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What would you do? Marketing Shamu

By Robert Niles
Published: March 24, 2010 at 11:12 AM
Part of the fun of being a pro sports fan lies in second-guessing your team's management. Whom should your team draft? Which free agents should it try to sign? Who should start, and who should never get up from the bench?

Fans clog phone lines to talk radio shows and fill discussion forums with their opinions. Newspaper columnists clear forests to offer theirs. Playing along like you're the owner/GM/coach not only lets fans feel more engaged with their favorite teams, it helps whip up attention to them. Sometimes that attention is good, sometimes it's bad. But let's not forget that the opposite of love isn't hate (or criticism) - it's indifference.

In that spirit, I'm starting up a new weekly feature: "What would you do?" The idea is to get Theme Park Insider readers talking about how they'd address a specific challenge facing a specific theme park or company. It's your chance to play park president!

Let me lay down one important rule, however. When an NFL general manager takes the sleeper pick in the draft you've been telling everyone that they should take, you don't get to sue the team, claiming it stole your idea. Same principal applies here. Any suggestion you offer on this site is fair game for any theme park to take and implement. So if you're in the development business and have something you want to pitch to a park, this isn't the place to do it. (But any pro in the business should know that already.)

(That said, I'll say this to the theme park managers who read the site: In the unlikely event that any of us comes up with a truly unique idea, and you actually like and implement it... hey, take care of my reader, okay?)

I'll be introducing some fun challenges over the next few weeks, but I'm starting today with an excruciating one that's been on my mind recently.

What to do about Shamu?

Laughing Shamu
The "Laughing Shamu" character. You'll see why I chose this photo of Shamu in a moment. Read on.

Last month's tragedy in Orlando created a public relations nightmare for the SeaWorld parks. To its credit, I think that the PR team there handled the situation well, a thought shared by others. But SeaWorld found itself in a doubly difficult situation, from a public relations perspective. Not only had a killer whale been involved in the death of a SeaWorld trainer, but also that killer whale was SeaWorld's primary brand ambassador.

In reality, none of SeaWorld's whales are named Shamu. The whale in this incident was Tilikum, one of dozens of orcas at the various SeaWorld parks. But SeaWorld, over the years, has promoted its killer whales with the collective name "Shamu," rarely distinguishing them by individual names to casual visitors.

So to that casual visitor, the orca in the tank in front of you *is* the world-famous Shamu. That creates a powerful brand identity for visitors. But it comes at great risk. These are, after all, wild animals. What happens when one, such as Tilikum, does something that leads to tragedy?

After Dawn Brancheau's death, SeaWorld stopped posting to the Twitter account that it had created in Shamu's name. The parks closed the killer whale shows temporarily, and I haven't seen nearly as many SeaWorld ads around various media as I used to. Chatter on its Facebook and other Twitter accounts turned to other animals and shows.

Shamu, SeaWorld's primary brand ambassador, effectively has disappeared. Not only did SeaWorld suffer a tragic loss, now it doesn't have its primary brand ambassador around anymore to help it recover.

How can SeaWorld avoid this problem, without sacrificing the brand value it's invested in creating the Shamu character?

That's my question for you today: What would you do about Shamu?

Here's my solution: It's time to retire the perception of Shamu as an actual killer whale and to reimagine him as a pure character. Start referring to the park's whales, in shows and park publicity, using their real names every time they are seen. Retain Shamu, instead, as the fictional animated character who serves as the "host" of SeaWorld. (SeaWorld's already created an animated version - see above. Now you see why I selected that image?)

This would individualize the park's whales to a wider audience, which (frankly) I think they, as living creatures, deserve. And it also insulates the Shamu character and brand from the "real" whales' actions and behavior. As a character, Shamu remains under SeaWorld's complete control.

Shamu as a pure character also opens new promotional opportunities to SeaWorld. Shamu can have a voice, allowing him to communicate directly with SeaWorld's audience. The Twitter account could return. Ideally, I'd love to see the Shamu character as the animated host of a Web series of nature films, produced by SeaWorld. Each piece could be introduced by an animated short, in which Shamu explains to young SeaWorld visitors what they're about to see in the film. The film series also could help SeaWorld create a new visual connection for the public between the work it does with its animals in the parks and those species' existence in the wild.

Get aggressive with this idea, and SeaWorld could do a time buy on a related cable channel, using the advertising time to both promote SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, as well as its various brand partners, such as Southwest Airlines, US Bank and Lowes. That deal not only would increase the visibility of the films, it also would increase the value of SeaWorld's in-park sponsorships, as they then would include commercial airtime on SeaWorld's cable shows. Disney's written the script for how cable TV can serve as a promotional channel for theme parks and their characters. But that doesn't mean others can't do it, too, even if on a lesser scale.

