From Snow White to Moana – How to Evolve Products with Customers

Vikas Joshi
January 26, 2017

Moana, Disney’s latest princess movie, is being hailed as a sign that Disney has finally caught up with the times. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella, and other traditional princesses, the brave and athletic Moana is, in every sense, ‘real’ and truly modern.

For many decades, Disney princesses have had a profound influence on how little girls in the US (and across the globe) view their own life goals. As the new millennium approached, Disney princesses remained as popular as ever; but they were also the subject of a heated debate for being poor role models - damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by Prince Charming. Moana is Disney’s answer to that debate.

How do companies achieve dramatic changes in their successful products?

The journey of the Disney princess from Snow White to Moana has some important lessons for anyone who has a product that caters to a constantly changing customer base. Let’s drill down into how the princess—a Disney product—has changed over the years.

How the Disney Princess Evolved

Disney’s journey from Snow White to Moana over the years consisted of several micro-departures from the prevalent idea of a 'princess' that mirrored societal changes from time to time. The early princesses were slim and beautiful damsels whose stories revolved around the prince. Snow White, the Caucasian princess, was ‘the fairest of them all.’ Cinderella, who had unusually small feet, was finally found by her handsome prince. Later heroines such as Belle (Beauty and the Beast) and Ariel (The Little Mermaid) showed a lot more character. While Belle was compassionate and patient, Ariel was inquisitive, impulsive, and willing to take matters into her own hands.

Disney attempted to break the Caucasian princess stereotype with Pocahontas– a successful change that reappeared in Tiana (The Princess and the Frog). But finding love and living ‘happily ever after’ was still central to the theme. Frozen (2014), which became the highest-grossing Walt Disney Pictures release, was path-breaking because of the refreshing twist at the end: The act of true love that saves Anna’s life is not romantic love, but the love of her sister, Elsa. In light of this journey, Moana appears to be the culmination of successful experiments that Disney made over the years. Moana is colored, athletic (she even flexes her biceps), and has no place for a prince in her story.

How Small Iterations Lead to a Dramatic Product Change

As the Disney princess shows, product changes that appear radical in hindsight tend to result from an iterative process involving many small changes. Every small change resembles dipping your toe in the water before taking a step. This trajectory of change in Disney princess reminds me of what entrepreneurship scholars call the principle of affordable loss. It is about investing what you are willing to lose while pursuing an upside, instead of seeking large all-or-nothing opportunities. If the change works, that’s great. If not, swallow the loss and move on.

The idea of accomplishing a dramatic change in small steps also applies to other businesses. Let’s say you build software products. Instead of going for a massive product overhaul, you might consider adding a few features here and there. You might then see how people react to each feature and how they use it. For example, if you add in a new menu and find a lot of users accessing it, you might find it worthwhile developing additional features under that menu.

What’s interesting is that not all small changes that add up to a big transformation are deliberate. Instead, they can be serendipitous mutations or micro-accidents that may turn out to be highly successful; changing the direction of your company. One needs to stay alert to those possibilities, and learn richly when something goes right unexpectedly.

How to Tell the Pulse of Your Customer

Continuing with the Disney story, a not-so-obvious aspect of the evolution of the princess is the role played by the women story artists at Disney. These artists made Moana athletic and ‘real’ –something that audiences widely appreciated—as opposed to the waif-thin heroines in the past. These women could better articulate the kind of princess audiences wanted to see. I find this to be a great example of how having a diverse workforce puts you in a much better position to be in touch with your customer – to understand what drives them, what they like, what they don’t like and so forth. Customer-centricity alone makes an excellent case for diversity in the organization.

So, what do the Disney princesses teach us? It is simply this: Moana is not the endpoint of some grand design someone had put in place several decades back – rather it was the result of an emergent strategy, one in which each step acts as a guide for the next. The Disney princess’s journey has clear takeaways for any business that hopes to evolve with its customers: one, product change is emergent, and two, a diverse workforce helps your business better ‘get’ the customer.