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Walt Disney: Celebrating the Man Behind the Mouse

The Walt Disney Company has gone from strength to strength for generations with nary a stumble; not so Walt Disney the man. His personal story of setbacks and innovations is an inspiring one, and serves to remind us how precious creativity is precisely because it can be so maddeningly ephemeral.

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This was one of the stories that Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, wanted to tell when she opened The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. To publicize the many interactive exhibits on offer, the institution engaged the services of that city’s 300FeetOut, which did so in fun and cutting-edge ways. In the process, the branding firm itself became another link in the chain of that beloved innovator’s long history.

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‘Come Along and Join the Fun!’
Walt Disney parlayed a childhood love of drawing into a multimedia empire that currently generates nearly $50 billion annually, yet few but the most diehard fans know much about the man or his life. That was something his daughter was determined to change.

Diane Disney Miller founded The Walt Disney Family Museum in 2009. A non-profit organization not affiliated with The Walt Disney Company, the museum was owned and operated by the Walt Disney Family Foundation until it achieved 501(c)3 status recently. The resulting 40,000-square-foot museum entertainingly pieces together the man’s legacy, “the mistakes he made early on in his career, and the ramifications for Hollywood today,” says 300FeetOut CEO Barbara Stephenson. “It’s an incredible story.”

Yet getting people in the door was partially down to the website, which was pretty basic when the museum first opened. As 300FeetOut was well respected in that sector having done work for San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center, the museum came calling.

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An ‘Oswald’ Interlude
To appreciate how things developed with the website, it helps to understand the ups and downs faced by Walt Disney himself.

“There are very few museums that do these things really well, that take somebody’s life and have you understand the decisions they made, the problems they had,” Stephenson observes. “This is one of the best, with quite a story to tell.”

While the man is best remembered for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest of his spirited characters, the animated critter that truly set the course for his many successes was a rabbit called Oswald, perhaps Disney’s greatest business misstep.

Created by Disney and animator Ub Iwerks in the 1920s, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit became a smash hit for Universal Studios, but the pair lost the rights to the character, which would be handled by other producers and animators for years to come. Disney and Iwerks would be more careful with their next creation: a little mouse called Mickey.

“So that’s why Walt Disney and Hollywood now have incredibly strict, tight contracts,” says Stephenson. “And that’s one of the reasons why we were very involved with [the company’s legal department] before we launched the site because there are certain things you can say and certain things you can’t.”

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‘All of the Museum at Once’
To get the entire museum involved in the creation of the new website, 300FeetOut held a day-long meeting in 2010 with a number of decision makers at the institution. From that, they compiled a wish list of everything they’d like to see in a website. Recalls Stephenson, “One of the key things that came out of this was the website should be as creative as Walt was.

Working closely with the communications director and the interim museum director, they began building a website in 2011 that was extremely ambitious for its day.

“We didn’t want people to just click here for tickets, click here for this exhibit, click here for that,” she explains. “We wanted people to be able to get lost and to just find little pieces of information,” though there was also a more straight-forward navigation option available for the less adventurous. “It had features nobody had ever built before; everything had to be coded from scratch.”

Chief among its accomplishments was the “Explore” feature, which was a place for users to interact with Walt Disney’s story, innovations and accomplishments.

“You could click on one of the radio widgets and you would hear audio of Walt talking,” Stephenson remembers. “You could click on a TV widget and watch a video. You could click on any of these and they would take you to different areas of the site…. There were 8 to12 items hovering on the page and reacting to the user’s mouse. You would mouse-over these widgets and then it would randomly pull data points from the library.” In short, “We wanted someone to experience all of the museum at once.”

Changes
Very well received by the public, the website itself picked up a Gold Adrian Award from the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI) in 2012, the year it debuted, as well as a gold Communicator Award. Yet shortly after launch, the museum went to work changing it, ultimately removing or concealing the very features that had made it stand out

Having gone through two executive directors and three communications heads over the two years it took to develop – at one point the project was even shelved for a quarter – the fate of the website seemed to mirror the ups and downs of Disney’s own creative life.

“I don’t want this to be a sob story about ‘oh you can build these beautiful things for people but in the end you have to give it up to the client,’ ” says Stephenson. “There are still people at the museum that we worked with to develop this site that we adore – they did everything they could to maintain its integrity.”

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Show, Don’t Tell (But Don’t Show)
If the new Powers That Be had a different vision for the website, they still highly valued 300FeetOut’s creative approach.

In fact, Stephenson and co. were still up to their eyeballs in site development when the communications director came to them to develop a holiday campaign for the museum. The result: a marketing blitz comprised of outdoor signage, banner ads, and print design that 300FeetOut crafted…in a weekend. And they weren’t allowed to use any of Disney’s characters.

“The museum itself is a family thing, it’s not affiliated with Disney corporate,” Stephenson explains. And so “there are a lot of very strict rules and regulations about it.”

What they came up with were three campaign designs in three eye-catching colors, all cleverly using language and imagery that evoked those beloved characters without actually showing them.

The “Give the Gift of Goofy” sign, for example, featured a shape that might suggest the ears of that famous dog if you wanted to see it that way without actually using the character’s image.

“We may have been pushing it a bit there,” Stephenson says. “I think the corporation to some degree honors the family and what Walt has done and they don’t begrudge the family wanting to be able to tell this story.”

Next came a dramatic overhaul of the museum’s member newsletter in 2012. What began life three years earlier as a single 8.5”-x-11” newsprint sheet became, in 300FeetOut’s hands, a 12-page, full-color quarterly magazine containing a pullout in the middle that featured the institution’s programs and activities. “The museum wanted a keepsake,” says Stephenson, “a new collectible for the Disney fans and members.”

For all its ups and downs, The Walt Disney Family Museum experience was a special one for the branding firm. While 300FeetOut’s client list includes a number of iconic American companies, including Microsoft and Visa, Disney is one of only a few brands that is truly an American cultural institution – everybody has a connection to it.

“I have an 11-year-old daughter, so there’s that,” says Stephenson. “But personally it was Disney and the Muppets – that’s what we grew up with; we didn’t have TV like kids do now. We had two shows and maybe Saturday morning cartoons and that was it. We didn’t have VCRs, we didn’t have any of that stuff. Disney was on Sunday night, 7 o’clock. That was my experience with television. Because the ‘MacNeil/Lehrer Report’ was boring,” she laughs. “I got one hour of TV a week and that was usually what I picked. And then I tried to sneak away and watch the Muppets….”

As for the original website 300FeetOut created for the museum, it lives on now only in their own creative vault – one more artifact in the long and eventful history of Walt Disney.

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Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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