Growing up with Disney

Disney's power lies in its brand, and the strength of its brand lies in storytelling. They tell "happily ever after" stories, which connect us with the ultimate ending but also with the most cherished beginning: our childhood. Disney stories tap into some of the most powerful feelings we experience: hope and nostalgia. They achieved this by telling stories that have existed in our societies and our unconscious for a very long time, thereby tapping into timeless themes. They have been telling our oldest stories to us in a way that keeps us hopeful about our future but also longing for our past.

The meanings that audiences draw from Disney films are not necessarily always positive and research illustrates a more nuanced attitude to Disney films. Further, these relationships with the brand change over time as the child becomes an adult. Even if this relationship remains appealing and positive, the audience will engage in an ongoing process of renegotiation.

For those who remain interested in Disney as adults, the primary appeal lies in the promise of re-experiencing the joy and pleasure one did as a child and that any alteration of that memory is met with considerable resistance. This idea is backed up by adult respondents in the Global Disney Audiences Project (GDAP) study who did not take kindly to criticism of Disney, particularly when such criticism seeks to oppose the pleasures that they derive from watching Disney’s films.

The relationships that adults have with Disney films will be affected by a number of different influences, such as parenthood, wider popular culture exposure, alternative modes of narrative consumption, sexuality, gender, race, and other demographic and cultural factors. The way that these changes and experiences influence audiences will result in a constant renegotiation of their relationships with Disney films on an emotional or cultural level. For an extensive PhD review on this topic, see Mason, 2017.

How happily ever after influences the audience.

Extant research literature shows that audiences develop emotional connections and experience emotional investment in and identification with fictional characters, referred to as parasocial relationships. Within these relationships, we often internalise the experiences of characters to the extent that we rehearse these experiences from our perspective in our minds, especially if there is enough repetition of script formulas in stories. Then, if we have internalised the scripts, we will use those scripts in our everyday lives, and our expectations of what will happen in the real world has the potential to be heavily influenced by the standard script or formula. For example, think about the formula that true love will result in a happily ever after: this has influenced an entire generation of people who have been rudely awakened to the reality that love does not cure all, that there is a lot more involved. And that there is no such thing as a complete story. We are never ending stories as far as our subjective awareness is concerned.

Even so, we have come to expect resolution in our stories, and we have a very specific resolution in mind when we know we are viewing a Disney film. It has a well-defined script that we associate with certain feelings, and we expect that script when going to a Disney film, because we want those feelings. So, even when Disney wanted to introduce alternative scripts or elements to its scripts, audiences where clear that they were not looking for a new experience, they were looking for the Disney experience.

For example, 1985's The Black Cauldron, was an unmitigated disaster for Disney, grossing just $21 million domestically on a $44 million budget. It was intended to appeal to an older audience by channeling the darker tone of the 1980s and introducing content that resulted in Disney's first PG rating. 1985 also saw the release of live-action film, Return to Oz, which was widely criticised for being too dark and frightening for children. Following the release of these two films, executives noted that the focus was to restore the Disney image by restructuring the animation department and producing family friendly movies. Following this change the world was introduced to The Little MermaidAladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. These films, and the successes thereafter, seemed to solidify the classical Disney genre. They are Ideal films: an animated fantasy with picturesque fairy tale elements and adventure, excitement, humour and relatable characters, with a "happily ever after" resolution.

The Disney genre as the manifest outcome of brand-consumer symbiosis.

It is quite remarkable that a studio appears to have its very own, very recognisable genre. While the Disney brand encompasses far more than the genre described above, the research shows that many people associate Disney with this type of genre. The unique genre itself includes many Disney brand values, including high-quality animation, fantasy, good overcoming evil, and happily ever after. Disney is arguably the only Hollywood studio with name recognition associated with a shared perception about the type of film to expect, that cannot be found with, for example, Sony or Paramount. In the GDAP more than 80% of all respondents associated Disney with the following values: family, fantasy, fun, good over evil, happiness, imagination, love/romance, and magic. Most respondents also thought that Disney films were primarily animated.

As noted above, this Disney genre is heavily influenced by audience perceptions and expectations, and is one example of the relationship between brand and customer. Disney seemed to understand this early and has remained focused on creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the brand and the audience. This is why they are well-known for their extensive market research as well as embracing the user experience. Disney wants to keep the magic alive, and the best way to do that in any relationship is to stimulate conversation and listen.

However, many respondents in the GDAP reported that they have grown out of Disney films, either because they have found other interests that they consider more suitable for adult consumption, or because they have had the veil lifted from their eyes and become aware of Disney’s issues with inclusive representation. Disney has responded to the loss of older audience interest by acquiring existing, more mature and progressive brands that appeal to the older crowds. Disney has integrated notably distinct brands like Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm into its entertainment synergy machine without compromising its values. Films produced by these studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (WDSMP) first feature the animated Marvel and Lucasfilm company logos and only at the end of the film credits WDSMP is listed as distributor. The Marvel and Lucasfilm brands brought consumers with them, and the films produced by these acquired studios appear to retain their distinct iconography. This way Disney is now developing a powerful but separate relationship with consumers, while retaining what fans value and not restricting themselves to one, very unique genre.

Whatever your feelings about Disney, it is impressive.

So, what is the take away here for us regular folk?

The most important point that stands out is that a very real social relationship exists between customer and brand, and that this is not just a trendy way of talking about getting in sales. And like any actual relationship, real feelings and risks are involved, and what wins the day, in addition to value, is vulnerability (or what many marketers refer to as authenticity) and communication. So, the skills and attitude that make us care about others and others care about us are now incredibly important in the transactional space. Therefore, attracting the people with whom you and your brand will connect is the best way to support authentic social relationships. Connecting with your tribe, as they say.

Moral of the story: let sparks fly between your brand and customer, and keep the magic alive.

As always, I hope this is helpful.


Written by Bronwyn Wood - Psychologist and Brand Analyst

RnD photo studio is based in Oerlikon, Zürich. We specialise in branded photography with people, including business portraits, professional headshots, leadership portraits and CV photos. We also focus on corporate photography and team portraits, as well as brand photography for architecture and real estate. Bronwyn provides a brand assessment that forms the basis for visual concepts so that we can take photographs that support your brand vision. Whether it is for a leadership portrait, commercial real estate photography, employee and team portraits, or business photography for your website or company launch, we get to know you and your brand first and then we take great photos. Our process: we Connect with you, we Clarify who you are, and we Conceptualise how we will capture your brand.