This article outlines what professional services marketers can learn about demand generation from Lego and Disney.
A recent article I wrote about the push/pull of marketing and business development in a professional services practice outlines how the two functions co-exist — marketing creates demand, business development books revenue. That article underpins much of our current thinking on how to sustainably grow a professional services firm. In it, we emphasize the importance of being well-balanced. We make the case for investing in marketing to build demand for tomorrow while sustaining a healthy business development effort to create revenue for today. That said, my experience is most firms struggle a bit with the demand generation side of the coin.
So, what does demand generation really look like? Sure, we could point to mega firms like McKinsey and how they’re putting their thumb right on the heartbeat of digitization these days. We could look back at transformative programs that shaped whole industries and firms a la business process reengineering in the 80s and 90s. Or, we could look inside our own client base to thought leadership programs focused on organizational transformation, working capital management in middle market companies, or operational excellence in manufacturing. But, sometimes we find it’s a lot more useful to look elsewhere. We seek examples in everyday life that can make a point more clearly or more emphatically.
A Tale of Two Theme Parks
This is a story that came to me over 2 days on Spring Break. It’s a quick take on theme park marketing — not that we’re experts on that. Rather, we’ll share examples of how some theme parks create their own demand and how others work to book revenue. Then, we’ll show how it applies to your professional services firm.
Legoland: The Demand Generator
Day one of my demand/revenue example begins at Legoland. With ticket prices hovering around $100/person, Legoland isn’t cheap but it doesn’t disappoint either. The entire park is, of course, built on top of the Lego brick (or rather like 5M of them). The anchor is Miniland — Lego-built replicas of cities all over the world from NYC to San Francisco.
Positioned around the park are 20-30 Lego themed rides. While some of the rides are quite unique (an interactive Ninjago ride lets you battle Lego bad guys, a Chima ride that lets you fire water cannons), most really aren’t that different from any local theme park near you — a wooden roller coaster, a “beetle” jumper, a two-story carousel. Strip away the themes and the Lego models, and many of the rides themselves you could find practically anywhere.
The lines were typical — short in the morning; longer as the day wore on. And, the service was average — we waited almost 20 minutes for a couple of over-priced milkshakes delivered with indifference at best. But, the kids had a blast — they got to see some amazing Lego builds and some of their favorite Lego-inspired worlds come to life.
Like Disney, Legoland is one of those places people come to Orlando specifically to visit. The company builds its own demand. The theme park largely exists to fill it. Lego toys activate children’s imaginations and occupy them for hours on end. The theme park provides a chance to bring those experiences to life. And, visitors are willing to pay a premium, wait in long lines, and accept little more than adequate service to do so.
Legoland is an example of what demand generation looks like — the company leverages its own R&D (toy designs) to create interest in a service (theme parks) that exceeds the available capacity of it (note the long lines), enabling it to charge more and make more along the way.
FunSpot: The Revenue Booker
The very next day we took the kids to a local area theme park called FunSpot. Unless you’re an Orlando resident or regular visitor, my guess is you’ve never heard of this place. In fact, we’ve taken our family to Orlando at least 4-5x and I didn’t even know it existed until the day we went.
Tickets were $50/person (so, half the cost). The theme park had 2-3 roller coasters, a space for little kids with 8-10 rides (including a “frog” jumper and a carousel) and 2-3 different Go-Kart tracks. Are you seeing the trend? Many of these rides were virtually the same as those at Legoland, though there were certainly a few less of them and they lacked a central, governing theme.
The lines were shorter, and the service was outstanding. The people working there were kind and courteous and went out of their way to help (especially with the younger kids). Some of the workers even went so far to tell me that they were better compensated than they would be at one of the larger parks (they gave specifics but I won’t share those here). At the end of the day, the kids had just what was advertised = a day of good, clean fun.
By contrast with Legoland, I doubt too many people come to Orlando just for a visit to FunSpot. Yet, all in, if you strip away the Lego theme, the experience was better — comparable rides, more time riding, less time waiting, better service, at half the price. Despite all that, far more people probably walk through the turnstiles at Legoland, even while paying a premium to do so.
FunSpot is an example of what revenue booking feels like — with no evident internal demand generation engine, the company relies on external demand factors (people visiting Orlando for other reasons) to create opportunities to market itself (flyers in hotels?, local SEM?). The service is great (might cost more) which likely drives some word-of-mouth business, but likely not so much that interest in the service (a theme park) greatly exceeds capacity (see: shorter lines).
But, Let’s Not Forget the Giant Mouse in the Room
8 of the top 10 theme parks, by attendance, in the world are owned by Disney. So, it would seem they’re great theme park marketers. In fact, I would argue that Walt Disney himself was one of the greatest marketers of all time. And, much of the company’s theme park success over the last 50 years has largely been due to its ability to follow a very simple formula that he conceived when looking to build Disneyland in the 1950s.
