How Frozen Did It: Lessons in Success from Disney’s Most Recent Hit

Walt Disney Animation Studios regained its former glory and splendor last winter with the new princess film Frozen. For fans who remember the days when The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were released within a span of 5 years to worldwide critical acclaim, Frozen seems like a return to form.

The recent addition of Pixar’s head directors to the creative team seems to herald a new age for Disney. After Frozen earned a record setting 1.2 billion dollars worldwide, the studio is ready to produce a long run of blockbuster animated films.

Since the day it opened, Frozen has enjoyed unparalleled success. The hit song “Let It Go” has been played, performed, and parodied more than any hit by Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, while the DVDs and other branded merchandise fly off the shelves faster than milk and bread during a snowstorm.

Disney’s steps to success are not a complicated secret formula. Let’s take a look at the most important business and marketing lessons from Frozen.

Lesson #1: Use What You Know

Disney has been famous for princess-themed animated musicals for over 75 years, since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When you have mastered a particular trope so that it has become your bread and butter, there’s no reason to abandon the experience and knowledge that you have amassed. Disney makes and sells princess movies the way politicians make promises – unceasingly, fervently, and with a great deal of success even when they don’t deliver.

There is no reason for Disney to step away from its famous theme, especially when it has the materials to make a successful new movie. This is true of any business, yours included. Microsoft will continue to make computers, Coca-Cola will continue to make soft drinks, and Quentin Tarantino will continue to make violent movies. Use what you know.

Lesson #2: Listen To Criticism

One of the biggest criticisms of Disney princess films is the tendency to highlight a female protagonists in distress who must be saved by the strong male character. Over time the studio has worked hard to shed this image by creating independent and spirited princesses. Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is a hard working girl who would never give up on her dreams, and Tangled’s Rapunzel is, despite her charming naiveté, quite capable of taking care of herself (she was downright dangerous with a frying pan).

Despite these characters, criticism remained that they weren’t strong enough, or that they still needed a man to be happy. Frozen’s writers were determined there would be two female protagonists, both very strong in their own right. Instead of following the old trend, the writers decided to (SPOILER ALERT) ditch the idea that Anna had to have a man that would save her with true love. The film’s climactic moment instead focuses on the love between sisters, and the male characters are shifted from center stage.

Disney sent a message that it had heard the criticisms and heeded them. Businesses should be receptive to criticism because it’s often the only way flaws and issues can be identified. If the criticism can be accepted in a humorous way, as Disney did by having characters decry the absurdity of  Anna’s marrying “a man she just met” in the following video, that is all the better.

Lesson #3: Know Your Audience

The primary audience for Disney princess films has always been and will continue to be young girls, but the writers and producers of Frozen took it a step further – they made a movie that would please filmgoers of every age and walk of life.

Mothers and pro-feminists gushed over the strength and independence of the female leads. Children loved the wacky antics of Olaf and Sven, and older viewers were receptive to the wit and irony of the comic exchanges. The songs impressed viewers of every age, and particularly pleased fans of Broadway plays such as Wicked and The Book of Mormon, both of which feature Frozen actors.

Whether you are designing a new product, advertising a service or treatment, or simply trying to gain some much needed exposure, it’s vital to keep your audience in mind. Make an effort to connect with people related to your target audience, such as parents, siblings, and significant others. Changing marketing techniques or products even slightly can make a huge difference.

One of the reasons Old Spice saw such a boom in business after its viral video campaigns was because it targeted the wives and girlfriends of the men who used its product. You may cater to one specific audience, but you should also try to reach out and connect with as many different groups of people as possible.

Lesson #4: Seek Good Talent

Many animated musicals feature the voice talents of famous movie stars, but Frozen is the first to recruit accomplished Broadway stars for almost its entire main cast. By casting some well-known names, the Frozen team set a high standard for its songs and ensured Broadway fans would watch.

When launching a business or looking to grow, hire more than good talent – hire the best you can afford, and don’t forget to look in unexpected places. Kristen Bell was not a Broadway legend like Idina Menzel, but she brought a goofy naivety and endearing hopefulness that made Anna such a lovable princess. Similarly, Olaf wouldn’t have been as successful without the voice and quirky humor of Josh Gad. Hire employees like Kristen and Josh who can take initiative and add something refreshing to your brand.

Lesson #5: Be Unforgettable

Everyone who has seen Frozen (and even some who haven’t) is familiar with its hit song, “Let It Go.” The song is a triumphant homage to freedom, self expression, and self empowerment. It’s also one of the catchiest songs ever written, and will leave you humming along hours or even days after hearing it.

Every musical strives for an unforgettable song, one that becomes recognized and loved even outside of its original context. “Let It Go” achieved that in spades. While making a hit Broadway-esque song that tops record charts may not be feasible or even desirable for a small business, gaining exposure is always important. There are many effective ways to achieve popularity, such as the following:

  • A video contest like Dorito’s Super Bowl commercial contests
  • Memorable and touching advertisements like the Dove Real Beauty Sketches
  • A short homemade viral clip like “David After the Dentist” or “Charlie Bit My Finger” can be seen by millions of people around the country

Lesson #6: Try New Marketing Techniques

A trailer is supposed to be a teaser or a preview, a short clip that offers a rough idea of a movie’s plot. Frozen decided to defy that marketing technique, opting instead to show a teaser trailer that featured only the secondary comic relief characters and had no dialogue whatsoever. Instead of frustrating audiences, the trailer intrigued them. Adding a useful dose of mystery to your marketing efforts can entice audiences and leave them wanting more.

By focusing on the comedy and action, the marketing team of Frozen enticed a wider audience. And if the 1.2 billion dollar earnings are any indication, the strategy worked. Do not fear new marketing strategies! Taking risks and expanding horizons may pay off in bigger ways than a small business could ever imagine.

What business lessons have you learned from Disney through the years?

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Joshua Smith

Aside from work, Josh enjoys writing and coming up with creative stories, listening to and playing music, driving through the mountains of North and South Carolina, reading, and watching movies.

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