondly, and critically, it’s managed to resolve that with the need to reinvent itself. Not just once or twice. But continuously.


Walt Disney himself said: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things.” And most recently, in a world where unicorns like Uber and Instagram are being valued at over $1bn, the corporation has looked to these lucrative upstarts for inspiration.

In a previous interview for Disruptr, Professor Jonathan Trevor of Oxford University’s Said Business School praised Disney’s innovative matrix hierarchy – an org structure deployed to great effect by the new-school of disruptive firms like Spotify and TransferWise.

But this is only part of the picture. Here we reveal three further disruptive methods that show how Disney is keeping true to itself - and yet always renewing how it delivers the magic.

1. Let's accelerate it

Like many corporations (Virgin Media, Apple, Barclays), Disney has realised the benefit of an accelerator programme, providing financial and developmental support to carefully selected startups that offer products too specialised to develop in-house.

Launching the first Disney Accelerator Demo Day in 2014, CEO Robert Iger said: “The ability to change with the times, and learning by being introduced to new young talent - that's a great thing.”

The third annual Disney accelerator event was held in Burbank, California, last month, with much excitement generated by Atom Tickets, which sells merchandise and snacks alongside cinema entry. The app will be trialled during the launch of Star Wars: Rogue One in December.

Also present was Playbuzz, an online platform to create quizzes, games and sponsored content, which in March attracted £10m in new investment led by Disney. The firm was responsible for the Which Disney Princess Are You? quiz, which received over 743,000 social media shares in one month.

Playbuzz’s Tom Pachys said: “The fact that Disney invested in Playbuzz legitimises what we are doing in sponsored content and editorial content - and shows that our platform fits with how they see the future of media.”

Sometimes, inorganic is good

Disney is probably best known for its films – so far the studio has the top four grossing releases of 2016. It also owns and operates - deep breath - the ABC television network, cable television networks including ESPN, A+E Networks, LifeTime and ABC Family, publishing, merchandising, and theatre divisions, and of course 14 theme parks.

No wonder unconfirmed rumours abound that the ‘House of Mouse’ is poised to bid for disruptors Twitter and Netflix to further expand its vast empire. It wouldn’t be the first time Disney has taken over a disruptor to reap the benefit of their specialism. The corporation did so with Pixar in 2006 in a £4.1bn merger.

At the time Disney CEO Robert Iger made no secret of the corporation’s disruptive intentions via innovation through acquisition: “The addition of Pixar significantly enhances Disney animation, which is a critical creative engine for driving growth across our businesses.”

Subsequent Disney-Pixar releases have included Up, WALL-E and Cars. Clearly he was right.

Embracing emerging tech

As with so many of today’s biggest disruptive business success stories, Disney is putting technology at the heart of its operations.

But this isn’t new for Disney, which gave the world the first ever animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, and, in an unprecedented move 68 years later, made its full-length TV episodes available on the iTunes music store in 2005.

And it is continuing to disrupt via tech.

For a sneak preview of what life will be like in connected cities when the Internet of Things is part of daily existence, visit Disney World in Orlando. There the corporation spent $1bn and employed more than 1,000 people to develop its Magic Bands.

The wristbands are operational from the moment you land in Orlando and board the resort hotel shuttle. The bands double as room keys, while at the theme park gates they allow entry without queuing for turnstiles. Once inside, food and merchandise charges can be made to the credit card linked to each band. Fast Pass ride queues are also accessed using the wearable tech.

Disney is tailoring an increasing number of services to wristband wearers. Approach the Be Our Guest restaurant, for example, and if you’ve booked ahead the server will greet you by name thanks to an automatically generated prompt. Diners can choose to sit anywhere they like, and once settled, pre-ordered food arrives seamlessly due to a transmitter in the table broadcasting the guests’ location.

With the vast amounts of data generated from its Magic Bands, Disney World is now effectively a giant computer that knows where guests are, what they’re doing and what they want. It is already a connected city, and with an upgraded version of Magic Bands launching in December, fans of Disney are already speculating about what capabilities the latest tech might have – freebies offered to those who had to wait too long in line, fun “Meet and Greets” in any part of the park where the costumed characters find the guests, and even a specially curated selection of photos from throughout the guest’s day.

By embracing new technology, Disney is making anything possible. Indeed Walt Disney himself once said: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

And that’s the spirit of disruption right there.

Ultimately, being disruptive is about never being satisfied with today, longing for tomorrow and finding any way possible to bring the change you believe in.

And that cultural lesson is probably, ultimately, what Disney teaches us.

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