Disney CEO Robert Iger, left, and Steve Jobs in 2006. Jobs became Disney's… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
When Walt Disney Co. looked to revamp its troubled retail stores in 2008, Chief Executive Robert A. Iger sought advice from the company's largest shareholder, a foremost expert on the consumer experience.
Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs had lured theme-park-size crowds to his company's stores with daring architecture, no-pressure sales staffs and displays that enticed customers to come in and play with the tech world's sexiest toys.
Though Disney sold its chain four years earlier, its name was still on the stores. Jobs told Iger that Disney needed to control those properties, arguing that a third party would never be as meticulous or creative a steward of the brand. After Disney bought back the chain, it was Jobs who urged the field testing of a fully stocked prototype before unveiling a new retail look to shoppers.
Photos: Steve Jobs | 1955-2011
"He felt that if we were going to be in the retail business, we should do it ourselves; we should own it," said Andrew P. Mooney, Disney's former head of consumer products.
Helping resuscitate Disney's 220 North American stores is but one example of the powerful behind-the-scenes role Jobs played at the Burbank entertainment company as a board member and its largest individual shareholder. Jobs' 2006 sale of Pixar Animation Studios to Disney gave him a 7.3% stake in the media giant and a seat on its board.
His legacy can be seen in virtually every corner of Disney, from the budding resurgence of Walt Disney Animation Studios to the $1-billion overhaul of Disney's California Adventure and the expansion of its cruise line, according to the accounts of about a dozen current and former executives of Disney and Apple.
"Steve Jobs brought a perspective that was visionary because of his understanding of how technology was changing and what really resonates with consumers," said Arvind Bhambri, an associate professor at USC's Marshall School of Business. "If you look at Disney in the last few years, they started to regain their magic. I don't think it's a complete coincidence that the Pixar acquisition, and Steve Jobs' role on the Disney board, coincides with Disney regaining its momentum."
With Jobs' death Wednesday, it's unclear who will fill his board seat. Disney would not comment for this story.
Jobs was one of technology's leading futurists and an advisor and confidant to Iger, who sought his counsel on one of the key issues confronting Hollywood: digital distribution. Disney was the first studio to sell its television shows and movies in Apple's iTunes store, which yielded an early mover advantage.
Jobs lauded Disney's swift adoption of new forms of distribution. After ABC unveiled the network's iPad application, Jobs met with the development team in Iger's office. One member of the team told friends that it was the equivalent of getting an audience with the pope, according to a participant at the meeting.
Disney's digital forays sometimes placed the company and its chief executive at odds with the rest of the entertainment industry. Executives at rival studios criticized Disney, saying it rushed to offer its content on the latest Apple devices at the risk of disabling business models that had been carefully honed over decades.
The studio has maintained that it has benefited from associating its brand with the hippest tech gadgets, and reaped a financial windfall from leapfrogging its competitors onto the devices. Iger frequently has touted digital download statistics at Wall Street conferences and earnings calls.
Less tangible than his digital vision were the Apple marketing maestro's insights about the power of a great brand, and the need to carefully tend it.
Jobs encouraged Disney executives to think in terms of "brand deposits" or "brand withdrawals" every time they made a movie, television show or consumer product.
"You could make the argument that Disney has been reshaped in Apple's image: brand over everything, and an emphasis on quality," said Oren Aviv, former head of production for Walt Disney Studios.
Over the last four years, Disney has shed assets that conflict with its identity as a purveyor of family entertainment, which people close to the company's decision-making say reflects Jobs' brand sensibilities. One prominent example: the 2010 sale of the Miramax Films specialty unit, whose sometimes crude and violent indie movies did not fit comfortably under the Disney marquee.
When the Disney board was prepared to sell the cruise line in 2007 and license its name to the new operator, Jobs questioned the virtue of the move, saying Disney needed to control its brand, according to one person's account of the board meeting.
Jobs also brought his less-is-more mentality to Disney. He famously was quoted by BusinessWeek as saying that the secret to Apple's product success "comes from saying 'no' to 1,000 things … [so] you can concentrate on the things that are really important."