Dolphin Tale’s Long Tail Marketing Danger

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Warner Brothers’ Dolphin Tale invited masses of viewers (read: parents and guardians dragged by kids) into theaters this past weekend.

Once there, the film (based on a true story! featuring Winter, the actual creature! in 3D!)) about a disabled dolphin who gets a prosthetic tail and changes people’s lives in the process (Morgan Freeman! Ashley Judd! Harry Connick Jr.!) stabbed them in the heart, repeatedly.

Not only is it the a triumph of nature and Hollywood — a bottlenose dolphin slayed the Lion King! — but the feel-good story (it’s like Seabiscuit… in the sea!) of the year.

It is also the feel-good marketing story of the year, one involving an aquarium that left no stone unturned in its quest to promote its star resident, and itself.[more]

Not much about the product placement in Dolphin Tale is particularly noteworthy. The numerous Dell computers provide a welcome respite from the typical MacBooks.

Also, on those Dells, audiences will find Dolphin Tale‘s child star doing Internet searches not on Google, but on a lesser-known Gigablast. “The Green Search Engine,” Gigablast is “the leading clean-energy search engine” with wind energy providing 90 percent of the power its servers use.

But the marquee “product” placed in Dolphin Tale is the dolphin, the adorable Winter, and by extension her home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater Beach, Florida.

On its newly relaunched website, the aquarium calls itself “The home of Winter,” a double entendre alluding to the area’s pull as a tourism attraction during the winter months. From the simple website it previously hosted, the aquarium now boasts a dynamic website with media, e-commerce and online ticket sales.

The movie incorporates the story of the live Winter webcam, repeatedly speaking its URL (seewinter.com) and even plugging it a note at the end. Understanding the power of making a real-world connection to its feel-good story, Warner Bros also promotes the marine center’s live webcam on the film’t official site.

Clearwater Marine Hospital’s web store has also wisely paid attention to detail with its offerings. Plush Winter dolls come in two versions, with dolphin’s tail missing and the prosthetic attached.

One missed merchandising opportunity? The “jewelry” section of the online store does not carry the white, tailless Winter talisman prominently worn by the film’s young protagonist.

Films based on real-life stories provide numerous win-win marketing opportunities for both of the real subjects and the film’s producers. The emotion from feel-good films can be trapped in the theater. But a real story allows audiences to take the emotions charged by the film and transfer them to an expanded experience beyond the film itself, in turn enhancing the overall message of the film.

In return, a Hollywood gloss can transform a feel good story into something transcendent. (Some supporting story elements of Dolphin Tale are fictional.) The publicity such an emotional treatment can bring is worth more than any paid advertising.

This symbiotic marketing relationship appears to be working at peak performance in Dolphin Tale’s case. In the ten days since the movie’s release, Dolphin Tale has already taken in $500,000 more than its $37 million production budget, all this despite no A-list stars.

For its involvement, Clearwater Marine Hospital is counting its blessings.

Just before the release of the film, the aquarium’s CEO told the Orlando Sentinel, “We expect a tremendous impact from the movie — we’re already feeling it with record attendance this summer, and the film hasn’t opened yet.” We attempted to reach the Clearwater aquarium for more iinformation on recent changes in visitor levels, but everyone seemed otherwise occupied. All voicemail boxes were full, a good sign.

Anticipating that increased interest, the aquarium is going forward with a $12.5 million expansion, including a new “Dolphin Tale” exhibit. The center has also begun partnering with local hotels to better service Winter’s fans. Winter, the CEO has predicted, “will be this area’s Elvis.” “There is no losing. It’s only, do we win immensely? Or immensely times four?” the CEO told TampaBay.com. It’s also, of course, a boon for the local tourism industry, including area resorts and hotels.

Of course, there is a cold consideration in all of this success, and that’s Winter. (Pun intended.) Diversity is the foundation of any stable brand. While Clearwater is moving toward expanding its offerings to include all manner of aquatic attractions, its core is still a single disabled sea mammal. The lifespan of the marketing potential of Dolphin Tale will be determined by the Winter’s lifespan itself. That is to say, should Winter pass, Clearwater should expect not to get much more out of the film.

The good news is that the average dolphin lifespan is 20 to 25 years. As Winter is now only five, Clearwater can plan on at least another dozen solid years of Dolphin Tale‘s long tail.

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