SeaWorld’s Ocean Of Uncertainty

It’s like McDonald’s without the Big Mac.

That’s the comparison drawn by Debanjan Mitra, branding expert at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business, in an AP story regarding SeaWorld’s announcement last week that it is phasing out the killer whale attractions at all of its theme parks (beginning in San Diego this year and then at its Orlando and San Antonio locations by 2019).

The writing has perhaps been on the wall for the company — if not since an orca (AKA killer whale) named Tilikum killed a SeaWorld trainer in 2010 — since the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” moved that tragic incident (and other, earlier ones) into the public consciousness. Following the release of that film, notes the AP story, demonstrations against the captivity of killer whales contributed to notable dropoffs in attendance at all three SeaWorld parks, as well as the loss of sponsorships.

By 2015, what The Huffington Post referred to as the “Blackfish effect” had led to the ouster of SeaWorld’s CEO, the loss of half the company’s market value and an 84 percent decline in profits, according to The Guardian.

SeaWorld has heard the message (albeit maybe not soon enough or loudly enough, in the opinion of animal rights activists) and is changing course. The theme park company doing away with its “Shamu” (the name of the killer whales that have been the star of its centerpiece shows since the late 1960s) attractions — the current orcas in captivity at its parks will be the last such generation — is such a substantial change, from a branding perspective, that the McDonald’s/Big Mac allegory might not do it justice.

An arguably more accurate comparison might be the one put forth by the Orlando Sentinel: SeaWorld without Shamu is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse.

Until recently, Shamu was featured in SeaWorld’s logo, and killer whale merchandise — with Shamu imagery adorning stuffed animals, t-shirts, collector cups and everything in between — has been a mainstay of the parks.

Now that SeaWorld is doing away with all that, the question arises as to whether or not a longstanding retailer can survive without the very branding on which its name was built — and, if so, how.

“The orcas were [SeaWorld’s] most powerful engagement tool,” Allen Adamson, a marketing and branding expert based in New York, told the AP. “It requires [the company] to reinvent its core signature attraction. It’s not an easy fix.”

In an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that coincided with SeaWorld’s announcement last week, company President and CEO Joel Manby — in addition to defending the decision to not release the orcas currently in SeaWorld’s care into the wild (the company’s position is that the animals would not survive) — explains that, as represented by the parks repositioning their theatrical killer whale shows as "natural orca encounters", SeaWorld overall is making a move, in partnership with the Humane Society of the United Sates, towards a consumer product that is focused on education more than it is simply on entertainment.

The immediate market reaction to SeaWorld’s announcement was a positive one: The Motley Fool shares that the company’s stock rose 9 percent on Thursday (March 17) (and an additional 7 percent by Friday, notes the AP), while Moody’s forecasts an increase in visitors to SeaWorld parks in the short term — not necessarily because those consumers will be moved by the company’s humanitarian efforts, however, but rather because they will be motivated to see the traditional killer whale shows before they disappear.

As for predicting SeaWorld’s fortunes beyond that point, Moody’s is less certain, with the investment company positing that SeaWorld might need to build some new, excitement-based attractions (such as rides) in order to counterbalance potential lost interest on the part of consumers who won’t be drawn to the parks by their educational offerings.

Dennis Speigel, a theme park consultant, does not believe that SeaWorld has immediate plans to follow that strategy, though, telling the AP: “You’ll see less [rides] in the future [at SeaWorld]. You’ll see capital dollars spent in the attractions area that focuses them back on marine life science and a really rich educational aspect.”

There’s no denying, as exhibited by the recent news out of SeaWorld, that a retailer refocusing its branding to reflect popular opinion can result in good press and renewed interest. However, for any such company — particularly one in the entertainment arena — to bet, as SeaWorld appears to be doing, that it can continue to ride that wave by becoming a largely more informational company is hardly a sure thing.

As Arun Sharma, professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, told the AP: “[SeaWorld] will have to create experiences that differentiate themselves, as Universal does with Harry Potter or Disney does with Star Wars,” because “education itself is not very attractive.”

A harsh point — but a fair one. After all, a lot fewer people would probably visit McDonald’s if they could only just read about Big Macs there, rather than eat them.



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