Issue: Marketing silos can hurt the brand
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
Last week, Disney closed the door on one of the most successful promotions in its history. Virtual Magic Kingdom was opened in 2005 as an online role-playing game set in a virtual version of the Anaheim Disney theme park. The game allowed players to create characters (commonly called ‘avatars’) who would roam the park, interacting with other players, participating in promotions and playing games in the virtual world. Some of these yielded virtual prizes like hats, pins or furniture for the game. Others could be used to get real world prizes or promotions in the (real) theme park.
Virtual Magic Kingdom was intended to last only for the duration of the 2005 celebration of DisneyLand’s 50th anniversary. Because of the tremendous popularity of the promotion, however, it was kept running and only in April of 2008 did Disney announce that it would close forever on May 21st.
Which raises the question: why? Disney’s stated reasons sound like political talking points:
As many of you know, Virtual Magic Kingdom was created and launched back in 2005 as part of the Disneyland 50th Anniversary Celebration. VMK exceeded expectations in terms of performance, and as a result we extended the promotion (that is, VMK, the game) well beyond the 50th Celebration.
Eventually though, all promotions must come to an end, so Iâ€™m announcing today that on May 21, 2008, VMK will open our virtual gates for the last time. You read that right: VMK was never intended to last forever – weâ€™ll close the game for good at the end of day on May 21st, 2008.
On its face, this would be a terrible reason to close a world which has drawn such a dedicated user community. The cost of maintaining this virtual world is minimal compared to attracting the same users with new promotions. Simple ROI analysis on the existing users of this type of virtual community would almost certainly show that their increased interaction with the (real world) Disneyland more than paid for the cost of maintaining the promotion.
The real answer is disarmingly simple:
Disney says it never intended the 50th-anniversary promotion to run this long, but money is also a factor: Virtual Magic Kingdom is free, and full access to Disney’s other online game sites — like Club Penguin and Toontown — costs as much as $9.95 a month in the case of Toontown. – Peter Sanders, The Wall Street Journal
Viewed from the narrow lens of a Disney division responsible solely for online promotions, Virtual Magic Kingdom is a loser. Even if most of the users never return, and think horrible thoughts about the Disney brand, the small percentage who will migrate to paid content make this look like a sensible economic decision.
And this is where typical corporate organization fails the brand. In fact, closing Virtual Magic Kingdom is a mistake for the Disney brand and certainly a dis-economic decision for the franchise overall. Disney like most consumer marketers spends millions of dollars in advertising hoping to engage consumers for a minute or less and get them to think about the Disney theme parks. Virtual Magic Kingdom got consumers to engage with a faithful representation of Disneyland for hundreds of hours, even tying in actual on-park activities, for a fraction of the cost. These consumers became brand evangelists – the type who get others to engage with the brand.
Disney should not fool itself that its paid games are a substitute. Those are pure branded entertainment, and will be judged by a different yardstick. Many consumers who interacted with the free promotion will never pay $120 a year to play the online game.
When I was researching Accidental Branding, I discovered that successful entrepreneurs understand that everything affects the brand. They are loathe to turn every corner of their business into a profit center, understanding that generosity often builds brand equity. Disney’s move to shutter Virtual Magic Kingdom will certainly spruce up the balance sheet this year. But it’s a bad brand move and one that could have been avoided by tearing down marketing silos.