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Sea Change at SeaWorld

March 22, 2016

Orca.jpgWhen I describe to new clients precisely how Boardwalk will get under the skin of their company and sleuth out their unique, differentiating brand promise, I always mention that we’re going to take a close look at their company’s internal values. This one facet of our research always elicits the most questions. “Wait. We’re a ball bearing manufacturer. All our ball bearings have to be perfectly spherical with no blemishes whatsoever. What do our values have to do with it?” In some instances, particularly some B2B instances, it can be hard to demonstrate how diverging value sets between a business and its market can drive down sales. So, when a clearcut case of values misalignment comes along, I like to spotlight it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you SeaWorld.
Starting with only a few dolphins, sea lions and aquariums, SeaWorld opened in San Diego, CA, 1964, to immediate acclaim and success. 400,000 people bought tickets in that first year. Shortly afterwards, SeaWorld took delivery of its first killer whale from the Seattle Marine Aquarium. Like everything else at SeaWorld, the orca attraction was an immediate hit. Thousands flocked to see Shamu jump and play at its trainer’s command.

Since that time, SeaWorld has expanded to Aurora, OH (now closed), Orlando, FL and San Antonio, TX. And they stocked all their parks with orcas, either adopted from other marine life attractions, bred in captivity or captured in the wild. And, for decades, the killer whale shows were the star attractions at the parks – the real money makers. But, to the fans, what was once a thrill and a joy gradually devolved into a guilty pleasure and, finally, into just guilt and even outrage.

That’s because, as the years rolled on, the public got educated about orcas. They came to understand that these animals were complex and highly social, that they needed their families around them, that they were hard-wired to traverse vast distances of ocean. It is impossible to build a tank large enough to keep them happy and healthy. Part of the public’s education was due to the popularity of Jacques Cousteau’s TV specials on marine life. Part of it was just that more information about the whales entered into the social conversation. And part of it, ironically, was the success of SeaWorld’s own attractions that demonstrated the intelligence and social needs of these special creatures. The upshot was that more and more of SeaWorld’s customers came to oppose the idea of keeping these animals in captivity, much less forcing them perform circus tricks for us.

Orca_02.jpgThis is a textbook example of an organization losing touch with the evolving values of its customers. To its credit, SeaWorld saw the gap widening and tried to respond. It worked hard to give its market what it wanted but it couldn’t find a way to do it without killing its golden goose. What would drive income if they had to stop exploiting the whales – if they had to give up the very attraction that drew so many visitors?

They put an end to wild orca hunts. But that did little to end the public’s growing discontent. Then, in 2013, a movie called Blackfish was released, focusing on one of SeaWorld’s whales and its involvement in the deaths of three people. SeaWorld’s general treatment of the whales was also harshly criticized, as was its overall business model. SeaWorld pledged to double the size of the whale tanks. But, by now, it was far too little, and way too late.

On Thursday, March 17, SeaWorld’s new CEO, Joel Manby, announced that it would no longer breed or keep orcas in captivity. The current stock of whales would be the last generation to be held (they’re considered unable to fend for themselves in the wild), and the theatrical shows will be gradually phased out. The announcement was made in conjunction with Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States. Mr. Pacelle explained that the Humane Society would be working with SeaWorld to convert its theatrical shows into a more orca-centric educational experience, allowing the animals to display their natural behaviors as much as possible while still in captivity.

Even more hopeful, Mr. Pacelle described a future role for SeaWorld as a rescue organization and sanctuary of sorts for wild orcas and dolphins that become distressed and beach themselves. Apparently, thousands such events happen each year. SeaWorld can play an important role restoring the health of the victims and, whenever possible, returning them to the open ocean.

So, after many years of taking half-hearted measures, SeaWorld finally bites the bullet and gets back in alignment with the values of its customers. To do so, they’re taking a huge gamble that they can still bring in the crowds without the circus acts. Let’s hope their customers reward them for doing the right thing.

The SeaWorld story is a clear example of how the values of an enterprise and its market can become misaligned, and of the extraordinary steps that must be taken to sync them up again once things have gone too far. But typical misalignment stories are much more subtle. For most businesses, it’s almost impossible to tell when customers begin to part ways with the values expressed by the brand. That’s why its important to periodically review those values and test them against the desires of the market.

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