The Tension Between Efficiency and Magic

If you’re a regular reader of my blog then you know that I have a slight Disney World problem. As a kid, I thought it was a great place to go. As an adult, I appreciate it as a masterful application of design thinking, a carefully crafted illusion designed to enchant and entertain. However, even the Magic Kingdom has bills to pay, and sometimes that creates tension between efficiency and magic.

“Magic” is shorthand for all of the wonderful experiences that customer experience design is supposed to create. Most businesses don’t get to create magic in quite the literal fairytale way that Disney does, but even a fairly mundane business should be able to create the magic of a happy customer smile or surprised look of appreciation. By definition, magic is not mundane – it’s supposed to be special, and create special feelings and memories.

Efficiency, on the other hand, is the most extreme form of mundane. It’s the nuts and bolts of reality, the attempt to squeeze the most of something possible out of things. Whether that “something” is time, money, or capacity, there’s always a little more to be wrung out of the system. While efficiency can have its own cold, austere elegance and beauty it’s rarely magical.

In an organization the size of Walt Disney World, the tension between efficiency and magic is always real. Magic can be really, really expensive, especially at the scale at which Disney operates. Have you priced a monorail or a castle lately? Not cheap. Making things worse, Walt Disney World has a capacity issue: visitor traffic has increased exponentially over the last ten years, but the resort has added only modest improvements. The last major addition was Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1999. While they’ve recently expanded Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom and will soon be adding areas themed around Avatar in the Animal Kingdom and Toy Story and Star Wars in Hollywood Studios, it takes a long time to add capacity.  Constant price increases haven’t reduced the crowds, but they have created some serious grumbling.

It’s not about the ketchup

Not everything has to be magical, just the parts that interact with the customers or guests.  Even among the customer-facing things not everything has equal importance.  So, those with an efficiency mindset tend to chip away at the edges, trying to save some money here and there, hoping that the customers won’t notice or that it’s not important enough to affect their behavior.

When you’re running a premium, customer-centric brand like Disney, even the little things get noticed by the faithful.  This week, for instance, this article appeared, in which the author bemoans the replacement of Heinz brand ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise with an off-brand food supply variety called Red Gold.

Really? We’re complaining about ketchup?

Oh, but this isn’t just some lonely condiment vigilante.  Soon discussion threads like this one were showing up, where many fans of Disney commiserated about the change in condiments, partially because they have an attachment to the specific Heinz products, but even more importantly because they view it as yet another situation where Disney is being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Magic is subjective

On a spreadsheet, I’m absolutely certain that the change in condiments did nothing to reduce Disney’s massive crowds, and it probably saved a few bucks for the Mouse.  That small a change just isn’t enough to show up.

However, the underlying mindset behind the change does show up, and it nags at the minds of the faithful fans. Disney fans in particular are very protective of their perception of the brand, even if it doesn’t match that of its corporate masters.

It’s easy to say that a change like that doesn’t matter, that guests are coming to Walt Disney World for the attractions and entertainment and dining, and that the dining that makes big bucks isn’t the part where you’re squeezing ketchup out of a packet.  But that’s management trying to declare what matters to the guest, and they don’t get to decide that.

The guests do.

Experience is a composite

Customer experience is a composite, an amalgam of many, many different things large and small.  Disney constantly goes through internal struggles of efficiency over magic, and right now efficiency seems to have the upper hand.  Condiments are replaced with cheaper versions, entertainment staff have their hours cut back, and parks have shorter hours.  The crowds keep coming, the prices keep going up, and efficiency-driven changes seem harmless.

In the long term, however, a luxury brand must be extremely cautious with the changes it makes, and Disney parks are most certainly a luxury brand. No one change will break the bank, and a good economy can mask the consequences of a lot of bad choices.  But then the economy stumbles, or the competitor down the street continues to constantly improve on things both large and small.  One day you look up and your traffic has dipped a little, and then it dips a lot, and because you’ve made so many small changes that erode the experience in so many ways you have a touch time catching up.

Michael Eisney walked into just such a situation when he took over Disney in the 80s, and under his management the theme parks and resorts enjoyed a massive resurgence.  His successor, Bob Iger, seems more fiscally focused, and while the parks have made absolutely enormous amounts of money they haven’t dramatically changed from the day that Eisner turned in his golden pass.  Ironically, Eisner was nudged out by Roy E. Disney’s “Save Disney” campaign; Roy was worried that Eisner had become too fiscally focused.

Avoid death by a thousand cuts

Customer experience is a philosophy, not a formula.  By all means pursue efficiency; we’re all in business for a reason, and making money is a pretty important goal.  But when you’re becoming more efficient always ask yourself “does this improve the customer experience?  Will anyone notice and be disappointed by this change?”  Don’t look at each change in isolation, but look at the experience as a whole.

Magic and efficiency aren’t polar opposites, but you have to have a strong focus to keep one from undermining the other.

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