– Jason Voiovich, Chief Customer Officer, Logic PD
I took my kids to SeaWorld in San Diego.
It must have been six or seven years ago, and the theme park was the highlight of the trip. (LEGOLAND was a close second, but c’mon, SeaWorld has orcas. It was really no contest, even though this was during our kid’s “Lego phase”.)
I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t even think about the issue of keeping orcas in captivity. To look at one up close is breathtaking, and the rational part of your brain stops working. It’s one part awe and one part terror. Orcas are big. They’re fast. They’re smart. And they hunt in packs. The great white isn’t the ocean’s apex predator, no matter what “Shark Week” would have you believe. Orcas are. Without question.
Back then, I had no idea what a “Tilikum” was. Heck, they probably told us during the show, but I only remembered the trademark: Shamu.
If you’re curious, the “Shamu” trademark covers everything from the name, to the visual mark, to the shows themselves, to apparel, to … well, you name it. SeaWorld has this one covered.
But that was all before Blackfish.
The 2013 documentary, as most of you reading will know, centers on the story of one specific captive orca, named Tilikum, and the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. But more broadly, it sparked a nationwide debate on the consequences and ethics of keeping large animals (namely orcas, but also others) in captivity.
I won’t spend time rehashing the documentary, or even telling you what my opinion is of it. You can watch it for yourself here.
What I’d like to focus on is the response and what we can learn from it.
From an intellectual property perspective, “Blackfish” is not a trademark; it’s a copyright, at least in this context. (There are registrations for “Blackfish” as a trademark, but they aren’t relevant here). But from a branding perspective, it may as well be. The real point behind a trademark is to represent and protect a brand relationship of a particular concept in a specific context.
In a figurative sense, Blackfish canceled the Shamu trademark.
But it went further than that. Blackfish put the entire SeaWorld brand at risk. A trademark is only as strong as the brand it represents, and SeaWorld has been taking a beating. In the early days following the release of the film, SeaWorld did the predictable thing: It responded, but like most crisis situations, it can be unwise to overreact. Public pressure may build, but does that pressure really translate into long-term tangible results?
In this case, yes.
Since the documentary aired attendance has dropped while competing theme park attendance has grown. The net-net to the bottom line is a steep 84% drop in earnings last year, and a corresponding sharp decline in stock price.
If I were writing this only a few days ago, I would have been ready to write SeaWorld’s obituary. There was no way we were ever going back to SeaWorld, and no one else I knew was going either.
Then I happened to tune in to National Public Radio last week.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby and Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle were on the air, together, to announce that SeaWorld was ending the captive breeding of orcas. But the interview went further than that. SeaWorld was redefining its mission – or more to Manby’s point – removing the orca situation from clouding its mission: To educate the public and protect aquatic animals. Those of you who know the history of the HSUS don’t need a lecture on how sharp their criticism can be. But even PETA said this was a “step in the right direction”.
You can listen (or read) for yourself here.
To pull this off, SeaWorld will need to make some dramatic changes. They will have to change the entertainment ethos of the entire park. They are taking a huge risk that people will still want to visit a park without the orca show’s undeniable wow factor.
Let me stop you right here.
I can count on one hand how many times firms respond to a crisis situation by refocusing their entire business model. J&J comes to mind with the Tylenol crisis in the 1980s and its industry-changing focus on product safety. Can you name another one?
Bridgestone? Nope. Denial at first, then the second largest recall in US history.
JetBlue’s trapped passengers? No. Regulators needed to step in.
Chipotle? The answer is some additional training? Really?
You get the idea.
If I were cynical, I could claim that SeaWorld needed to do anything it could to redirect the Blackfish narrative that has taken over the conversation. I could also claim that this little corporate judo move has now shifted attention to zoos in general, especially those keeping elephants, tigers and other wow-factor animals. It is also true that SeaWorld isn’t closing down the orca shows immediately. Orcas live a long time, and they will be able to keep them in play for years to come while they transition away from “jumping shows”.
But I’m not that cynical.
I think we seem to have a rare example of brave corporate leadership in a difficult time. SeaWorld could have continued to fight. They may have even recovered some semblance of what they were, but Blackfish would have been with them forever. With this change, SeaWorld has a chance to reinvent itself.
I’m hopeful, as much for SeaWorld as I am for the example of leadership it represents.