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Decoding the Intimacy of Theme Parks

Lessons in building consumer bonds from the most amusing industry

by Rina Plapler and Will Biondi

In our 2017 Brand Intimacy Study, we were surprised to discover that the Hospitality & Theme Parks category is led not by hotel brands but by two theme parks: Disney Parks and Universal Theme Parks. In addition to having the highest brand intimacy quotient scores in the category, these brands also have the most price resiliency, as the percentage of consumers willing to pay 20 percent extra for Disney Parks and Universal Theme Parks was roughly twice the industry average. Also, more consumers said they can’t live without these brands (28 percent for Disney Parks, 24 percent for Universal Theme Parks) compared with the industry average (17 percent), suggesting that these theme parks are building stronger bonds with consumers than their hotel brand counterparts. The ability for theme parks to foster intimacy has resulted in more visits worldwide, as attendance is expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 4.4 percent between 2015 and 2019.1

Disney Parks has done especially well in cultivating more advanced levels of intimacy, as it leads the category in the fusing and bonding stages (4 percent and 10 percent, respectively). However, Universal Theme Parks has broader intimacy appeal, as it has the most customers in the sharing stage (23 percent) and the largest percentage of customers experiencing some form of intimacy (29 percent).

Because theme parks are self-contained, curated ecosystems, intimacy comes naturally to them. From the moment you walk into Disney World or Universal Studios, you’re immersed in a visual, audible, tangible, edible, thematic experience that aims to make you feel like you’re a part of the magic of the brand’s characters, stories, and worlds.

We’ve decoded what theme parks do so well to build ultimate brand relationships and detailed our findings below.

A LITTLE LESS FULFILLMENT, A LITTLE MORE INDULGENCE

Of our six brand intimacy archetypes, theme park brands outscored hotels on five, particularly with higher scores for nostalgia (focusing on memories of the past and the warm, poignant feelings associated with them) and indulgence (centering on moments of pampering and gratification). While theme parks tend to prioritize nostalgia and indulgence, hotels focus on fulfillment (related to exceeding expectations and delivering superior service, quality, and efficacy). This is one of the key differences between these two segments. Theme parks have stronger associations with nearly all of the archetypes than do hotels, indicating that they are able to create richer, more well-rounded experiences in general, but their enormous lead in indulgence and nostalgia highlights their key focus: appealing to our need for pampering and our desire to make and relive precious memories.

CONNECTING WITH MILLENNIALS WHERE IT COUNTS

When targeting millennials, building real bonds requires real action. Universal has done this by tapping into the franchises and stories that millennials love, like Harry Potter, The Walking Dead,  The Fast and the Furious, and the Simpsons, and it’s working. From 2014 to 2016, millennials comprised almost half of Universal’s attendance, which undoubtedly resulted from some of its new attractions.2 Immediately following the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, the park saw a 25 percent rise in millennial visits.3 Disney is beginning to do something similar with Marvel franchises in its West Coast and international parks, opening the Iron Man Experience at Disney California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland as well as a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction in California. However, Universal’s licensing deal prevents Disney from using Marvel franchises at Disney World in Florida.4 Perhaps another explanation for theme parks’ popularity with millennials is the group’s association with the indulgence archetype. According to our study, indulgence is the archetype most associated with consumers under 35, while older consumers prioritize fulfillment.

THE SWEET ESCAPE OF ENTERTAINMENT

One of the overarching findings of our 2017 Brand Intimacy Study was that consumers (particularly millennials) are seeking an escape from the real world in the form of media and entertainment. Whether it’s the result of a contentious political climate or simply a reaction to modern stresses, consumers are flocking to brands that provide escape. This is where theme parks strike gold. They offer immersive, rich experiences that provide an unmatched variety of things to do, see, eat, and buy. Theme parks provide nonstop, over-the-top entertainment and a suite of products and activities that give guests more ways to interact with the brand and fewer reasons to return to the real world, all while stoking the fires of desire to return.

USING TECHNOLOGY FOR CUSTOMIZATION, CURATION, AND CONVENIENCE

As new technologies emerge in the industry, the magic of the theme park will become even more realistic. While advancements in robotics, automatically guided vehicles, and virtual reality will make for more exciting and realistic experiences, IoT-enabled wristbands, such as Disney’s MagicBands, and smart applications will make parks more interactive and tailor experiences to consumers by storing and sharing relevant data.5 MagicBands can be used to make financial transactions, adding convenience and ease to any purchase. With the MagicBands and the My Disney Experience app, guests can plan every minute of their visit, making their time at the park more productive and convenient. The MagicBands delight guests and make for a more frictionless visit, automatically opening hotel rooms and giving guests access to FastPass lines in the parks. While guests are at the parks, Disney will use their MagicBands to organize photographs from their rides, allowing each guest to access photos of themselves through the PhotoPass service. Universal isn’t far behind—its connected wearable, TapuTapu (launching this summer), will allow guests to avoid long lines and even trigger interactive water features throughout its parks.6 These devices allow for some exciting ways to engage, but they also let brands tailor the guests’ experiences and provide convenience and ease during their trip.

CRAFTING A CUSTOMER JOURNEY

Theme parks are masters at building relationships before visitors even arrive. This gives the brand an opportunity to work its magic and create a strong emotional connection. Disney does this extremely well. From the moment consumers book a visit, they’re encouraged to download the My Disney Experience mobile app, which allows them to explore the attractions and plan their itinerary.7 Guests’ experience with the park can begin months before they arrive, and even months after, as Disney will use information from itineraries to suggest future deals and packages, inviting guests to return for their next trip. The My Disney Experience app provides guests with convenient features, such as maps and ride descriptions, but it also ties the customer’s journey together, playing an important role at every step of the way. Also, it works with the MagicBand, allowing guests to follow their itineraries from their wrists.

IF YOU’RE NOT UNIQUE, YOU’RE WEAK

Theme parks curate and craft proprietary experiences. They use varied methods, content, and characters and are able to manifest one-of-a-kind entertainment ecosystems that delight and engage. Whether it’s Diagon Alley or Jurassic Park, a key to theme parks’ ability to build intimacy involves creating a unique, ownable experience that consumers can’t get anywhere else.

CONCLUSION

While no one method exists for building brand intimacy, examining brands that have been successful provides inspiration and insight. The lessons learned from theme parks can be applied to related industries that face commoditization and the growing dominance of e-commerce—think retail, travel, and hospitality. By delivering pervasive, curated, and distinct experiences, theme parks have changed and expanded the idea of entertainment and offer many much-needed escapes. These brands bond and build deep connections with visitors, something all brands can learn from.

Check out our Brand Intimacy Ranking Tool, built from 54,000 brand assessments.

To download the full Brand Intimacy 2017 Report or explore the Ranking Tool, please visit: mblm.com/brandintimacy/.

Read our detailed methodology here and review the sources cited in this article here.

To learn more about MBLM, click here.

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