SUBSCRIBE: Free email newsletter




Peter McGrath
in Asia Pacific by

Former Disney creative unlocks the magic behind brand experiences

“You’re a global company and you have global myopia. What do you want to do about it?” That’s a conversation Peter McGrath, senior vice president of creative at FreemanXP and former Walt Disney Company creative leader must have with clients who need to broaden their perspective, and change the way they connect with their audiences.

Marketing met with the creative who worked with the Disney Imagineering team for over 25 years and was instrumental in creating theme park experiences to discuss how any brand can innovate their approach to experiential marketing.

His current role on the Freeman Design Leadership Council involves guiding clients of the events and experience agency with idea generation, talent development, concept design, creative direction, and experience design.

Every brand is a world waiting to be experienced.

While a lot of brands today are specialists in their product field, McGrath underlined that too many are not in the business of creating experiences.

“Too often they just say, I make a thing, I sell a thing, I want to give it to you. I say, ok take a step back, make me want to identify with it and aspire to it. Make me want to feel that it aligns with my values as a human being, that’s a different proposition,” he added.

For more on innovating customer experiences, join Customer Experience 2017 on 25-26 May, take a look at the agenda here.

This human experience is the starting point to get the formula right according to McGrath.

“First know what your own corporate identity is. Once you can define the story, it’s a question of how you can bring that story to the world in the five senses. It can apply to anything, from consumer electronics to surgical equipment.”

Many brands, more often in the B2B space argue that magical experiences which companies such as Disney are able to create won’t work in their context but McGrath believes that every brand should have a distinct value and personal story.

He cited how he was approached by a pharmaceutical company who questioned how they can create relatable experiences from something so technical, dry and highly government regulated.

“Pharmaceutical companies save lives! There is a human story worth telling in there. It must come down to finding the heartbeat of the story and looking at it from a very humanistic point of view and a different view than you’re used to. That is challenging,” he stressed.

But that’s not enough on its own. These stories must be both relevant and localised which many global brands fail to execute, McGrath pointed out.

It’s about relevance. Relevance is the issue. A lot of companies have made ignorant mistakes. Cultural sensitivity is a huge issue.

Working on designing the recently opened Shanghai Disneyland park, which took over a decade and cost USD$5.5 billion, McGrath said the team had to ensure the park was both “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.”

Tomorrowland and its focal point, the Tron Lightcycle Run ride for example had to go even further to fit with the modern nature of Shanghai.

“Scot was very paranoid that if you’re going to bring something futuristic to the most futuristic city in the world it needed to really shine and be amped up to another level,” McGrath shared speaking of Scot Drake, the executive creative director of the Walt Disney Company’s Imagineering division who oversaw the construction of Tomorrowland in Shanghai.

Part of the solution to adapt to the Chinese market was to include a high level of local talent from the inception of the project, McGrath said.

“The message to global companies would be when designing for these experiences you must have truly diverse perspectives on your team. Build them locally, then you already have the cultural lens baked in. Don’t just fly in a team of expats, it will never work.”

But handing over budget to create these unique experiences comes with risk and brands may be hesitant.

“The Disneyland experience is totally immersive and that’s ok for the theme park environment but we’re never going to do that in the event and exhibition space.

“There is another level to what you can do though. The key for us is to find the way to do that. Not to replicate theme park design but to take the storytelling and techniques and employ the principles,” he said.

Who is leading the experience world?

McGrath cited the automotive and consumer electronics industries as leading the way in aligning their brand values to human experiences. Also, B2B companies who are incorporating live entertainment and bringing art and art form into the experience are innovators in his eyes.

Measuring magic is not that simple though and many brands are focused on quarterly profits.

We need metrics that track not only return on investment but return on experience and return on learning. The difference between a good and bad experience is very clearly felt but it’s hard to put a number on it.

For Disney theme parks there are many measurements including guest experience, intent to return and an excellence scale. There is a value that can be given to how much investment should be put in to get one extra rating on the experience scale for any attraction which offered a guide for the Disney imagineers.

But you have to have the data to get these metrics going.

“We inspire them and engage them first and then build the trust and then the data can follow. It takes a lot of analytics but I think we have to go there if we want a deeper understanding of that complex question.”

That’s the question of how to capture the most relevant and impactful brand experiences.

“Understanding your identity is the hard thing but the majority of companies have come into being because someone has had a very clear vision and passion about what it is they are doing. It may have got lost and diluted on the way but it was birthed for a good reason. That’s the essence, that’s the DNA and you have to make that aspirational, to bring that into people’s lives in a way that changes their life for good,” he argued.

But change is happening fast and we need to make media and technology our friends. There’s going to be a lot of dexterity needed and the ones that can move are the ones that will survive.

Discover more winning techniques from the experts at Customer Experience 2017 on 25-26 May in Singapore. For more information please contact Daing Hazran on +65 9186 9324 or

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.