10 B2B Marketing Lessons from Walt Disney World and Universal Studios

April 22, 2014

A few weeks ago, we took a spring break / time-to-thaw-out trip to Orlando. Five days, the GDP of a small country, and one sun-burnt family later, we returned with happy memories, several gigabytes of photos and video…and the following 10 lessons learned about B2B marketing from two enormously popular theme parks.

B2B lessons from Disney World and Universal StudiosBut first, to answer a couple of obvious questions: yes, theme parks really can teach B2B business lessons (see below); and no, writing a post like this doesn’t enable one to write off the trip as a business expense, unfortunately (I checked).

So, from out of the land of theme parks filled with 20-somethings who appear to have made bad life choices, 40-somethings who’ve obviously made good ones, children, tweens, teens, and the young at heart—come 10 B2B marketing business lessons from Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

1. Be true to your brand. While few companies in the B2B or B2C worlds go quite to the lengths that Disney does in employee training and management–for example, referring to employees as “cast members” and requiring each cast member “to stay in their land as to not effect the ‘magical’ perspective of the guests (can you even imagine the psychic damage that could result from seeing Snow White hanging out with the ring-tailed lemurs in Animal Kingdom?)—but establishing and maintaining a strong brand is nonetheless vital.

Disney is “wholesome family entertainment,” while Universal Studios is more like “Disney for big kids.” There’s no rock n’ roll, and no alcohol, at Disney; you can find both at Universal.

Similarly, in the B2B marketing world, technology companies can get away with displaying attitude, an edge, even being a bit playful. Those attributes would be far less suitable for patent attorneys or accounting firms. Apple has asked users to “think different” while IBM’s products and services resolve around building a smarter planet.

Establish your brand attributes, then make them permeate every corner of your organization.

2. Know your competition–but don’t fear it. Why is Universal Studios located just miles from Walt Disney World? Wouldn’t it keep more business for itself if were located on the other side of the state, or even in another state?

Theme Parks in Orlando, FloridaWell, no. Theme parks (Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, LEGOLAND…) have congregated in and around Orlando for same reason stores cluster in malls; every venue benefits from the increased traffic drawn by giving customers an array of choices in a single location.

As noted above, while there are many similarities between Disney and Universal (rides, movie themes, iconic characters, marginal food), there are also distinct differences both in image (Disney’s Main Street USA has a distinct circa 1928 vibe; Universal is more like 1962) and offerings. Other area parks offer their own unique attractions and experiences.

The key in the B2B world is to understand your core market and make everything about your products and services ideal for that segment. This enables you to distinguish your company from competitors without disparaging them.

As MarketingSherpa recently noted, having no competition can actually be a bad thing. B2B marketers ” should tell customers more about the competition. You should help them make the best choice between you and the competition and provide them with something to compare your company to.” Competition provides a valuable frame of reference in the decision-making process for B2B buyers.

3. Don’t nickel and dime customers; consider “all-inclusive” pricing. Tickets to Disney and Universal are pricey to be sure, but once you are inside the park, pretty much everything other than food or trinkets is “free.”

This pricing model certainly doesn’t fit everywhere in the B2B world, but for products that command a premium price, and which buyers reasonably expect to include a certain “bundle” of additional items or services (e.g., implementation assistance, warranty coverage, some base level of support, etc.), the all-inclusive model can make sense.

This is also the logic behind “free” scheduled maintenance programs offered by some carmakers. The cost is built into the purchase price, but buyers feel as though they are getting a premium offering without being invoiced for every little add-on.

4. Price has many uses. On the other hand, while all-inclusive pricing has its place, it has its limitations and boundaries as well. For example, when buying a car, you wouldn’t expect to pay extra for the engine—that’s assumed to be part of the package. But you would expect to pay more for the larger, upgraded engine (and likely the beefier shocks, transmission and tires that go with it).

Price isn’t merely something you charge in order to generate revenue. It has numerous other uses as well, such as:

Segmenting a market. For example, if there are two social media monitoring tools, one priced at $300 per month and one at $3,000 per month, you can infer quite a bit without knowing anything more about them. Unless it’s just horrendously mispriced, one would expect that the $3,000 tool is aimed at larger enterprises, more scalable, and with additional and more sophisticated features than the $300 application.

