Is SeaWorld Repeating Wal-Mart's Mistake?

Source: SeaWorld.

Activists are kicking SeaWorld Entertainment while it's down, but the meandering theme park operator is ready to fight fire with fire.

The Orlando Sentinel published an articlethis month about Awesome Ocean, a website that aims to debunk the criticisms that activists have hurled at SeaWorld. The site was created by Eric Davis, a theme park enthusiast who launched an unofficial SeaWorld podcast two years ago.

Davis approached SeaWorld in pursuit of start-up funding for the site. SeaWorld's online marketing strategy had not previously considered bankrolling an indie site to assist in fighting back against the tarnishing of its reputation, but it felt this was the right time to provide what Davis describes on his site as a "small start-up investment." According to the Sentinel, SeaWorld felt that backing Awesome Ocean was the right move for the industry because the website supports zoos, aquariums, and marine life parks beyond just SeaWorld.

This is some pretty shrewd guerrilla marketing. Davis can go where SeaWorld can't. His website doesn't have to take the high road in battling against jabs beneath the belt. When Baylor University withdrew an annual alumni event from SeaWorld San Antonio earlier this month -- arguing that SeaWorld's captivity of orcas runs afoul of the Baptist university's preachings -- Davis fired back with all of the times PETA has crossed the line with marketing tactics that Christians would find distasteful (at best).

Just so we're clear on the hypocritical nature of some anti-SeaWorld behavior: Baylor itself keeps a pair of bears on campus.Baylor's own Web pagejustifying the captivityis a snapshot of one of the chained bears, and explains that the animals are no longer fed Dr Pepper. No, I'm not making that up.

"In the wild, Black bears live between 18 and 20 years," the page concludes. "In captivity they live between 22 and 25 years. The longer life expectancy in captivity is due to the better diet and quality veterinary care that the bears receive."

Something tells me that the mutual back pats between Baylor's alum network and activists would end if they knew what the other side was up to.

Sure, SeaWorld is trying to win back its good name on its own. Its latest television commercialfeatures park trainers countering some of the claims made in the documentaryBlackfish. However, it's not a bad strategy to encourage other folks sympathetic to its cause to stand up and fight back. It actually becomes critical when defending SeaWorld isn't the trendy thing to do.

Shamu meets Sam WaltonOn the surface, this strategy seems similar to what Wal-Mart attempted in 2006 withThe Wal-Marting Across America, a blog detailing a 10-day RV trek through the discounter's parking lots. When the missives proved glowingly favorable about the world's largest retailer it was revealed that the bloggers were a writer and freelance photographer who were being compensated by Wal-Mart.

It backfired. In fact, it was one of the many social media stabs that misfired badly for Wal-Mart in 2006.

There is a big difference between Wal-Mart in 2006 and SeaWorld nine years later, and that is that SeaWorld isn't being deceitful. The company and site are both up-front about the initial investment in Awesome Ocean.

SeaWorld has been on the receiving end of bad news lately. In the wake of Blackfish, attendance has fallen a little more than 4% in back-to-back years at its collection of theme parks. It has to mix things up. Along the way it seems to have hired a cheap mercenary in Awesome Ocean that already has more than 132,000 followers on its Facebook fan page. SeaWorld has a long way to go before it can bounce back, but it's good to know it's not trying to bounce back alone.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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