What would you do? Marketing Shamu
By Robert NilesPart 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?
Published: March 24, 2010 at 11:12 AM
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?
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?
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