This is also commonly done with “freemium” tools. A free version is offered for those with very basic requirements, while more advanced and feature-rich versions are available for larger companies and more demanding users, at progressively higher price points.

Guiding behavior. Theme parks are masterful at this. For example, a single-day pass may be priced at $95, while a three-day pass costs $235 and a four-day pass goes for $265. Not only is the price difference between a three-day and a four-day pass very small, the four-day is actually sold for less than the price of three one-day passes—making the fourth day “free!”

No doubt the parks have data showing that this model pays off. One presumes that multi-day visitors are more likely to stay for the entire day each time (thus eating more meals at the park), to buy souvenirs in the gift shops, and to tell their friends wonderful things about the experience.

B2B companies can similarly use price to influence behavior. Online self-service support options are generally free, or very low-cost, to encourage users to find their own answers via that route—while phone support is more expensive, and 24/7 phone support pricier yet. True, this is a reflection of costs, but the magnitude of the price differential is such that there are often behavioral considerations in the mix as well.

Prices can also, of course, be lowered to move excess inventory or speed market adoption of a new product, or raised to shift demand to an alternative offering.

– Capitalizing on value in context. In many instances, products and services have no absolute inherent value; what they are worth depends on the circumstances.

The same glass of wine will cost much more in a trendy upscale urban eatery than in a suburban mall chain restaurant.

A famous experiment in this realm was conducted in 2007 by the Washington Post. Virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, who regularly sells out concert halls at $100 per seat, played for 43 minutes at a subway stop. He was playing a Stradivarius valued at $3.5 million. His take for 43 minutes of playing? $32.17. Context matters.

Disney princess trinketDisney gets this. Know what the item is in this photo? Neither do I. But inside the Disney princess gift shop, these sell for $24.95. Outside the gates of Disney, it’s unlikely one of these would fetch 25 cents.

In the B2B realm, think of what you to have to offer to customers that has unique, high value in the context of your relationship. What is it you do, or can, provide that has special value to customers in the context of using your products or services?

5. Optimize the entire buying experience. Approaching Disney’s Magic Kingdom is, well…magical. After parking and a short tram ride, you board a ferry for a short ride across a lagoon. This is what you see as you approach the other side.

The Cinderella castle in Disney's Magic Kingdomm


While ferry rides and castles would be awkward in the B2B realm, there is still more that B2B vendors can do to welcome new customers than just providing a “Download now” button and maybe sending in a consultant wearing blue jeans and a company polo.

A software company I worked for back in the 90’s shipped the product (at that time on multiple floppy disks) in enameled steel cases (many of which later ended up in customers’ garages—they made excellent tool boxes). As the media shrunk—to a handful of CDs rather than a box full of disks—the company switched to delivering the software, documentation, welcome letter, and a few other items in logo-emblazoned laptop bags, like this.

Fourth Shift Software Laptop Bag


There are lots of ways to welcome new customers—be creative! Even ideas that seem corny can be meaningful to a new customer and help start the relationship off on a positive note: a welcome letter, certificate, welcome phone call, email, video, access to a special customers-only community site, even old-fashioned tsotchkes like shirts, mugs, pens, USB drives, and desktop toys.

And just as the “magic’ of the Disney experience continues throughout the park visit, B2B vendors should work to optimize every customer touch point, making the entire customer experience as pleasant, efficient, and friction-free as possible.

6. Partner strategically to expand and extend your offerings. Disney actually appears to do little of this (at least in the Magic Kingdom), while Universal Studios does it extensively and brilliantly.

Universal Studios - partners

These partnerships are mutually beneficial, and the brands here both extend the dining options available to Universal visitors as well as support the theme park’s (unofficial) brand image of “Disney for big kids.”

The best B2B partnerships—whether to extend services, technology, or product functionality—similarly should benefit both vendors, enhance both brands, and increase value for buyers.

7. Use content to get people talking. Neither Disney nor Universal need to do much advertising for their theme parks. Their marketing is largely based on content (movies) and word of mouth.

