Since 2013, SeaWorld has been plagued by a reputation battle that largely stems from the release of Blackfish, a documentary that makes a number of assertions against SeaWorld’s safety and treatment of animals in their care, particularly orca whales. We’ve seen SeaWorld take major hits to their revenue, stock, and park attendance. Major organizations including PETA have spoken out against the company, former business partners such as Southwest have severed ties, entertainers including Willie Nelson stopped shows at SeaWorld parks, and multiple celebrities including One Direction lead singer Harry Styles have spoken out against SeaWorld. Even social media has turned sour for the marine parks. It’s been a tough two years for SeaWorld, and their reputation has taken a serious hit. Can SeaWorld bounce back from Blackfish? It’s possible, but this is a tough situation for the company.
SeaWorld’s Bottom Line Hit by Blackfish
We know that reputation trouble can have a major impact on a company’s bottom line, and that fact is illustrated well by SeaWorld. Since the Blackfish documentary was released with serious allegations against SeaWorld practices, the company’s profits have dropped by as much as 84%. Attendance in the parks is down as well. There have been 100,000 fewer visitors in the parks this year than the same time in 2014. And previously in 2014, attendance dropped by 5.2%.
Factors driving the dipped attendance including wet weather, Easter timing for spring break tourism, and what the company has referred to as “brand challenges.” Among these brand challenges are severed ties with Southwest Airlines, Mattel, and entertainers including Martina McBride and Willie Nelson.
With these challenges, SeaWorld’s stock price has fallen significantly. After the July 2013 release of Blackfish, SeaWorld’s stock price fell almost immediately from 38.32 to 29.93. Since then, the stock has continued to take a nosedive, reaching its current low of 18.76.
How SeaWorld Has Responded to Blackfish
Following the release of the documentary, SeaWorld has continually countered the onslaught of criticism. This is the opposite of what most businesses targeted by documentaries choose to do. Typically, businesses will lie low and wait for the furor to die down without feeding the fire, but SeaWorld has taken the issues head on.
Most notably, SeaWorld released a Truth About Blackfish” document with facts refuting the allegations made by Blackfish and preemptively sent a detailed critique of the movie to movie critics.
Also after the release, SeaWorld announced the opening of the Blue World Project, which is set to double the size of the current orca facility and will provide more than $10 million in funding for research and conservation. However, this project was slated before the release of the film, and SeaWorld asserts it was not developed as a response.
In response to the film, SeaWorld announced a $10 million ad campaign with TV, print, and digital messaging to get their message out and set the record straight on their animal environment and the company’s work benefiting animals.
Though SeaWorld has made conservation and rescue a part of its business for decades, the company is now promoting its efforts much more heavily. If the current climate persists, it looks like SeaWorld will have to continue spending to clean up its reputation and public perception.
Among SeaWorld’s digital efforts is social media involvement, and much of it has simply blown up in the company’s face. Like so many other social media hashtag Q&As with troubled brands, the #AskSeaWorld Twitter campaign was a miserable failure. Predictably, SeaWorld was attacked by critics using the hashtag, and at one point, got so popular that it was trending — with negative information. Even today, a search for the hashtag is almost entirely negative. A filtered conversation with expert responses continues on the SeaWorld Cares website.
Social media fails for SeaWorld aren’t limited to hashtags, either. Practically every photo on SeaWorld’s Instagram is a forum for debate. SeaWorld’s Facebook page, however, is suspiciously free of any criticism whatsoever.
SeaWorld’s Continuing Reputation Challenges
The Blackfish documentary was released more than two years ago, and people are still talking about it. They’re not visiting the parks as much as they used to, and they’re sending a clear message that whether Blackfish is the truth or not, they’re no longer buying what SeaWorld is selling. Many former fans of SeaWorld have vowed never to return.
One Direction lead singer Harry Styles has weighed in on SeaWorld negatively. At a recent concert, Styles shouted, “don’t go to SeaWorld!” and sparked a barrage of negative social media posts about the park.
Styles’ assertion has been surprisingly damaging for the park, with a 400% spike in mentions in the past two months and 68% of them negative. It’s one of the worst moments in recent history for SeaWorld’s brand, as Styles’ call for a boycott led to the highest number of negative comments for SeaWorld in the last three years, even higher than comments following the CNN airing of Blackfish.
Further causing issues for SeaWorld is an allegation by PETA that a former volunteer with the organization was actually a SeaWorld employee working undercover. They claim that he joined the PETA network of volunteers, infiltrated SeaWorld protest planning, and alerted police to a protest.
A major sales decline and continued criticism by the public, celebrities, and prominent organizations are clearly serious issues for SeaWorld, but they have even more problems to fight. As part of its expansion project approval with the California Coastal Commission, SeaWorld has been slapped with a breeding ban at its San Diego partk as a condition of approval. SeaWorld has vowed to fight back against the ban, asserting that it would be inhumane to deprive the animals of reproduction and that it would mean a slow extinction of the animals in their care.
On the upside, analysts at Credit Suisse believe that now, two years later, SeaWorld’s brand has hit rock bottom and is stabilizing. And the good news for SeaWorld is that the company can only go up from here.
What We Can Learn from SeaWorld’s Tarnished Reputation
The biggest lesson from SeaWorld is that customers care about issues that are important to them, and they can and will vote with their feet. Animal issues are a particularly sensitive spot for consumers, and many companies are responding to this push. Chipotle, Whole Foods, Hilton, and Dunkin’ Donuts have all made moves to improve animal welfare as well as inform customers of their efforts.
Even other entertainment companies are recognizing the need to respond to consumers’ desires for better animal conditions. This year, Barnum & Bailey Circus made the decision to phase out the use of elephants in circus acts in response to local laws banning the use of bull hooks. The elephants will be relocated to a conservation area in Florida by 2018. Several years ago, this kind of move would have been unthinkable, but it’s happening now.
Companies today must recognize that consumers are increasingly supporting organizations that align with their values — and leaving behind those that don’t. We expect to see continued and increasing pressure from consumers on major issues including animal welfare, employment policies, working conditions, environmental impact, and health.
Another lesson SeaWorld is still working on learning: feeding the fire doesn’t help much. SeaWorld’s assertions against Blackfish seem to have largely fallen on deaf ears. Many consumers simply aren’t hearing what SeaWorld is saying about conservation and wildlife efforts as celebrities and major organizations share messages that negatively highlight the lives of animals living under SeaWorld’s care. And SeaWorld’s preemptive strike against Blackfish with movie critics is likely to have only called attention to the documentary, rather than squash it as SeaWorld probably hoped to do.
What’s Next for SeaWorld’s Reputation
Credit Suisse experts believe that if SeaWorld can successfully generate a positive consumer buzz and convince them that it’s okay to visit SeaWorld again, the company can bounce back. Doing so is likely to be a tough battle for SeaWorld, though.
With a multimillion dollar positive reputation campaign and a good environment for growth, we may see SeaWorld’s reputation improve. However, it’s safe to say that after Blackfish, SeaWorld lost segments of consumers that may never respect the company or come back to the parks again unless the organization dramatically changes its business model to one that would not involve orcas in captivity.