From Disney: Consumer Insights and the Seven Dwarfs

By Scott Kirsner |  May 14, 2014

How should consumer research guide innovation? Disney’s Karen Kricorian addressed that question — with some help from the Seven Dwarfs — on the opening day of the Front End of Innovation conference in Boston this week.

People often position research as antithetical to breakthrough innovation, Kricorian said: “People criticize it because it’s really slow, or because they say consumers aren’t very smart or articulate.”

But she argued that solid research — from online surveys, focus groups, or “shop-alongs” — can provide significant value when a company is developing new products or entering new markets. And research isn’t asking consumers to tell you what they want you to do, she said. “You cannot abdicate your responsibility to be the one who connects the dots, who figures out the right questions to ask, who takes the need you identify and finds something to fulfill it.”

The mission of the consumer insights team at Disney Destinations Marketing, where Kricorian works, is to “help Disney Parks & Resorts maintain a consumer-centric perspective.” That can include giving visitors a GoPro camera and asking them to narrate their experience in the park, or sending a researcher to observe as they dine at a hotel restaurant. She said Disney conducts research with more than three million people a year, and that research happens at every step in product development, from concept generation and screening, through testing and refinement, and even after a product has launched.

Kricorian said that the first movie she saw in a theater was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” — a movie that represented a huge financial, technological, and artistic risk for Walt Disney and his fledgling studio back in 1937. “Disney mortgaged everything he had so that he could make it,” she said — and it became a runaway hit.Kricorian suggested that each dwarf’s personality in the film represents a part of the mindset that is essential for understanding consumer needs and wants — and how a company can fulfill them.

Dopey: “Keep a beginner’s mind, a fresh perspective. Be open to recombining things in unusual ways. When you think you know something, that’s when you need to shake up your thinking.” An example of something many Disney merchandisers wouldn’t have expected to do well: t-shirts and air fresheners branded with giant turkey legs that guests can buy at the theme parks. But “research showed us that one in seven people who buy a turkey leg buy it to take a picture with it,” Kricorian said. “The food is as iconic to people as mouse ears.”

Bashful: “You need to be subtle and go obliquely sometimes,” Kricorian said. “If you go straight at a consumer and say, ‘Should we invent the iPod,’ they’re not going to say yes.” As an example of oblique observation, Kricorian showed pictures of theme park visitors with Disney tattoos — many of them based on the Haunted Mansion and other “darker” attractions and characters. “People were picking out darker pieces, and making them their own,” she said. “It was not the generic Mickey.” That led to new kinds of merchandise to appeal to those customers, like Haunted Mansion themed wine stoppers (though not yet a chain of Disney-licensed tattoo parlors.)

Grumpy: Seek out the misery, and don’t be afraid to wallow in it. “At Disney, it can be hard for people to be honest about what’s not working. When people spend money on something, they don’t want to believe that they made a mistake. I ask a lot of questions that are negatively tinged: Did you have any negative interactions with cast members? Did you have any negative interactions with other guests?” Those kinds of questions have pointed Disney to areas for improvement, like keeping guests entertained while they’re waiting on the sidewalk for a parade to begin.

Doc: “You want to have a critical eye when you’re examining things, and not take them at face value, like Doc when he’s examining gemstones. The details matter. Charles Eames said, ‘The details are not the details. They make the design.'”

Happy: “Know that you can probably fix it if you mess up.” As an example, she cited the California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, which attracted unflattering comparisons to its next-door neighbor, Disneyland, when it first opened in 2001. “Consumers helped us identify what wasn’t working,” Kricorian said, and Disney dove into a major upgrade, including a new entrance, shows, and an entirely new area based on the Pixar movie “Cars.”

Sneezy: Sometimes every job starts to feel like a job. “You need to clear your sinuses,” Kricorian said. “Go back out and remember why you’re here in the first place. Why are you doing this?” As an example of something new she found to inspire her, she showed a picture of a security guard at Disneyland, pictured above, who asks the princesses he meets to sign their name in his book.

The only dwarf absent from Kricorian’s talk? Sleepy…For obvious reasons.