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In 22 years with Walt Disney Co., Thomas Elrod, 47, has seen the company grow from two theme parks to an international entertainment brand. From his fifth-floor Orlando office, the president-marketing and entertainment at Walt Disney Attractions overlooks the company's ever-changing kingdom. His career as a "cast member"-that's what Disney employees are called-began as an advertising and promotions representative with the company's marketing department in Orlando one year after the theme park opened. Today, he oversees advertising and promotions at Walt Disney World in Orlando; Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.; Tokyo Disneyland; and Euro Disney near Paris. Advertising Age correspondent Jeffery D. Zbar spoke with Mr. Elrod at his Orlando offices.

Advertising Age: Three years ago, you spoke with Advertising Age Editor in Chief Rance Crain about positioning the brand for global ad buys. What success has Disney realized in that effort?

Thomas R. Elrod: We really haven't [had any success]. Interestingly, our product has probably never been more globally positioned, but not by a single source. I think we've all found that the regionalization of our efforts has become a by-product of the independence that Michael Eisner has given each business unit. They've really kind of done their own thing.

AA: Were you surprised that you couldn't do global ad buys?

Mr. Elrod: There are more opportunities in the media buying and planning areas certainly than there are in the creative areas. The creative areas clearly have shown us that there are distinct differences amongst countries. But I wouldn't think that some day, given our need to buy and plan and coordinate globally, that that won't come about.

AA: Latin America warrants that kind of attention; you can't blanket with a pan-regional message, because of differences in culture, dialect or

Mr. Elrod: It's not limited to Latin America. There's a similar scenario in Asia, as well as in Western Europe. It's probably more difficult for U.S.-based companies to [market in a multi-linguistic, multi-cultural region], because there is a commonality amongst the 50 states, and there are fairly typical behavior patterns.

AA: IBM has given its work to

Mr. Elrod: Unification is a secondary by-product of what we need to do. The most important thing is communicate efficiently and effectively to the public, wherever they may be. I don't say that IBM's approach is necessarily wrong. But Disney clearly takes on a different look and feel in countries around the world.

How you communicate those things differs in different regions of a country and frankly between different Disney product lines, whether it be the theme parks, or consumer products, or movies or home video.

[Going with a single agency makes] an assumption that they're consistently good, consistently communicate well enough, consistently agree on approaches. And that's a pretty tall assumption. .*.*.

Regionalization works best for us now, and I have touted the global opportunities in the past. I'm not sure I'm changing my mind any. I'm just saying that we haven't figured out the best way to do it yet. As a result, we've depended upon our subjective calls on who's the best agency in the best part of the world.

AA: What's going to make the difference to make a global buy come about? Does the potential exist for Disney?

Mr. Elrod: Do I see that in the future? Probably not in the immediate future, unless I'm just not up to speed on what global organizations are out there besides [Rupert] Murdoch. If he is the only one, I don't see that it's imminent.

The few products or services that are out there, like the Olympics, don't seem to have the facilities in place to sell on a global basis. So the products themselves and their agencies have to figure it out for themselves.

AA: Young & Rubicam's Brand Asset Valuator ranks Disney as the top entertainment brand globally. As you work to build the Disney name globally, part of your work has been handled through years of brand identification.

Mr. Elrod: That's obvious, and it's certainly to our advantage. It's a testament to the great work that's been done through the years on the part of the people who have produced our films and created our characters.

But it puts a more important responsibility on us. That is, to maintain that image and respect that the marketplace has. In order to do that we have to perhaps more carefully assess what we do and how we do it than a company that doesn't have such high visibility.

AA: In speaking of global message consistency, how does the company keep that up?

Mr. Elrod: You have to be careful and sensitive to how you position and communicate to every region of the world.

AA: How has a weakened dollar affected the company?

Mr. Elrod: It's a double-edged sword. For the tourism sector of the business, it bodes well, because it makes it that much more of a vacation bargain in the United States. For people who leave here and go elsewhere, it's not quite as good. But we'd prefer they stay home.

AA: The cruise industry, which views Disney as land-based competition, is eager to see what happens with Disney Family Cruises. With around 40,000 berths scheduled to be added industrywide by 1998, analysts are wondering how demand will keep up with supply. How do you view the competition, and the future?

Mr. Elrod: It's a logical extension of the leisure time entertainment business that we're in. A couple of years ago I mentioned that we weren't in [cruises] but we always left open the opportunity to get in it. In fact, we've realized since then that it was a great complementary business to be in. While we had existing arrangements with other companies, we'd probably be best to do it ourselves. So that's what we're doing.

AA: How much of your vacationer base is international tourists? How many of those will you attempt to lure on cruises?

Mr. Elrod: We plan on aggressively selling and marketing to the international market as well as the domestic market.

AA: Disney recently announced its Disney Institute educational vacation. How does that fit in with the Disney theme?

Mr. Elrod: I think it's just an embellishment of our core business: entertainment primarily for families, but for all niche markets. This is just addressing that. We're not getting into businesses we don't know. We're embellishing the general framework of vacations into different options.

Walt Disney Attractions' Thomas Elrod.

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