SeaWorld jumps on a movie's bandwagon, hoping to capitalize


Penni Crabtree


April 11, 2007

Apr. 11--With their quaint, rolling gait and always impeccable black-and-white attire, SeaWorld's penguins are the quintessence of cute.

But how are they as marketing partners?

The San Diego marine theme park will find out in June when Sony Pictures Animation releases its computer-animated movie "Surf's Up," with more than a dozen corporate partners to help promote it with product tie-ins. SeaWorld will brand its penguin exhibit with the film's theme this summer.

Corporate tie-ins with movies, DVDs, video games, computer games and other major entertainment releases have become an important source of additional income for a media property and a way to leverage advertising dollars for the property and its tie-in partners through cross-marketing.

Tie-ins often come in the form of licensing agreements, such as Disney's now-defunct 10-year partnership with McDonald's that helped promote such movies as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Incredibles" through Happy Meals and action-figure toys.

McDonald's has not wasted time finding new movie vehicles for peddling fast food to children: The chain has also signed a "Surf's Up" deal with Sony that will include promotions at more than 30,000 restaurants in several countries, as well as television ads, in- store displays and Happy Meal tie-ins, according to Marketing Daily, an online newsletter that tracks the media and advertising industries.

SeaWorld hopes to capitalize on the current rage for all things penguin, including "Happy Feet," which won the Oscar for best animated feature at this year's Academy Awards, and 2005's documentary, "March of the Penguins," which also picked up an Oscar.

"Surf's Up" incorporates a "mockumentary" style in its tale of how penguins invented surfing. In the film, a documentary crew goes behind the scenes during the Penguin World Surfing Championship, where the film's hero, amateur penguin surfer Cody Maverick, hopes to ride the waves to stardom.

SeaWorld entered into an "asset exchange" agreement with Sony rather than a straight licensing agreement, said John Sartorius, vice president of retail marketing for SeaWorld's St. Louis-based parent company, Busch Entertainment Corporation.

As part of the tie-in, SeaWorld will run "Surf's Up" movie trailers in the park, offer penguin-themed toys and merchandise, and participate in a "Win a Trip to SeaWorld" sweepstakes. SeaWorld will also take some of its penguins on the road, attending media events to promote the movie as well as the film's premiere in Los Angeles.

Although the movie features a cold-weather rockhopper penguin, SeaWorld will take warm-weather Magellanic penguins -- which can be transported in a pet carrier -- to "Surf's Up" media events.

"Each has its own handler, and we can transport them by van or in the cabin of an airplane," said David Koontz, a SeaWorld spokesman. "We often bring them out during a flight to walk around so everyone can say 'Hi.' If you want to see the faces of 137 people on a Boeing 737 light up, just have a penguin walk down the aisle."

Along the way, SeaWorld gets to promote its three marine theme parks and the Busch Garden Conservation Fund, which supports species research, animal rescue and rehabilitation, and conservation education.

"It is a perfect opportunity to showcase what we do in conjunction with a penguin movie," Sartorius said. "We care for more penguins than anyone else in the U.S. through our three SeaWorlds, and this gives us a platform."

Although tie-ins are now a business staple, some marketing experts caution that there is little evidence that they drive consumer decisions to buy a tie-in product.

Some tie-ins have provoked a little head-scratching, such as Verizon Wireless' two-year deal in 2002 with AOL Time Warner's New Line Cinema to promote the last two installments of the "Lord of the Rings" movie franchise.

Wireless technology appeared to be an odd fit for J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, a no-tech world of hobbits, wizards, elves and orcs who decidedly did not use cell phones, said James Oakley, a Purdue University marketing professor.

"I think it debatable whether it is worth it for some companies, and sometimes it is just a matter of 'if I don't do it, one of my competitors will,' " Oakley said. "It's like naming rights for sports stadiums: There is no hard evidence it adds value, but companies fork over tens of millions of dollars for the opportunity to have a stadium named after them."

San Diego's Jack in the Box acknowledged that it had a less-than- stellar response to its tie-in last year with IDT Entertainment's computer-animated film, "Everyone's Hero."

The fast-food chain offered toys linked to the children's tale of a father and son and two legendary baseball teams, but the movie ultimately was not a good fit for the company's menu, which caters to adult tastes, Jack in the Box spokesman Brian Luscomb said.

"They were good toys, but it didn't really drive foot traffic," Luscomb said. "We don't do tie-ins often because the licensing fees can be very expensive for the value you get out of it."