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Disney forced into strategic gamble against Florida bill, brand experts say

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FILE – In this Jan. 9, 2019 photo, guests watch a show near a statue of Walt Disney and Micky Mouse in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, part of the Orlando area in Fla. Orlando had 75 million visitors last year as the theme park mecca continued to be the most visited destination in the United States, tourism officials said Thursday, May 9, 2019. (John Raoux/AP)

Disney forced into strategic gamble against Florida bill, brand experts say

April 01, 07:00 AM April 01, 07:00 AM

Executives at Disney have been forced to oppose a controversial Florida education legislation, brand consultants say, a strategic gamble the company embraced only after trying to stay above the fray.

Disney was thrust into the national spotlight after a cadre of activist employees and a left-leaning subset of the public urged it to oppose the Florida legislation, which is called the Parental Rights in Education bill but has been branded the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by detractors.

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Initially, Disney did not take a position on the legislation, which would ban classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade. CEO Bob Chapek first said in a memo to staff that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes” and are often divisive.

But after employee outrage, which included walkouts, the company relented and came out in full-throated opposition to the now-signed legislation.


“Disney Parks, Experiences and Products is committed to creating experiences that support family values for every family, and will not stand for discrimination in any form,” its statement reads. “We oppose any legislation that infringes on basic human rights, and stand in solidarity and support our LGBTQIA+ cast, crew, guests and fans who make their voices heard today and every day.”

The decision to wade into the mire of partisan state politics is a major gamble, but experts in marketing and brand management contend that after much research, the company likely decided that its reputation and business interests would be best served by public opposition.

“Before a company does anything, believe me, they run the numbers up and down and left and right,” said James Bailey, professor of leadership at George Washington University’s School of Business.

Bailey told the Washington Examiner that Disney has accountants, marketing people, and focus groups that have been able to suss out that their business model will be better off by pushing back on the legislation — at the risk of losing some conservative customers. He said the move could possibly gain some new liberal customers.

“So what Disney does by fighting this is perpetuate this idea that they are a progressive company,” Bailey said. “For Disney to step up and say, ‘Hey, we’re a progressive company, and you can’t tell us what to do,’ is actually helping their reputation. And so this is Disney being Disney and adhering to their values, but it’s also Disney making money.”

In shifting course, Chapek told shareholders the company was “opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

Also worth noting is Disney’s large presence in Florida and its status as one of the state’s largest private employers. Disney World and other company endeavors are run out of the Sunshine State. That, coupled with the push from activists, undoubtedly contributed to Disney executives’ decision to go public with its corporate opposition.

Christine Wright-Isak is a marketing and communications professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who spent two decades in the branding industry before turning to teaching. She said that while the company wants to keep its employees appeased, she thinks the employee pressure likely had less to do with Disney’s response than what the company thinks about the customers who walk through the gate and pay for Disney’s products and services.

“So when we talk about Disney and who populates Disney and who works for Disney and what their families might be like, they may not fit the profile that’s preferred by some powers that be in Florida,” she told the Washington Examiner.

As Disney ratcheted up its opposition, so too did the pushback from conservatives — a demographic that might be influenced by Disney’s public posturing.

Prominent conservative activist Christopher Rufo said, “Waging moral war against Disney, we are directly targeting their public reputation.” The company’s stock has declined more than 3% since that statement, within normal fluctuations.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office attacked the company for filming one of its recent feature films in a region of China where the country has been accused of waging genocide and then thanking the Chinese Communist Party. The governor’s office contrasted that stance with opposition to the education bill.


Bonnie Caver, president of Reputation Lighthouse, said in a statement to the Washington Examiner that decisions like the one Disney made to come out swinging against the legislation are done with the desire to appeal to the widest number of stakeholders.

“Understanding their stakeholders enough to make these decisions can be tricky for a multinational corporation that is doing business in global markets across a wide variety of offerings where laws and cultures may not align with the global brand,” she said. “This also requires ongoing communication and conversations with all stakeholders to share why the company has decided to take action, steps it will take in its advocacy process, and the result it is trying to achieve.”

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