The Shirt Heard ‘Round the World

Husband. Father. T-shirt wearer.

I recently returned from a vacation to one of the most heavily-branded places on the planet, Disney World. As amazing as the Disney machine is, it wasn’t the parks, hotels, restaurants, transit systems or even subliminal branding that really started me thinking. What impacted me most was the reaction generated by a brand I brought with me.

Like the hundreds of other people I saw that day, I headed out for Disney’s Epcot park dressed for comfort. 98% of my wardrobe consists of t-shirts, so packing for this trip was pretty easy.

The shirt I had chosen to wear on that first day was actually from Pittsburgh’s own “happiest place on earth” – and, in my opinion, the greatest amusement park ever – Kennywood. While my daughter buzzed around our hotel room in early morning mouse-euphoria, I joked with my wife, wondering if anyone would notice my shirt in the din of Disney. It wasn’t long before I had an answer.

We were sampling the Sichuan noodles near China when it first happened. “Hey! Kennywood!” someone yelled from out of the crowd of passers by. The yeller, it turned out, was a very nice woman from Bridgeville, PA who had noticed my shirt and stopped for a few minutes to chat. We swapped some favorite Kennywood stories and talked about the weather back in PA that neither of us were missing. After our conversation I returned to my noodles and made several comments about there being theme-park connoisseurs (read: yinzers – you know who you are) in the crowd.

A few hours later, while waiting with my daughter in France to meet Marie (one of Disney’s Aristocats), a man in line near me turned, looked at my shirt and asked “Kennywood? Pittsburgh Kennywood?” And I was off again, waxing nostalgic about the Thunderbolt and Potato Patch fries. I soon discovered that this gentlemen actually lived near me and many “small world” jokes ensued.

Believe it or not, this actually happened to me five or six times throughout the course of the day. I say “five or six” because later that evening a woman shouted “STEELERS!” at me as I walked past her at a beer stand outside Germany. I’m not completely sure if she read my shirt or just saw the black and gold logo and got excited, so I don’t know if that really counts.

The point is that somehow, there in that park, literally surrounded by hundreds of people and cultures from all over the world, I became an ambassador of sorts. People were seeking me out to talk about a place they loved, a brand they knew and a tribe we all belong to. The energy and personal connections were palpable.

So, how do you harness that energy? I think the first step is in recognizing that it’s already out there. Everyday, people join online groups, clubs, discussion boards, weekly meet-ups and social groups of all kinds to talk about shared interests. The tools to bring them together (facebook, twitter, etc…) are already in place. What they need is leadership, they need an ambassador to unite and guide them. So, be more than your brand on paper. Become (or create) an ambassador, an exciting and visible leader who inspires other people… to inspire other people. It really is a small world after all, and it takes less than you think to turn potential energy into kinetic momentum.

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