Walt Disney by Travis Gergen

When Bob Iger became Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company 15 years ago, he was faced with how to preserve its brand legacy and keep it relevant in a rapidly changing world. 

Iger was under a lot of pressure to abandon Disney’s core brand values but he did not want to. So he researched companies that had started in 1923 when Disney did and were still around in 2005 when he became CEO, and learned that many of them were no longer in business or struggling. He did not want Disney to be one of those companies that made the wrong choice about its iconic brand.

During a conversation at the Atlantic Festival last week with Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the Emerson Collective and Steve Jobs’ widow, Iger had a lot of wisdom to impart. He has worked at Disney for 42 years, held 20 different jobs within the company and survived 14 different bosses. He was not going to give up easily.

What Iger realized – and what many brands have not successfully done - was that Disney needed to go back to its essence, its roots if you will. He referenced what its founder Walt Disney said about the company which was “We create stories that are made to touch that special place in everybody’s heart.” 

Stories with a strong emotional appeal are memorable and even more important in today’s market when it’s so hard to get people’s attention for a minute, let alone a television show or movie.

So what Disney did, under Iger’s leadership, was to adhere to the same values the company had always had, but use new delivery mechanisms to share those stories. He told Laurene Jobs about how her husband had shown him a video on one of the first iPods that were very tiny. Steve Jobs asked Iger if Apple made the device would Disney make television shows for it? Iger agreed and Disney developed a new distribution channel for its content. 

Disney could now tell the stories it always told but on different platforms. And that made it cool again.

They also discussed how Iger leads. He offered three principles:

1. Optimism – No one wants to follow a pessimist, said Iger, you need to set out the challenge so those who work for you can meet the challenge and succeed.

2. Bold Steps not Baby Steps – In order to succeed, Iger explained, you must take risks with your content and approach.

3. Relentless Pursuit of Perfection – Iger told the story of an 88 year-old sushi chef who already had three Michelin rating stars and was still trying to get to four. 

To learn more you can read Iger’s new book, Ride of a Lifetimes: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of Walt Disney Company published by Random House.

Or you can find Jobs and Iger’s interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5VVq5lKEYg

(Aimee Stern is the president of Brave Now PR & Content in Washington, DC.)