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10 Marketing Lessons, Based on the Life of Walt Disney

Thanks to technology, everything has become increasingly democratized. Everyone can become a marketer nowadays, and competition is fierce. But what separates the ineffectual advertisers from the incredible marketers? To answer that question, we can study the life of Walt Disney:

1. Develop courage

The rate at which our world is changing creates a quite a bit of uncertainty and fear, but also a significant amount of opportunities for those who are ready and willing to seize them. Walt Disney, one of the world's most successful and influential businessmen and innovators, refused to limit his imagination. He risked his reputation, and even his company's financial solvency on dreams which were, at the time, unprecedented and unthinkable—such as Snow White, the world's first full length animated feature film, and the development Disneyland.

But Disney wasn't reckless with his dreams, either. To the extent that success depended on him, he would meticulously plan and prepare for the launch of his ideas, but there comes a time when every person must step out in faith and hope for the best. It is scary, because there is a chance of failure. But without the courage to take the risk, you won't get very far, in business or in life.

2. Stay focused

Disney was extraordinarily persistent, and even mulish in his pursuit of excellence. When everyone told him that his ideas were impossible, they merely added fuel to his fire. When critics warned Walt that creating Disneyland was an impossible endeavour, Walt merely continued to work on his pet project, funding it with his own money.

As marketers, it can be tempting to chase after the latest developments and technologies, throwing away old ideas and projects in exchange for shiny new things. But if you do that regularly, you will always be behind others. The key is to wisely choose one powerful project at a time and focus on it until you have realized its full potential.

3. Soak in ideas

Disney was a storyteller, primarily, but he also became a self-taught expert in a myriad of fields beyond animation and movie making, from city planning to engineering to trains. As the head of the Walt Disney studio, Disney would bring in experts on everything from physics to psychology to teach his artists.

Disney's success lay in making connections between different ideas from different fields. Likewise, if you want to be a top-notch marketer, you need to learn continually and expose yourself to powerful ideas from various disciplines.

4. Look to the future

Disney was always looking into the future, setting trends rather than following them. For instance, Disney World was originally intended to be an experimental prototype community of the future (EPCOT), not merely an amusement park, a larger version of Disneyland. Unfortunately, Disney passed away before the completion of EPCOT, and his successors did their best to complete his vision for him.

The only problem was, they were basing their decisions on what Disney had done in the past, when Disney himself would have come up with ideas that no one had ever thought of. If Disney had lived, Disney World would look far different than it does today.

Successful marketers also need to look for future trends and developments and make up their own trends. Be a leader, not a follower.

5. Be honest

Disney is synonymous with family values. Disney was highly motivated by the Christian values he was raised with, and he strove to make everything reflect that. Disney was wildly successful because he did not resort to backhanded marketing techniques and manipulation to earn money. In fact, two businessmen who attempted to swindle Disney failed badly, while Disney himself went on to change the entire world with his ideas.

So if you want to be a powerful marketer—be honest. Sell a worthy product and use above-board marketing techniques. Otherwise you won't get very far.

6. Care about people

Disney took time to get to know all of his employees by name. He often wandered through his Disneyland park, chatting with visitors to see what they liked and disliked about the experience. He was a beloved husband and father, and loved by nearly all who met him.

Marketing, at its core, is about people. And when all is said and done, marketers who truly love people and want the best for them will stand out and be more successful than those who simply see people as dollar signs.

7. Give better than your best

Disney had a concept known as "plussing," which meant giving clients more than they expect, more than you have to. Disneyland parades began when Disney came up with the idea one day, and when a critic asked why he would go to so much trouble when people didn't expect a parade, Disney replied: "That's the point. We should do the parade precisely because no one's expecting it. Our goal at Disneyland is to always give the people more than they expect. As long as we keep surprising them, they'll keep coming back."*

Top marketers also have this idea of giving people better than their best. Surprising clients with more than they expect is the sure way to create loyalty, trust, and repeat customers.

8. Think about future generations

Every marketer knows the phrase "sex sells," but some people don't care what the downstream effects of such marketing has on future generations. Disney wasn't like that. He frowned on off-colour jokes and did not just want to entertain and sell things to young people—he wanted to educate and inspire them.

Marketers who care about their bottom line more than future generations will, sooner or later, wreak havoc on themselves, their business, and their life. Truly successful marketers, on the other hand, care about the long-term impact of their marketing, their words, and their ideas. Their goal is not just to sell something, but to change the world for the better.

9. Be humble

Don't be afraid to take on grunt work jobs or be looked down on by others. Disney used to drive the milk truck around Disneyland and clear tables during fundraising events—even at the height of his success.

Likewise, marketers who have a sense of humility instead of hubris will not only find, but keep success in all their endeavours.

10. Learn how to collaborate

Don't see marketing as a zero-sum game. There's plenty of pie for everyone, if you approach things with a spirit of collaboration and mutual benefit. Disney's gift was not just creative storytelling but creating powerful partnerships. His biggest partner was his brother, Roy, who was level-headed where Disney was creative, and money-minded where Disney cared more about artistic quality. The two balanced each other out, even when they had creative clashes. The important thing was that the brothers cared about each other, and about their united mission.

Similarly, the right team or partnership can perform miracles, but only if everyone has an attitude of collaboration and care for one another.

The above steps delineate the principles of successful marketing, which remains the same no matter how the market changes. If you follow them, you may or may not be as revolutionary in marketing as Disney was in the entertainment world, but you will be successful—and more than that, able to enjoy your success.

*This quote and other anecdotes throughout the article come from the book How to Be Like Walt by Pat Williams.