10 Things I Learned from Disney – #9: Never Underestimate Your Customer’s Imagination

marypoppins45-06Perhaps one of the greatest rewards for any company is when they can unleash the power of their customer’s imaginations. Our imagination is a supremely powerful human gift. Imagination drives everything that is wonderful about human culture. Every achievement we’ve made, every piece of art ever created, every book written, all comes from the same wellspring – our imagination. We are never more completely, uniquely, wonderfully human than when we are imagining.

When we imagine, we create an inner reality that lives apart from the world around us. It is a world of our making, envisioned in our minds eye. But we can also use our imaginations to share the vision of another, drawing it into our inner world and ensure that it resonates with our own beliefs and views. This sharing of a vision was the special gift that Disney shared with us. From the imaginations of the Walt Disney company came spectacular visions and make believe worlds, and the door was always open to welcome us inside. Like the sidewalk chalk drawings of Mary Poppin’s Bert, these were richly imagined worlds that we could share in. We could fly and stay young forever. We could find our Prince (or Princess) and live happily ever after. We could each have our own Fairy Godmother. If we were in a darker mood, we could experience the terror of a Night on Bald Mountain, or of being transformed into a donkey on Pleasure Island.

Disney never underestimated the power of imagination. It was a corporation fuelled by imagination. But even with all the imagination that could be found within Disney, it would have all been meaningless if we did not have the imagination to share in their vision. Works of imagination are like seeds..they need to land in fertile ground to germinate and bloom. Someone without imagination can find no magic in a Beethoven symphony, a tale by Dickens or a Disney movie.

Of course, you can package entertainment in easily digestible, bit sized pieces. And certainly Disney turned out their share of mindless entertainment. It took no prodigious intellectual effort to find the meaning in a Silly Symphony cartoon short, Herbie the Love Bug or The Shaggy D.A. But Disney also asked us to flex the muscles of our imagination with works like Fantasia, Mary Poppins or even Bambi. He believed animation could be high art and he didn’t offer mental short cuts as entry points.

The more important the work of art, the more the creator asks from the audience in terms of sheer imagining horsepower. Those that underestimate that power pander to the lowest common denominator. The easy path is to rely on our animal responses. But the path that challenges us as humans raises us to a different level. It requires us to appreciate with our minds. Imagination is one of those things that pay you back for the effort you put in. If you take the easy path, you’ll be rewarded with fleeting pleasure. But if you mine the depths of your imagination, you’ll discover entire new worlds as well as new ways of looking at the world around you. When Disney was at it’s best, it offered us rich imaginary offerings that resonated at a deep and fundamental level.

Lesson #9: If imagination is your stock and trade, don’t underestimate the imagination machinery of your audience. Push the limits and both you and they will be rewarded.

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