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What’s behind Disney’s tumbling reputation? A very close look

By Alex Kadukova | Senior Paid Social Strategist



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August 23, 2023 | 11 min read

Disney’s reputational rankings have been tumbling for years. Impression’s Alex Kadukova analyses why, with a close look at recent controversies.

A live actor in a Minnie Mouse suit, looking surprised or cheeky or shocked

What's driving Disney's reputation down - and how can other brands avoid that pitfall? / Adrián Valverde via Unsplash (character: Disney)

The Walt Disney Company’s brand resonance has been in free-fall since the 2010s and isn’t showing any signs of improvement. It dropped from its peak at number five in the Axios Harris Poll 100 reputation rankings in 2019, to number 77 in 2023. But why is the House of Mouse in hot water? And what can you do to ensure your brand isn’t following in its footsteps?

Let’s start by looking at Disney’s resonance from another angle. The company was ranked the fifth most polarizing brand of 100 this year. That’s one place more polarizing than Pfizer, and two above Meta. This comes in tandem with the entertainment giant voicing its opposition to Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ+ so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill last year, a move that gained favor with Democrats but caused such a large reputation hit with Republicans that Disney’s overall reputation score dropped a dozen spots between 2022 and 2023.

How Disney responded

Disney’s highly public dispute with DeSantis is now entering a new chapter, as the company’s recently-announced plans for a nearly $1bn employee campus in Orlando have been canceled. The office complex was expected to bring more than 2,000 jobs to Orlando’s Lake Nona area, with average salaries of $120,000.

But is Disney really standing by its LGBTQ+ employees, fans and supporters? Or is its C-suite looking for ways to claw back some of its lost revenue amid a falling market cap and declining stock price?

The positive impact

If we want to be optimistic, Disney may well be leaning into its values (to create a culture that is welcoming to all) by showing support for the LGBTQ+ community. After all, in 1995 it became one of the first corporations to offer health benefits to same-sex partners of employees, triggering much right-wing backlash. And it has been taking tentative steps to becoming more inclusive with on-screen representation, with Pixar sparking headlines in 2021 for seeking a voice actor to play a “14-year-old transgender girl” in an upcoming project.

And (although not officially organized by the company), Disney World Gay Days are events where LGBTQ+ individuals, their families, friends and supporters go to Walt Disney World on and around the first Saturday in June, bringing upwards of 150,000 LGBTQ+ tourists to the parks each summer.

Despite right-wing concern, going ‘woke’ will in actual fact do the opposite of making you ‘broke’. You can look at the billions in profit yourself. As the global population of consumers continues diversifying (by sexual orientation, gender identity, race and ethnicity and differences in ability), it’s important for businesses to employ authentically inclusive marketing, reflecting a range of backgrounds and experiences, if they expect to effectively connect with future customers.

The other side of the coin: a lost chance to win over DeSantis supporters

However, could it be that this latest development is simply a clever strategy on Disney’s part as it realizes there is no chance of making nice with DeSantis supporters after its blatant opposition of anti-LGBTQ+ law-making?

It’s no secret that Disney has always balanced its support for the LGBTQ+ community with its appeal to a more conservative-leaning crowd. In 2020 the Mouse House donated nearly $1m to the Floridian Republican party and an additional $100k directly to the DeSantis board between 2019 and 2021.

Disney is also battling financial straits: it’s in the process of cutting 7,000 jobs, a restructure prompted by mounting operating losses from its streaming service; Disney+ took an operational loss of $1.5bn in the last quarter of 2022 alone. The restructure is part of a strategy to reduce costs by $5.5bn. Is canceling the Orlando campus just part of an ongoing company-wide cost-cutting strategy?

Disney’s lack of loyalty in either direction, and seemingly insincere actions when it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ employees, fans and supporters (evidenced by donations to the groups determined to silence them) shows that when you divide audiences, you’ll alienate consumers.

78% of consumers make purchasing decisions based on their values; more and more consumers are looking to buy from businesses that support their values.

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You can’t please them all

So, what is the right way to go about it?

There is, of course, no single correct answer. But there are steps you can take to ensure that your brand is curating an authentic, and reputable, online profile.

Your brand can take a stand on social issues, but risks exist. Staying true to your values is a must. Companies trying to appease the political left and right simultaneously are likely doing more damage than good, with most audiences responding negatively to that approach, feeling that the positioning is nothing more than a marketing ploy, which in turn reduces trust and reputability.

It can feel tough to stand by brand beliefs amid controversy, especially if you’re being pulled in different political directions. But consistent brand messaging and presence from the get-go can reduce chances of confusing your audiences and sparking controversy. Disney “didn't have a track record for speaking out on this issue,” then came to the issue late and flip-flopped, said John Gerzema, Harris Poll chief executive.

Although it may be impossible to please every single person who comes into contact with your business, with consistency and strong progressive brand values your business stands to attract customer loyalty and spending power.

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