Disney vs. DeSantis reveals “wholesome” truths about brand purpose

Words by Jim Prior
Date 2023-05-24

Early in my career as a brand consultant, I read Collins and Porras’ seminal 1994 text, Built to Last. A section on Disney has stuck in my mind ever since.

One of the company’s stated aims — that, when considered today, might be best described as Purpose — was, “to promulgate wholesome American values.”

At the time, I found this remarkable for two reasons: first for its mouth-filling language and second for its arrogance. To assert that a private corporation has the right to promote the values of a nation makes one hell of an assumption, to say the very least, but certainly so when you factor in that we’re talking about a fiercely pluralist society like the U.S.

Disney laid claim to be the nation’s moral arbiter; the definer of what is or is not wholesome — and underneath that single word lies a socio-political minefield that rarely pauses from exploding, as was the case then and still is the case now.

But in practice, Disney (and its magic) managed to keep the moralizing mostly in check, and in the many years since I first read that book, things have moved forward and that particular phrase has been transferred to the archives.

Its spirit still hovers around the castle, however, and may be coming back to haunt us now.

Case in point: Disney is suing Florida governor Ron DeSantis, claiming that he waged a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power” against the company (more mouth-filling language) and is unfairly infringing upon its ability to successfully operate its business.

In a countersuit, DeSantis claims that Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, operates without necessary municipal control across its vast business interests in Florida. The dispute stems from Disney’s public opposition to a Florida state bill that sought to limit conversation about gender and sexual orientation in schools.

The lawsuits all feel a long way away from the quintessential Disney image of happy children hugging Mickey Mouse. There are no big smiles and cute waves here. We’ve somehow changed the channel from Toy Story to a boxing bout between two bloated fighters who appear to care about the paycheck more than the belt. In the blue corner, Disney, the $180B business. In the red corner, DeSantis, a likely contender for the U.S. presidency.

Both believe they wholeheartedly have the right to set the moral code for America – one through self-appointed entitlement, the other through the polarized and distorted version of democracy that defines today’s politics.

It’s a bizarre yet strangely compelling fight. It is depressingly symbolic of our times. And dare I say it, it’s a design drama.

There are many big discussion points wrapped up in the dispute. Is big business too big, too powerful and insufficiently unaccountable? Do politics work in service of the people or in service of itself? While a gigantic public spat such as this is unlikely to provide answers to these questions, at least it serves some purpose in flagging them.

I believe marketers can learn from what this says about the nature of a brand purpose — specifically, what it really means to have one and the difference between actions and words.

As an industry, one of our broadest self-imposed issues with brand purpose is our tendency to debate the words used to describe a purpose more so than its intended meaning. For instance, “wholesome” troubled me twenty years ago when I first read it, and I wonder to what extent its original author would correlate its intent at that time to Disney’s stance today.

As ugly and un-Disney-like as this fight may be, I applaud Disney for standing up for what it believes. I’d hazard the guess that many readers support its rejection of the Florida gender identity bill.

The fact that Disney has done this while acknowledging the risks says all we should need to know about its values. This is brand purpose in action. It has resonance in the world, and it forces society to make a choice. Be with us (in our theme parks, movie theaters and digital screens) and support us, or be against us and stay away.

If, as an organization with global power and influence, you are going to hold firm to a brand purpose, then this is the kind of thing you have to do. Simply crafting 100 banal words is not good enough.

As Disney looks to build again under Bob Iger after last year’s significant business challenges, this is an assertive, solid start. I, for one, look forward to seeing what’s to come.

First published in Campaign US.