26 December 2009

The Disciplined Brand

Today, let's talk dolphins.

If you set out to develop a dolphin attraction, what would you do to build a brand and your business? You'd put up a slick show, and train your dolphins to do fancy tricks, right? You'd let your customers feed them, swim with them, pet them. You'd provide lifevests, snorkelling gear, and towels. You'd engineer lots of photo opportunities -- heck, even deploy a staff photographer and flog huge colour blow-ups that cost an arm and a leg.

Discovery Cove in Orlando, USA (http://www.discoverycove.com/) does almost all of this -- and puts together an amazing customer experience. My family visited a few years ago, and I gladly (well, kinda) paid more than $1,000 for the privilege. I didn't think I'd ever find another dolphin interaction experience to match it.

I was wrong.

Monkey Mia (http://www.monkeymia.com.au/site/) is the best-known attraction within the Shark Bay World Heritage Area in Western Australia and a 10-hour drive from Perth. Wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins have visited the beach there since the 1960s when Alice Watts first began feeding them from her boat, encouraging them to take fish from her hand. Later on Wilf Mason and his family lived at Monkey Mia for many years, enduring the hardships of a remote coastal lifestyle while managing a humble caravan and camping area which has developed into the Dolphin Resort of today.

Unlike commercial dolphin attractions the world over, Monkey Mia has a vigorously observed policy of "no touching the dolphins". (A dolphin's head contains a highly developed organ called the melon which is the source of its acute sense of echo-location. Imagine the magnified sensation of a hundred strangers' hands pawing your private parts every day, and you'll understand why this rule was instituted.) Visitors are allowed to stand no deeper than shin-deep in the water and wait for the dolphins to approach. No sunscreen is allowed on legs because it can irritate the dolphins' eyes. And when it's time for their feed, everyone is asked to move out of the water except for volunteers selected at random and supervised by Department of Conservation (DEC) officers.

Remember, these are wild, untrained dolphins. There's nothing to coerce them to come to the shallows of the beach at Monkey Mia. But come they do, of their own free will -- because a dedicated team has, over the years, worked hard to earn and keep their trust. (Brand stewards, take note: What are you doing to collaborate with your internal constituents to present an aligned brand story?) Four adult female dolphins and their offspring, spanning three generations, are fed up to three times each morning to lunchtime, with no more than 1/3 their daily intake of fish (this is to prevent them becoming dependent on handouts, and encourage them to continue hunting for their own food).

The dolphins' visits are amazingly reliable -- their attendance record is 99.6% over the past 10 years. Talk about a consistently delivered brand experience.

I was at Monkey Mia two weeks ago, and came away with a new-found respect for these intelligent animals -- not to mention heaps of admiration for the way the guardians of this amazing attraction have taken the firm and narrow contrarian path to develop their brand with tremendous discipline, working tirelessly every day of the year to care for the dolphins and convert visitors to brand ambassadors.

Two different business models on opposite sides of the globe. One a slick, well-run but commercialised customer experience. The other a more basic, more restricted yet more authentic interaction with dolphins. Each has its admirers. But the smaller attraction, I believe, is in sync with the global trends of simplicity and sustainability. The stewards of Monkey Mia instinctively understand that human beings tacitly seek to be part of something larger than ourselves. Interacting with dolphins in this way allows us to achieve a little of that.

Monkey Mia 1, Discovery Cove 0.


Laurenz said...

This is a very good comparison of two very different service approaches and - especially- different target group needs for the same type of 'service'.
I think it is not a particularly discerning example for brand discipline but a much better example for emerging consumer needs and successful business models to cater to these needs and - on top of this- how an established business model should consider to change accordingly.

I believe both models are earning the respective trust for their own way of conducting the service as of today. Some people do trust the Florida dolphin show for a very safe and easy way of getting especially their children in touch with dolphins while other will trust the Australian dolphin show for a very 'real' experience that is much more in line with their new set of values of preserving our environment and enabling an encounter with the animal world in a way that is safe for the animals and their respective needs.

From a business point of view the traditional Florida model is still more profitable today, I suspect, but as you highlighted this business model will run out of steam fairly soon and needs to consider to learn from such new and successful models like the one in Australia.

Not many companies have encountered such changing needs and adapted their services successfully.

IBM is still the benchmark how a big global company can change from a less needed and commoditized product business (hardware/computer) to a more needed and more profitable IT service business.

Look at Kodak and how they managed to destroy a successful brand by missing the changing needs of consumers to adapt to the digital world.

Or another positive one for Dove which managed to grow a new truly global and powerful umbrella brand by riding on a new and emerging need of natural beauty ...

Sustainability is a big, global emerging need that will effect many businesses. The issue is that most companies only pay lip service to it and equally many consumers do the same. It is chic to be part of the 'sustainability gang', but only if it does not effect your life too much.

I am particularly keen to see how the Electro car battle will pan out. Yes, we all know that people around the world are much more concerned about the environment and yes, many people are likely to consider switching. But it still depends on how feasible the 'new and better' products and brands will be. And more importantly how much it will change your personal life and habits.

Because still, the human being is a creature of habit and it only very slowly adapts to new services and products.

Here is where trust comes in, if people trust that a new product/service or brand will take them along from where they are right now into a better and brighter future for everyone in small and manageable steps, they will more likely engage with such new offering.
Building this trust will be the true KPI for many companies&brands going forward into a world where sustainability will be a crucial part of their success.

dshaw said...

@Laurenz: Thanks for your insightful commentary. (Glad to see someone's reading this thing!) You make good points about how companies need to be aligned with emerging consumer needs, and the increasing importance of having sustainability KPIs if an organization is serious about its future.

The overriding impression I took away from spending 5 days at Monkey Mia was one of awe and respect for the dolphins as well as their human guardians of all these years. We were told that in the '70s and early '80s there were few restrictions on touching and feeding the dolphins. As a result, they were pawed and stroked and nauseum, and gorged themselves silly on all kinds of readily available food. Some dolphins died because they lost the ability to hunt for themselves.

It must have taken a lot of Restraint (with a capital R) for the person-in-charge at that time to say "no more touching, no more indiscriminate feeding" -- almost certainly pissing off visitors and steeling themselves for a quiet season or two. Over time of course, people came around to see the wisdom of providing a natural habitat for visiting dolphins and and interacting with them in a respectful way.

Brand management, like business strategy, is about making choices. It's not only about what you do -- but equally important, about what you don't do.

For Monkey Mia to fly in the face of convention, to eschew what seemed to be the proven model for commercial success everywhere else in the world -- that must have taken something. (But you know, they probably weren't even thinging about the commercial imperative. They just felt they were doing the right thing.)

This is why Monkey Mia, in my book, exemplifies the Disciplined Brand.