As a character, the "world-famous Shamu" can walk the park, not just to be seen, but to touch and hug young SeaWorld visitors. The connection with the brand can become *stronger*, and without risk.

These changes couldn't happen today. It's still too soon after Dawn's death to implement any campaign that emphasizes the Shamu brand. But, as capital-intensive businesses, theme parks must think in the long term. Even after what has happened, millions of fans still love Shamu. And SeaWorld. By thinking about these potential changes now, SeaWorld can be ready to implement them when the moment is right.

So, what do you think? What would you do about Shamu?

Readers' Opinions

From Jacob Sundstrom on March 24, 2010 at 11:52 AM
That's a great idea, Robert. Perhaps a little farther reaching than Sea World needs, but certainly is plausible.

I miss the Shamu Twitter account, and I still wear my Shamu T-Shirt with something that resembles pride. I think it has been long enough, bring back my favorite mammal!

From Greg Maxwell on March 24, 2010 at 12:05 PM
Robert, I also think this would be a good idea. I would love to have a Shamu video podcast on my desktop/iPhone each week/month however often that would come out. I too miss the twitter.com/shamu account.
From Joshua Counsil on March 24, 2010 at 12:32 PM
I had an idea, but I like yours better, Robert.

However, I disagree that SeaWorld has cut back on its promotion. I visit a comedy website titled, "CollegeHumor," nearly every day. In the five years I've been visiting the site, I have never seen a SeaWorld advertisement. About a week after the Dawn incident, SeaWorld ads played after every video. Since college kids in my generation tend to be pretty irreverent, you can imagine the comments that came up.

From Jeff Elliott on March 24, 2010 at 12:35 PM
The thing to do with Shamu is to open up a new restaurant at the various Sea World parks.

The name of it should be the "Bad Animal Grill". I'll let your imagine decide what the menu selections should be called, but I will suggest "I Bit My Trainer n Chips" & real otter pops.

The idea isn't as bad as it sounds...it teaches recycling...

From Anthony Murphy on March 24, 2010 at 1:05 PM
I like your idea Robert. As far as I remember (I am a casual visitor mind you), I never thought that killer whale jumping in front of me as THE Shamu. Maybe because I saw the whale as a real individual, not a character. I have done that Meal with Shamu (where Dawn was killed)and the whales were called by their real names.

Perhaps this also speaks about why Disney is very very careful about their image of Mickey Mouse and why his appearences are tightly regulated.

Personally, the Shamu twitter was fantastic and, in my opinion, was the best of any theme park organization because they made witty tweets with imporant information.

In all, you can not get rid of Shamu. He is too much like Mickey Mouse or Shrek or Bugs Bunny: a theme park Icon. Anyway, I enjoy my Mickey and Shamu Ice Cream bars!

From Andrew Holden on March 24, 2010 at 1:07 PM
Here goes a potentially crazy idea, but it could work. Ditch Shamu for now, not just how Robert suggested, I mean completely. Stop advertising with Shamu, take "him" out of the spotlight. He's been "bad", so punish him.

Who then, you ask, should we replace him with? Shine some light on the Dolphins! I have always liked the dolphins a little more anyways. Start heavily advertising SeaWorld using the dolphin side of things?

As for the kids and the fuzzy cartoon animals with names? You could bring back Dolly Dolphin (a name which I have never liked), or come up with a new name. Maybe use one of the names of a current dolphin. You know, Shamu was once an individual whale at a theme park!

Other animals work just as hard as Shamu and get 50% less credit. Start using them and giving them the credit that they deserve! Maybe you could even use the amazingly cute sea lions. Who knows?

From Brandon Mendoza on March 24, 2010 at 1:26 PM
I too agree Robert. Sea World should keep Shamu as a walk around character and animated entity, but not name any of the living Orca's Shamu anymore.

