Senior Manager, Corporate Alliances, The Walt Disney Company
Disney is an engine of innovation — a company that’s constantly churning out new and creative ideas. But some of that innovation is fueled by an unlikely source: corporate alliances.
Just ask Ben Artis ’14, senior manager of corporate alliances for Disney, who points to a strategic alliance between Disney and Chevrolet as an example. That collaboration, he explains, led to the creation of “Test Track,” one of the most innovative and popular attractions at Epcot theme park. The ride takes guests through an immersive experience in which they design a virtual custom-concept vehicle and board a “SIM Car” to test drive their creation on a mile-long circuit. Later, guests spill out into a Chevrolet showroom where they can peruse a selection of cars before exiting to the theme park.
The ride is “fun and exhilarating, and the guests understand why Chevrolet is part of the experience,” notes Artis. At the same time, “Disney achieves their goal of bringing a unique experience to life that you couldn’t get anywhere else, and Chevrolet gets to bring their brand to life in a way that wouldn’t be possible through a billboard or commercial.”
This is the precise balance that Artis is looking to strike when seeking out partnership opportunities for Disney. The goal, he says, is for Disney to “cross-pollinate with a brand to create something that couldn’t otherwise be created. We think about how to take the best of both brands and make one plus one equal three.”
Finding the right partner to fulfill the right purpose is, of course, easier said than done. Artis stresses the importance of alignment on strategic priorities and culture; both parties need to agree on a shared objective, while also having genuine respect and understanding for what each other’s brands stand for. “If everyone can be mindful of that, there is room to play, where everyone feels that it’s a winning opportunity,” he notes.
Artis witnessed this in his previous role at Whirlpool, where he served as the strategic partnership lead for the connected home division and focused on leveraging alliances to increase Whirlpool’s presence in the Internet of Things. A partnership with Google, for example, led to the creation of a Whirlpool washer/dryer that connects to Nest’s smart thermostat and keeps clothes fresh in the washer and dryer when customers leave their homes. And a partnership with Amazon led to the development of a washer/dryer that can sense when a customer runs out of detergent or dryer sheets and can automatically reorder supplies from Amazon.
“It’s the first step toward delivering on real-time demand without adding friction,” explains Artis. “This [innovation] is really important when you look at commerce in our society. The runway is very long.”
In hindsight, working in innovation is a natural fit for Artis, whose background in improv comedy and training in the “yes, and…” technique has proven advantageous when working on innovation projects (He even taught workshops at Whirlpool about how the technique can help teams generate more creative ideas.). But it wasn’t until Artis was at Kellogg that he discovered his calling in corporate innovation.
Towards the end of his MBA Program, Artis decided on a whim to fill up his schedule with a few innovation courses, one of which was Steven DuPuis’ Marketing-Led Innovation. The class challenged students to work in teams on an innovation project for an established brand, and Artis was paired with WD-40. At first, he admits, “I was thinking, ‘This is not going to be exciting.’ But after peeling back the onion and understanding what the core of that brand really is, [my team and I] blew out a really cool concept. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh — this is so fascinating.’”
That experience pushed Artis to seek out a position in innovation at Whirlpool, which later led to his current role at Disney — a company that he says has “always, always been a dream” to work for.
“Looking back, I don’t know that I could have ever plotted the way it played out,” he says. “I don’t know if I would have found that path had I not been exposed to what innovation really is during my time at Kellogg.”