After a fruitless two-year $10 million marketing campaign to convince people there is nothing wrong with how they treat their orcas, Seaworld has finally caved to public pressure. Today, they announced that they will “end orca-breeding” and that they will “transition away from theatrical orca shows.”
For decades, Seaworld’s business model thrived on the commercial exploitation of killer whales. Back in 1997, John Hall (former Seaworld Research Director) estimated that the orcas were good for 70 percent of the park’s revenue. Therefore, more growth for Seaworld – as in more cash-flow and more profits – meant acquiring and keeping more killer whales. And, as Seaworld had been faithfully and successfully satisfying their shareholders interests for decades, word got out that the growth they realized came at the expense of the orcas wellbeing.
Organizations, such as PETA, had already reported disturbing facts around Seaworld’s treatment of orcas. It turned out that Seaworld’s orcas live about two to three times shorter than that of orcas in the wild. To secure a steady supply of killer whales, Seaworld relied on orcas that were stolen and kidnapped from their families. Also, PETA revealed that orcas suffer physically and mentally as they are confined to tanks that are way too limiting for them. But these, and more, allegations hardly moved the needle in public opinion. At least not until the release of the movie Blackfish (January 2013) – a documentary about the captivity of Tilikum, an orca that was involved in the deaths of two trainers and one tresspasser. This documentary also showed the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity. It proved to be a game changer that rapidly and massively turned public opinion against Seaworld’s business model.
Feeling cornered, Seaworld, at first, did everything they could to cling to their, once, winning business model. They spent millions of dollars on marketing and PR to discredit the the documentary and to minimize its critique. More funnily, they refused to accept that their declines in visitors and in profits were due to Blackfish. Instead, they formally blamed high ticket prices and the wheather for this. In spite of these extensive marketing efforts to change public perception, profits dropped by about 85% in 2015.
It took a newly appointed CEO, Joel Manby, to concede that Seaworld was at the losing end of this battle. Public’s negative attitudes towards keeping orcas in captivity weren’t going anywhere. This has led to the company’s unavoidable decision to remodel its business. Seaworld are now moving towards a more meaningful growth model that includes the wellbeing of the animals they keep. The lesson is simple: Ultimately, focus on meaningful and sustained growth is less costly and more profitable than a narrow fixation on short-term profits.