Shamu is an icon of Sea World... anyone sees a "Killer Whale" they think Sea World... or Free Willie? Anyway, Shamu should stay... I don't think the Sea Lions can hold up the name of Sea World. =)

From Will Chilcote on March 24, 2010 at 1:41 PM
I agree with you, Robert. They should make Shamu into a character like the other parks do. I also like the idea of advertising the park more like a zoo/aquarium.
From Brian Bauer on March 24, 2010 at 1:57 PM
Very good insight. I also just read that the original Shamu was retired from performing because of a similar but non-fatal incident.
From Derek Potter on March 24, 2010 at 7:59 PM
When the general public sees a killer whale at Sea World, most will refer to said whale as "Shamu". When an accident such as the recent trainer's death happens, the name Shamu takes a hit. At least for a while, nobody wants to see a killer whale on Twitter or on TV advertising for Sea World after a tragedy such as this one. It causes confusion and negative vibes, and comes off as distasteful in some respects. That's the reason that we aren't hearing much from Sea World right now... because the face of their company is so closely associated with a tragedy that was heavily covered by the media. They almost have to lay low right now because they've really only ever used Shamu and not much else to market Sea World. Laying low and advertising don't mix at all.

That said, I agree with a lot of Robert's ideas. I have no hard data from market research, but I think I know this business pretty well. Here's a rough idea

1) Make a real effort to separate the name Shamu from the actual orca in the show by using the whale's actual names to the point of saturation. Shamu, as Robert said, is the host of the park, not an actual whale.

2) Emphasize Shamu as a character/host. Make him a cartoon, put him out at the front gate in the form of a character so that kids can encounter him. Have him host the orca shows. There always has to be complete control of the "face" of the franchise. When that face is an actual animal, there is no complete control. Make him a caricature or a cartoon.

3) Expand the character stable and use it as a supporting cast. There is more to Sea World then Shamu. There are dolphins, sea lions (Clyde and Seamore), and other animals at the park that can also be "cartoonized" for the sake of marketing and for kids entertainment in the park. Every park has a stable of characters for the kids. Kids like Sesame Street, but there's nothing aquatic about it, and even in the beach show format, it doesn't really tie in to the theme of the park at all. Develop characters using the various animals featured in the shows, and use them as much as the new Shamu to market the park through TV and other visuals. The Sesame Street characters should eventually take a backseat to the aquatic characters.

4)Retire Believe- The bottom line is that a trainer was killed at the show "Believe". That show is also associated with tragedy. Nobody, not the trainers, employees, fans of the park, or casual tourists want to be reminded of that even in the least when they are watching or working the show. Repackage the show or at least change the name.


It will take time for the name Shamu to regain the public confidence. The name of the game is control and diversify. Control the name Shamu by setting him apart from the actual whales, and give him some help in the form of other characters.

From JL Salaz on March 24, 2010 at 8:07 PM
It is evident to me that as President I would need to save Shamu. How would I do this equipped only with my awesome wisdom? By making a movie on Shamu!

The Plot:
Shamu the friendly orca is minding his own business one day when Mexican captors capture him. They capture him for the sole reason of making him feel bad. Then comes a quirky kid with his chubby friend, and they free him by training him to jump over the fence that contains him. He then lives out his dream by getting a gig at SeaWorld performing every night. Credits roll here accompanied by rock music (kids like it).

A whole array of video games and mediocre sequels will follow. Attendance will soar as kids will want to go to SeaWorld "to see the REAL Shamu." Of course, the names used for all the orcas would be Shamu, with the only exception if there is more than one orca in the show. Then we will joyously declare that Shamu has brought along his "family" for this particular show.

This idea took a long time to come up with, and as President I would be too busy spending money to think of another one. If another tragic incident were to occur, a resignation would be in place.

From Bruce Lane on March 24, 2010 at 11:34 PM
Robert, I am impressed! What you've suggested is almost exactly what I've been saying (for at least the last couple of decades) SeaWorld should do.

I think, though, SeaWorld is actually afraid of individualizing any of their animals to the general public, mainly because they want to avoid questions of "What happened to...?" if an animal someone knew by sight (or by contact, in the case of the dolphin petting pool) happened to get moved to another park or die.

Their position on this has a lot to do with their insane obsession with political correctness. They don't want to offend ANYbody (and, ironically, manage to offend quite a few people by taking that very position), and they will go to great lengths to avoid saying or doing anything which could be construed as offensive to a guest.

Bit of trivia for everyone. Back in the mid-1980's, and well into the 90's, the names of the individual animals was considered a closely-guarded secret. Any Animal Care staffer or narrator who revealed actual names ran the risk of getting reprimanded, if they were caught doing so.

Along those same lines -- It was absolutely verboten back then (and it may still be to this day) to tell any guest who asked about a specific animal that said animal had died (even if they had!) The staff's stock reply, no matter the degree of truth (or lack thereof) was to say the animal had been 'moved to another park.'

In any case -- I certainly can't come up with anything better for what SeaWorld should do.

Happy travels.

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