The timeless Disney marketing campaign that solidified its place in American pop-culture
If someone were to ask you, “What are you going to do next?” would the phrase, “I’m going to Disneyland?” automatically pop into your head? For many, the answer would be a resounding, “Yes,” but do you know the origins of this iconic Disney marketing campaign? It all started at a dinner between then Disney CEO Micheal Eisner, his wife Jane, and two high profile guests, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager.
Rutan and Yeager, pilots of the aircraft Voyager, which completed the first around the world non-stop flight, were special guests at the grand opening of Disneyland’s Star Wars attraction in 1987. At dinner that evening, the Disney’s “What’s Next?” campaign found its beginnings. Jane asked the two pilots what they would do next now that they had successfully completed their flight. Yeager replied, “We’re going to Disneyland!” (Santoli, 2015).
Celebrating a milestone event with a trip to Disneyland or Disney World radiated marketing potential. Disney’s team immediately began work on the campaign aired their first “What’s Next?” TV Spot shortly after the 1987 Superbowl.
But how did Disney identify ‘winners’ and have their footage ready to air so quickly after an event or game? The answer – lots of communication and coordination. Since the campaign began pre-internet, the footage was either hand-delivered or sent via satellite for senior leadership approval and network distribution. The footage itself was usually edited on-site at the event or game in real-time. The tricky part was getting visuals to sync up with the classic Disney song, When you Wish Upon A Star. Disney approached athletes or celebrities beforehand with contracts for their participation. Since it was impossible to know the outcome of an event like the Super Bowl, several athletes were offered contracts in the event they became that year’s MVP.
As the years went on, Disney got better and faster at producing these spots with many airing within hours after the game. Once Disney acquired ABC and ESPN in 1996, the process naturally became more efficient and streamlined. Although probably most famous for its association with Super Bowl MVPs, the campaign also produced TV spots for the World Series, NBA finals, and the Olympics, just to name a few. It’s important to note that campaign participants did actually go to Disneyland or Disney World. Their trips included appearances and parades, all with extensive media coverage.
While it can be argued that participants are paid to ‘say the phase,’ and therefore the campaign may lack authenticity, the campaign’s longevity has since eased or erased those sentiments.
Patrick Mahomes, MVP of the Kansas City Chiefs Superbowl 2020 win, tweeted seven years ago of his desire to utter the famous phase. The now 25-year-old was 17 at the time of that particular tweet and most likely grew up watching “What’s Next?” spots on TV. Market Insider estimated those five words brought Disney $1 billion in sales (Mohamed, 2020). However, shortly after this year’s Super Bowl, Disney closed its theme parks worldwide due to COVID. It is unlikely that the endorsement reached anywhere near the original estimated number within fiscal year 2020.
In 2019, after WWE superstar Kofi Kingston became the new WWE Champion, he paid homage to the campaign in his tweet (seen right). The two associated phrases are intrinsically linked and appear organically in conversation and social media.
The real value of this campaign is impossible to quantify. Jack Lindquist, former director of Marketing and first President of Disneyland, reflects in his book that the phrase, “We’re going to Disneyland,” has become part of the American lexicon (Lindquist, 2010). Although Disney still uses the campaign (however sparingly) even 33 years later, its real legacy has forever solidified its place within American pop-culture. It becomes difficult to separate the phase, “What are you going to do next?” from Disney.
There are several overviews of this particular Disney campaign on the internet. Disney owned, ABC.com ran one such article back in 2016. However, I prefer the first-hand accounts of those early years from Disney Legend Jack Lindquist in his book, In Service to the Mouse: My Unexpected Journey to Becoming Disneyland’s First President and the book of one of his subordinates, Inside the Disney Marketing Machine: In the Era of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells by Lorraine Santoli. Both books emphasize the struggles of coordination and the limitations of technology at the time of the campaign’s inception. If you are interested in Disney marketing both are worth a read.
Lindquist, J., & Combs, M. J. (2010). In service to the mouse: My unexpected journey to becoming Disneyland’s first president: A memoir. Orange, CA: Neverland Media and Chapman University Press.
Mohamed, T. (2020, February 5). Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes made $1 billion for Disney with 5 words, experts say | Markets Insider. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/super-bowl-patrick-mahomes-made-billion-disney-5-words-value-2020-2-1028878034
Santoli, L. (2015). Inside the Disney marketing machine: In the era of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Etats-Unis: Theme Park Press.