In 1987, the Walt Disney Corporation and the government of France signed a deal to build a new Disney theme park in the suburbs outside of Paris.
France fought (!) to have Disney come. They wanted the theme park. They beat out Spain to get it (another first!)… and so Euro Disney was born.
After opening in April of 1992, by the end of 1993 it was nearly bankrupt.
So what went wrong? Pretty much everything.
Disney told cast members (what they call their staff) how to wear their hair. How long they could grow their fingernails. How many earrings they could wear and how big they could be.
They told them they had to smile, and be polite to guests. Now remember, this is Paris, and Parisians are not exactly famous for their friendliness.
If you’re familiar with Disney, then you know none of these rules are out of the norm for Disney — that’s all part of the Disney language. It’s all part of the “show.”
That approach worked for them in the US and even in Tokyo. In Paris, though? Not so much.
Disney also assumed no one would want to eat anything for breakfast other than croissants and coffee. But people wanted the American experience. (And really, if they were going to serve croissants in France, they had better be some pretty darn good croissants….)
On the opposite end of the “just how much American do people want” spectrum, they priced the hotel rooms the way we do in America: per room, rather than per person, as Europeans often do. In America, if a hotel room is $250, we know that means $250 for the whole room. In Europe, if a hotel room is $250, that means $250 per person.
Now, the rooms were overpriced given the market — and recession — at the time. But the Europeans thought they were four times more expensive (for a family of four) because the prices had been stated in a way that was at odds with Europeans’ language around hotel rooms.
But worst of all? Disney enforced one of its longest-standing policies in the new park: they didn’t serve wine. In Paris. Quel enfer est-ce que c’est? (My apologies to Dorothy Parker. If that’s not the right way to say it, I blame Google Translate.)
What happened? By doing Disney “right,” Disney got Disney in Europe completely wrong. Disney came in and said, “Don’t be so French. You’ve asked for Disney, you’re going to get DISNEY. So strap in.”
And so, 18 months after they went in, hopes high, Disney had to go back in and change… almost everything. It was enormously expensive.
Disney obviously didn’t want to fail. They didn’t want that embarrassment and expense. Nor do we when we launch a new product or idea into the market.
You could argue, of course, that the problems lay in the marketing of Euro Disney (now known, significantly I think, as Disneyland Paris). You could argue that Disney didn’t set expectations well or know they’re market well enough.
But isn’t that the role of marketing? Aren’t marketers the translators-in-residence? Doesn’t the marketing department function best when it’s positioned to not only translate the company to the marketplace… but also the marketplace back to the company?
I certainly think so.
Understanding precedes action. Click To Tweet
Just like we can’t expect others’ to understand our native language when we travel abroad, we can’t expect our audiences to understand our ideas or our behaviors out of the gate, either. Understanding precedes action.
Which is why, to get something to work at the market level, it has to work at the individual level first. To get something to work at the market level, it has to work at the individual level first. Click To Tweet
That’s why marketers — all of us! —need to think through where the common ground, and common language, lies, well before we enter the market in the first place.
Communications failures may drive marketing failures, but communication success drives marketing success, too.
And while we may not always agree on what the “right” answer is, we do know where to find it: in the universal structure of language… which is the universal structure of story. Shared goals. Shared perspectives on problems. Shared truths. Shared behaviors that result. That’s a language we all speak. Or should.