“A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is”
– Scott Cook, Co-Founder Intuit
In the marketing world, the effect of public perspective on brand is old news. The buzz terms have all been made, used, and bruised – “customer-centricity,” “engagement marketing,” “earned media.” But no public event proves how deeply this concept seeps into brand identity quite like the case of Seaworld.
In 2013 Magnolia Pictures and CNN picked up the film Blackfish, which explored Seaworld’s treatment of orcas and the implications it has for the whales and the trainers, particularly around the death of trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Following the film, the Twitter feed rings a’buzz with stories of orca maltreatment and the public’s plans to protest. And because the company’s marketing team has not listened to consumers, the SeaWorld brand is changing for the worse.
Consumers are saying that Seaworld is the enemy, and so now, Seaworld is the enemy.
An Approach Blind to Customer Critique
Seaworld’s response is nothing short of strategic, smart, and tasteful. But it’s not effective. And even worse, it’s providing a platform for the consumer to continue destroying SeaWorld’s once highly esteemed brand.
The company’s approach is twofold: first, answer a filtered set of public questions about killer whales, and second, skirt the issue by publishing a series of ads that focus on their other attractions – sea lions and the like. It makes sense. Answer questions; show the public we’ll entertain their feedback, and while we have their attention, point them to the other benefits we have to offer.
What they fail to realize is that they no longer have the ability to convince the public that, say, orcas live longer in captivity than in the wild. And by downright denying those claims, they’re asking people who don’t believe them to find compelling evidence to the contrary. Inspiring even more resistance to their message. They haven’t listened and directly addressed the shift in public perception that they now face, and so they continue to create ineffective messaging.
Is Falling on the Sword an Option?
In the short term, it may have proved destructive to concede to the claims asserted in Blackfish. No one likes to say they were wrong. And concession may have added legitimacy to the claims of the film. But in the long term, it would have squelched an increasingly passionate public initiative to fight Seaworld.
Had they announced plans to release one of their orcas, instead of announcing plans to simply increase the size of the orca enclosures, they would have found public support – because that’s what people wanted to hear. Their public opponents would have seen it as a statement of humility. They would have made their once loyal fan base feel heard and understood. Unfortunately, they continue down a path uninformed by their brand identity as it exists in the public’s eye now.
It remains to be seen if Seaworld can recover from the film. But one thing is certain – Seaworld’s brand won’t return to its pre-Blackfish state. The tides of public opinion have permanently forced a shift in public perception. All Seaworld can do now is listen and respond.