Go Fish: Strategy Lessons from the Sea World Crisis

Shamu has been part of Sea World for generations.  He is, at once, the iconic symbol of the brand, the consumer experience, and the many emotional associations that people have with the parks.  Shamu has also been the vehicle by which the company has grown and shared its message of appreciation for sea life and conservation to protect the oceans. 

So what happens when the cornerstone of a company’s existence becomes the basis for widespread protest and growing distrust?  The tragic loss of an animal trainer and CNN’s piece, Blackfish, first aired in 2012, changed everything for Sea World.  Pleasant entry into the parks was often replaced by protesters urging patrons to turn around or planes towing banners buzzing overhead.  Animal rights groups banded together to take on Sea World and school children began to wonder about going at all.

The company argued their case that animals were well treated, trainers genuinely cared about their charges, and that the outcome of their work was essentially one of the early socially responsible businesses.  By exposing generations to ocean life, Sea World had, in fact, helped people become aware of the need to protect the oceans. 

However, the crisis had taken a toll on park attendance which had dropped significantly over the years and a succession of CEOs tried to lead the company forward.  Like the ending stage of grief, Sea World’s announcement that they were ending their killer whale breeding program and partnering with the Humane Society represented a marked change in their public stance and a gigantic pivot in their business strategy.   While the whales may potentially remain at the parks for years to come, the company is clearly moving away from live animal shows as a main attraction.  Whether this move will be successful in the long term remains to be seen. 

While few companies face the sort of public crisis that Sea World did, there are lessons to be learned from their struggle.  Framing the issue is a big step toward enabling an organization to address it.  In my experience, I’ve found that the following actions can help.   (The terms issue, threat, challenge, problem, and crisis are interchangeable.) 

Sizing up the challenge or crisis

While making assumptions can be dangerous, this is one situation where you can safely assume that people inside and outside the organization may not have the same understanding or perception of the issue that leadership does.  Ensuring a shared understanding can make all the difference.  The following questions may help you reach clarity.   

  • How would we define the challenge?  What is it, what does it mean?
  • How did we get here?
  • What is the impact on key consumers, employees, and stakeholders?
  • Is this an isolated event or a trend?  How do we know?
  • Is this change likely to be temporary or permanent?
  • How might this affect our category, competition, industry? 
  • How might this move forward?   Laying out scenarios can be useful.
  • What’s at stake?
  • What’s in play?

Changing the language

Since problems are mostly perceived in negative terms, a change in language can alter how people view a situation and open up other options.  Restating the problem as an opportunity is a useful exercise.  For Sea World, it could be something like this:  How can we utilize our park atmosphere to delight consumers, show the wonders of ocean life, continue our conservation efforts, and support a long term sustainable business going forward?   

Plotting the course ahead

This is a good time to revisit the purpose of the business, your values and beliefs, and what you do well as an organization. 

  • Identify your core consumer.  Who are we here to serve?  Should this change now?
  • What impact does this challenge have on our ability to serve them?  And their perception of our value proposition?
  • What unique assets or capabilities do we have?  It could be brand, organizational skills, staff, product, culture, consumer affinity, customer relationships, and partners. 
  • State the case for change.  Why must we change?  What may happen if we don’t? 
  • Brainstorm opportunities.  What options exist now?  What can we create?  What are the best opportunities based on how we see the market and our capabilities?
  • Define success.  What does success look like?  What should we be able to say in 3, 6, or 12 months?    
  • How can we deploy our capabilities to address new opportunities?  What else would we need to succeed?

Consider the downside and plan for the upside

As we all know, success rarely happens exactly how we envision it.  Take a moment now to look at failure before it happens...and think about how to overcome it.  

  • Let’s assume that we’re sitting in a room a year from today.  We’ve failed with our new strategy.  What happened?  What did we miss?  What were the biggest factors that led to this?  What would we have learned?
  • Now that we’ve identified potential weak spots, what can we do now to address them so that our future conversation is about debriefing our success?

Rallying behind the cause

The success of any strategy requires mutual clarity and shared commitment.  Take the time to share your vision with your organization, vendors, partners and other stakeholders.

  • Where we are today.
  • Where we’re going.  Paint a compelling view of the future.
  • What we need to do.
  • What they can expect from you. 
  • How they can be part of it.

I hope that this outline helps you work through challenges that your organization may face.   As always, I welcome your thoughts, comments, and stories.  

Mike Irwin is a mentor, advisor, and strategist.  Drawing from his past as a startup co-founder/President, executive officer of a $1+ billion market cap company (WD-40), public company CFO, VP Marketing, global chief strategy officer, head of sales, and board member, Mike uses his diverse background to help companies grow sales, improve profitability, and scale up.  He serves as an advisor, consultant, fractional or interim CEO/GM/MD, and on boards of directors.   He’s also a community volunteer, youth sports coach, author, cyclist, and marathoner. Follow him at BottleRocketAdvisors.com, get in touch at mike@bottlerocketadvisors.com or connect on LinkedIn.