This marketing approach was one of Walt Disney’s wonderful innovations. Rather than financing the project through a bank (which were showing tepid interest in it), he went to ABC. In exchange for funding the park, he agreed to develop television programming for the fledgling network. Characters like Davy Crockett were brought to life on screen and thousands of young boys showed up at Frontierland in their “coonskin” caps to enjoy the rides. Walt Disney was literally creating demand for all of his theme park attractions through his characters and stories.
This same formula drives Disney parks today. Demand for the theme parks is driven largely by success in character and story development. Families come to meet Cinderella or Elsa, to fly to Neverland or experience Radiator Springs in stunning detail rather than simply to ride the rides. Today, demand for these experiences is so great that consumers from all over the world pay thousands of dollars to visit and are willing to plan those visits down to the hour over 2 months in advance using Disney’s FastPass+ system. The company has built so much demand that consumers are literally willing to inconvenience themselves to buy. Yet, it’s achieved all this with comparatively little marketing of its actual theme parks (relative to the investments it makes in marketing its characters, stories and movies).
Disney is an example of demand generation in its most successful form — the company creates so much demand (through characters and stories) for its experiences (themes, character experiences, cruises and hotels) that interest far exceeds available capacity. Consumers pay a massive premium for those experiences. They’ll even pay third-party middlemen and advisors to help them learn how to consume those experiences in the best way possible. As a result, the company positions many of those experiences as once-in-a-lifetime moments. It’s literally its own economy.
Thought Leadership is Your “Princesses”
So, I know what you’re thinking — that was interesting, but I can’t really use plastic bricks or soundtracks to sell my professional services either now or in the future. But, you can and must create demand. And, thought leadership is your tool to do so.
To quote my good friend, Bob Buday, “Thought leadership acts as your firm’s research and development.” It helps you create the agenda for what’s next. Through original primary research, it helps you identify best practices ways to solve problems that you might not otherwise have seen and to identify potential opportunities not yet realized. Subsequently, it enables you to shape how clients think about those important challenges and opportunities in their own businesses. It helps you articulate smarter and better ways to solve those problems. It provides proof that those solutions actually work by providing specific examples from within your client base and beyond. And, it can do all those things at scale — meaning it can do it for you when you’re not in the room.
Are McKinsey consultants inherently smarter or better than those of any boutique firm? Surely some are. After all, the firm’s reputation enables it to hire the top students from the top schools. Yet, just as many surely are not. Do ex-McKinsey or ex-Accenture consultants litter the ranks of leadership and consulting teams in smaller firms everywhere? Of course. Do those consultants suddenly lose their unique insight and ability the moment they leave? Of course not.
All that said, what McKinsey has built over the last 50 years is the industry’s quintessential and most effective demand generation machine. The firm’s thought leadership ensures they’re always out in front of what’s next for senior client executives. As a result, it’s practically mandatory for a senior executive to pay attention to what they’re saying and what they’re publishing. In the end, clients are willing to pay a premium to access their advice and will often inconvenience themselves to do so.
Market This to Sell That
When I described this article that had been bouncing around in my head to a friend of mine, she described it as an article of “unlikely allies.” My goal in telling this story wasn’t to offer theme park marketing 101. Rather it was to encourage you to think a little bit differently about how you market your firm.
There’s a tendency in any business to feel compelled to market exactly what you hope to sell. But, often a more circuitous route turns out to be more successful in the long run. It seems logical that if you want to market a theme park that you’d market the theme park itself — the rides, the shows, the experience. But, what these examples show is that there’s far more margin to be gained by marketing something else entirely — in this case, to create characters and stories that, in turn, create demand for those theme parks.
The same holds true for professional services. Logic dictates that if you hope to sell transportation engineering services that you should market how your firm solves transit problems and its deep expertise in doing so. While this may work perfectly well, a better course of action may be to develop a unique point-of-view on the very future of our transit system or to present a contrarian opinion on how to fund that future.
Thought leadership of this sort opens clients minds to what could be. It enables them to envision new possibilities not previously considered (much like those Disney stories and Lego bricks enable children to envision whole new worlds). And, of course, It creates interest in all the services that would be needed to make those possibilities, painted so vividly by your thought leadership, future reality. In the end, it creates tangible future demand for your practice.
A firm that relies entirely on referrals, word-of-mouth and business development prowess is likely leaving both longer-term revenue and profit on the table. By contrast, a firm that makes regular investments in thought leadership creates more demand and as a result has the potential to charge a premium for its services.