While B2B marketers aren’t Hollywood studios, they can use video (and other content assets) to get people in their market talking. In the B2B realm, these can include free or freemium online tools (like HubSpot’s Marketing Grader); useful and share-worthy content like research findings and how-to guides; customer conferences (with associated SlideShare presentations and videos); online customer community sites; open source sharable components; and other forms of content.

8. Find ways to reward best / most loyal customers—without offending others. Disney does a fantastic job with this. Even single-day pass holders can choose three rides for which they will use the express line, thus bypassing wait times of up to an hour. Multi-day pass holders get additional perks, and families that stay in Disney hotels even more extras (such as early park admission); but the impact of these benefits doesn’t noticeably degrade the experience for day-pass buyers.

In the B2B world, special pricing is one obvious way to reward loyal customers, but be creative in developing other programs as well. For example, access is valuable, and heavy users of a product often have strong opinions of enhancements and changes they’d like to see made. Offerings like “dinner with the CEO” at company or industry conferences, and quarterly calls with a product manager or engineer can be very meaningful perks.

App showing wait times for rides in the Magic Kingdom9. Create an app to share timely information. Both Disney and Universal offer free apps that enable park visitors to check current wait times for any ride; a very cool and useful idea.

B2B software (and even hardware, in the internet-of-things era) products often offer opportunities for complementary free (see #3 above) or fee-based (see #4 above) apps. While no one is going to perform sophisticated data analysis on a smartphone, apps can be very useful at sharing key real-time information, such as total sales month-to-date; current inventory levels by item; service requests logged in the past week; or any myriad of other measures, levels, quantities, metrics, or figures.

10. Focus on continual improvement, not perfection. As impressive as the operation of its four Orlando theme parks is (70,000 employees, 40 square miles, 1 million guests per week; $100M year on maintenance; streets steam-cleaned every night) even Disney screws up sometimes.

And perhaps because so much of it done at Disney happens with elegant smoothness; such screw-ups are all the more jarring. One example is positioning visitors during parades. There are apparently very specific areas where guests are and are not permitted to stand or sit during parades, which are known by seemingly every Disney employee—but none of the guests. The result is annoyance on the part of guests (one woman was told she needed to move forward two inches in order to be in front of a specific crack in the sidewalk), and on occasion, rare displays of rudeness by Disney employees (who understandably get tired of having to give sometimes irate guests the same instructions, over and over).

And it’s not likely Disney shouldn’t know how to manage parades; they run several per day, every day, across their parks.

The key to process improvement is to examine the entire customer experience (see #5 above) and redesign processes, where needed, from the customer’s perspective. For example, that automated post-purchase online customer satisfaction survey that you send out by email—the one that has 59 different questions because every department in your business wants to hear “the voice of the customer”—is itself a source of customer dissatisfaction. Redesign it from the buyer’s perspective; what kind of feedback would they view as most important to provide? And keep it short, to respect buyers’ time.

Purchasing and implementing your B2B product or service may not be as much fun as a trip to Disney or Universal, but it will have much more significant, ongoing, long-lasting impacts on daily life for your customers. Use ideas from these phenomenally successful theme parks to enhance the overall experience for your buyers.

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6 Responses

  1. Just chatted with someone today about Disney. They just got back from vacation and I was asking about the ticket cost. Bottom line answer: Yep, it’s expensive, but no one does it like Disney. They take the theme park to another level.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Kudos to a great blog and tremendous B2B lessons learned from theme parks. Disney’s cast members are trained to represent their brand and create a culture of family entertainment for visitors. They have created a culture of inspired employees that believe in their corporate brand’s mission, vision and values. I’m not sure many people are aware of this but The Walt Disney Company is the leader in social business culture and is listed #1 on the social business index. http://www.socialbusinessindex.com/
    Hey, maybe Disney might read your blog, Frank Strong’s comments and mine and we all get family tickets to their theme park. Well even if we don’t, we are inspired customers, like their well-trained inspired employees.


  3. Tom 

    So true Frank, it really is an impressive operation. It’s hard not to feel like a kid and just enjoy the “magic” of the parks.

  4. Tom 

    Thanks Cheryl! The training is evident – the cast members, overall, do a fantastic job of maintaining the “magic” atmosphere. Free family tickets? That would be awesome. Might even inspire another blog post. :-)

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