Up from the Depths: CPR for San Francisco Aquarium
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Up from the Depths: CPR for San Francisco Aquarium

After many years as a blight on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Underwater World set out to develop a new identity and to renew public interest by completely renovating the interior space and developing new interactive and revolving exhibits.

Paul Holmes

After many years as a blight on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Underwater World set out to develop a new identity and to renew public interest by completely renovating the interior space and developing new interactive and revolving exhibits. A new name, a complete overhaul of the collateral material and a strong advertising campaign coupled with a strong public relations campaign helped to reintroduction the Aquarium of the Bay to fan fare and success.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a colorful collection of restaurants, t-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, and fresh fish hawkers—all vying for attention. In the middle of all this noise and clutter, anchored at Pier 39, sits the Aquarium of the Bay, the “comeback kid” of the city’s waterfront attractions.
The aquarium, which opened in 1996, was originally called UnderWater World. It opened to some of the worst reviews in modern San Francisco history. The media wrote stories that blasted the attraction; both locals and the media referred to it as “UnderWhelming World.” In the parlance of the tourist trade, the aquarium was not a “satisfactory experience.”
Business leaders, Wharf guides and even cabbies, held little hope for the aquarium’s survival. Few were surprised in 1999 when the aquarium’s owners filed for bankruptcy protection. But the owners decided to rebuild rather than retreat. The aquarium’s new management team, armed with nearly $2 million, was quietly and thoughtfully renovating the lackluster facility. Exhibits, signage, and displays were greatly improved. Hundreds of species of sea life, including sharks, rays and starfish, were included. “UnderWhelmingWorld” was disappearing, but its poor reputation was not.
The owners called in Singer Associates late in 2000 to help re-brand, re-name, and rebuild the reputation of the attraction.
Singer Associates was retained to help change minds about the Wharf’s much-maligned aquarium. Simply put, the objective was to get key influencers—and ultimately the tourists they influenced—to take a second look. Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s number one tourist attraction, drawing more than three million visitors a year.
UnderWaterWorld, dismissed by cab drivers, tour bus operators, hotel concierges, and others as a poor value, was attracting few of those visitors in the spring of 2001. In reality, the aquarium had become a much better value, but perceptions are hard to change. With a re-launch scheduled for mid-summer, Singer Associates set out to change minds.
Analysis showed that most out-of-town visitors to the aquarium were accompanied by at least one Bay Area resident who was, in effect, acting as a tour guide. Additionally, tourist trade workers, which included not only concierges and cabbies but doormen, bus drivers and parking garage attendants, were huge influencers. The pattern was clear—convince the locals that the aquarium was “a brand new way to discover the Bay” and the tourists would follow.
Exit interviews, parking garage polls and visitor surveys taken before the renovation indicated the aquarium was viewed as “too expensive,” “too small,” and “not worth the time.” Even worse, visitors were leaving and telling others: “Don’t go there.” The new managers, working with Singer Associates, studied the research and found that visitors wanted to see more sea life, better displays and more information about the San Francisco Bay ecosystem. That is exactly what they set out to provide.
The PR strategy was simple: Start local and work out from there. Since the research indicated how influential the cabbie/concierge contingent could be, the focus was on influencing workers in the immediate Wharf area. Then introduce the new, revamped “product” to local hospitality industry workers, local residents, and local media—with particular emphasis on the electronic media to help show off the aquarium’s new “look and feel.”
Singer Associates wanted cab drivers and travel agents to visit the aquarium so they could see first-hand the improvements. Initial strategy involved getting visitors back through the doors. A longer-term strategy, to be rolled out in 2002, involves deepening relationships with schools, youth organizations, senior groups and travel writers to create supporters and position the aquarium as an educational experience.
A rebranding, directed by Singer Associates, followed the renovation with a new look, a new name—The Aquarium of the Bay—and new collateral materials. Discover the Bay, Touch the Bay, Save the Bay became major themes under the umbrella promotion: A Brand New Way to Discover The Bay.
But there was more. This was a new aquarium, and had to be seen to be believed. Singer Associates planned three key events for mid-summer 2001 designed to change hearts and minds.
First, an Appreciation Day was held for Fisherman’s Wharf workers—whether parking valets or business owners. The aquarium was put on display for all its neighbors to see, and follow-up interviews indicated that they liked what they saw. Second, concierges, cab drivers, hotel workers, Grey Line Tour bus drivers, travel agents, and restaurant workers were provided with information and free tickets as part of a promotional campaign to encourage them to visit and then talk about what they saw. Again, follow-up interviews indicated a very positive reaction. Third, a grand opening gala event was held for VIPs, politicians, teachers, local news media and “friends of the aquarium.” Prior to the event, San Francisco residents were treated to Volkswagen bugs dressed in shrink-wrapped aquarium ads, trolley car display ads, and colorful street kiosks. Promotional materials, discount coupons and follow-up marketing efforts are continuing with holiday and year-end promotions being planned. While still early, it appears momentum has shifted and that the “UnderWhelming World” perception has faded.
The number of visits to The Aquarium of the Bay has increased 25 percent in the last year as the “get out the locals” strategy takes hold. The rebranding effort will continue into 2002 with the focus on educational programs and aquarium events. It should be noted that momentum was slowed for all businesses at the Wharf by the September 11 attacks.
But the aquarium owners are convinced that their operation will emerge stronger than ever from the events of the last two months due largely to the repositioning and brand development work of Singer Associates.
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