Social issues … Business traps

Volume 20 Newsletter 6

The more successful a company becomes the more resistant it becomes to change.  But when change comes that could destroy your business model it’s wise to pay attention early and get ahead of the curve.   Hoping for the best is never a good strategy.

In the 1991 three killer whales performing in a show in Victoria BC drowned their trainer in their performing pen at the Oak Bay Marina.   The death of the trainer ended the “Killer Whale Show” at the Marina in what could be dubbed a prequel of what was to come.  One of the killer whales named Tilikum was sold to Orlando’s SeaWorld.   At SeaWorld, Tilikum would repeat a pattern of both killing people and businesses.   First up was a park guest who hid himself in the park after closing and who’s visit ended tragically when he unwisely joined Tilikum for a late night dip.   Then, in 2010, in front of a full house of traumatized witnesses and centre stage at Orlando’s SeaWorld the same killer whale dragged his trainer off the pool deck into the water drowning her.

Tilikum would become the feature of a CNN documentary called Black Fish, a film that depicted the life of a captured killer whale.  The film brought attention to the plight of these magnificent animals and attendance at SeaWorld plummeted along with profits.  Tilikum died in 2017 but not before he took down his fourth victim, … SeaWorld.  After Blackfish aired SeaWorld’s attendance shrank and profits dropped faster than you could drain the pool.   So what do you do when the star of your show puts you on the wrong side of public opinion and becomes your biggest liability?

Getting caught on the wrong side of a social issue can have deep consequences.   Contrast the SeaWorld story with Carling Black Label beer from South Africa.   Beer was long associated with hard-working self-made men as a reward for a hard day of work.   However, in 2016, when AB InBev purchased Black Label the new head of marketing identified a big problem.  Data showed South African men were some of the heaviest drinkers and Black Label’s main consumers.   Nothing wrong with that except that the resulting excessive drinking was also contributing to the high rates of murder and violence aimed at women – a rate that far exceeded the global average.  The link to alcohol consumption was undeniable and AB InBev knew they were in a tough position.

Rather than waiting for the issue to blow up Carling did the opposite of SeaWorld and, instead of distancing themselves from their problem, they took it on.   Black Label beer began building a program that maintained beer’s heritage as a badge of masculinity while holding men responsible to keep women safe.   Carling knew if this initiative was to work they would need to ensure the branding program was seen internally as a brand investment and not just a cost of doing business and while it’s a tall order for any brand, it’s ultimately what brands do.  Brands shape behaviour and Carling took this responsibility seriously.

Nice lofty goals but how does a company linked with violence toward women confront the fact that it’s a main contributor to the problem it’s trying to solve?   Carling has long been a promoter of football (soccer) in South Africa and it was at the football stadiums where they started a program called “No Excuse for Women Abuse”.   This coincided with TV and social media campaigns with the hashtag #NoExcuse.   Carling also sponsored a men’s march that attracted 8000+ people and they released five million beer cans labeled NOEXUSE while sponsored soccer teams wore “NoExcuse” arm bands.  Then, taking a page from a successful Red Bull program, Carling hired “NoExcuse” teams of men to go into pubs and promote healthy drinking habits.  Finally, Carling has committed to a goal that 20% of their beer products (it’s 8% now) will be low or no alcohol by 2025.

What can we learn from SeaWorld and Carling:

  1. You can’t hide: It may happen over time or it may be triggered by an event but social issues surface.   SeaWorld saw what happened in Canada and chose to bury their heads in the sand building their brand on a whale show rather than pivoting to another theme. 
  2. Re-shaping behaviours is not an event…it’s a process:  People don’t change behaviours overnight but they do change.  Carling started in 2017 to hold men responsible for their behaviours – sober or not sober – #NoExcuse.  This program will continue long past 2025 hopefully with other brands joining in. 
  3. Brands and business have a social responsibility:  Businesses profit from shaping our behaviour.  It is incumbent on those brands to accept their role in creating social upheaval and participate in correcting it.

It will be a decade before the results of the Black Label “NoExcuse” program become clear but the trend of fighting gender based violence is positive and that can only be a good thing. SeaWorld, long plagued by low attendance numbers and likely pushed over the edge by Covid-19, is rumored to be contemplating bankruptcy.  What are you doing to ensure your company stays ahead of the curve?

1.    More on Carling Black Label:  HBR May/June 2020 Marketing Meets Mission, Myriam Sidibe
2.    CBC News › news › world › killer-whale-kills-seaworld-trainer-
3.    Orlando Weekly – SeaWorld’s largest shareholder may be pushing the company into bankruptcy Posted By Ken Storey on Wed, Jun 24, 2020

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