The CMO Interview

How Six Flags Markets Through Its Bankruptcy

Senior VP Vieira Barocas Says Strategy Grounded in Social Media, Fans

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NEW YORK ( -- When Angie Vieira Barocas joined Six Flags nearly four years ago, her challenge was to rebuild the brand with a new team, stimulate renewed excitement and drive attendance.

Angie Vieira Barocas
Angie Vieira Barocas
Having launched her career at agencies, including 10 years at Wieden & Kennedy -- working on brands such as Nike and Microsoft and ESPN, then shifting to Bugaboo North America, where she served as president -- she drew heavily on past experience to inform her new role as senior VP-marketing and entertainment.

"All that experience leads to growth," she said. "In terms of what I bring from my previous life into my current position, it's the true understanding that marketing drives revenue."

Of course, when she joined Six Flags in January 2006, the company, which that year shifted its corporate headquarters from Oklahoma to New York under new ownership by parent Six Flags Inc., hadn't yet filed for bankruptcy. When it did so this past June, saddled with more than $2 billion in debt that it was unable to refinance, Ms. Vieira Barocas' job took on new complexity.

Reporting to Mike Antinoro, exec VP-entertainment and marketing, whose wider purview includes entertainment, group sales, and innovation, she runs the marketing department for Six Flags, overseeing all disciplines of marketing: strategy; promotions; digital and direct, including social media; website; advertising; creative and media; in-park marketing; park public relations; research and loyalty. Six Flags, with revenue of just more than $1 billion in 2008, spent nearly $48 million in measured media in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Ms. Vieira Barocas, 40, said her main goal for the brand, which has had its share of struggles in recent years -- including controversy surrounding ad icon Mr. Six and recessionary constraints that have spurred budget-focused consumers to deep-six travel and entertainment spending -- has been to educate consumers that despite this period of financial restructuring, it's business as usual for Six Flags, and that its 20 parks, visited by about 25 million people a year, are open and as ready as always for visitors to come and have an affordable good time.

In a recent interview with Advertising Age at our offices, 2009's high season behind her, Ms. Vieira Barocas discussed Six Flags' marketing strategy amid the restructuring and how it's leveraging its most-avid fans.

Ad Age: Explain how you've been marketing through the bankruptcy.

Ms. Vieira Barocas: It has been, indeed, a roller coaster year at Six Flags. We filed for Chapter 11, but we refer to it as restructuring. We inherited a tremendous amount of debt. And until we are able to unload that debt, we can't take the company where we want it to go in terms of an entertainment brand. In terms of the marketing for the restructuring, it was about making sure that our most-loyal guests were aware that it was business as usual, that our parks were open. We leveraged e-mail marketing and social media a lot to make sure that we get the word out and that we empowered our guests to become our marketers, to share the word that it's business as usual.

Ad Age: How has the bankruptcy affected the marketing budget?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: We have redirected dollars toward the restructuring event. We really took the approach that if we get the word out in a direct fashion through social media and e-mail marketing to let people know, and to reassure everyone that it's business as usual, then we can come around with our traditional advertising that sells the parks, that sells the markets, that sells the promotion, that sells the park experience. We used social media strategically and tactically to make sure that our 379,101 fans on Facebook and our 13,288 Twitter followers were aware that it was business as usual.

Ad Age: What kind of consumer data do you collect to know social media was the way to reach them?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: We have a tremendous amount of data on our consumer. Guests come through the parks; we find out who they are, we talk to them after they leave the park to understand what kind of guest experience that they had and what their guest satisfaction was. In terms of social media, the folks who are on our Facebook pages and the folks that follow us on Twitter, they are our most-avid fans. Those folks have a high affinity, and so we want to make sure that when we are communicating to them about the brand, we're giving them reasons to engage with us.

Ad Age: Does innovation continue?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: It's my responsibility, among others at our company, to make sure that we're constantly innovating and creating at our parks and that we're providing new experiences. This year we launched a new roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain called Terminator Salvation: The Ride. We reinvented and rebranded two of our great rides to Bizarro, one of which has been named the best steel coaster several years running at Six Flags New England. We marketed Bizarro, formerly Superman Ride of Steel, in an innovative way by doing an alternate-reality game. If we sat there and we said, "Oh, we're restructuring, the world stops," we'd be out of business.

Ad Age: What's your brand-licensing and brand-extension strategy, and have you had to put the brakes on that during the bankruptcy period?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: We haven't put the brakes on anything. If anything, I would say we have hit the gas more. In terms of our partners and in terms of new relationships, if there's an opportunity for a new relationship, we proceed and we go there. In fact, we have three recent additions to our Corporate Alliances sponsorship roster, if you will, in, Walgreens and Fox TV. Those are new relationships. Those did not exist pre-filing, pre-June 13. And they're here today. So, you have approval from the court, it's business as usual. Nothing changes.

Ad Age: Are partners wary of working with you, though, in light of the situation?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: No, although some need to be educated. Not everybody understands what the process of filing is. And so you just need to explain you're protected by law, we need to pay you, we need to pay you immediately and on time -- and so none of that changes.

Ad Age: Family travel is down; "staycations" are becoming more popular. Where does that put an offering like Six Flags?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: Our president and CEO, Mark Shapiro, often says that a family deserves a great day of entertainment at a great value. And we offer that. I don't know that there's a better value out there than Six Flags. We are close to home; to your point about staycations, that works in our benefit. We want to make sure that they have such a tremendous experience that after this economic situation comes around, they'll still choose us because they'll remember that we were there for them then.

Ad Age: Why would a consumer opt to go to a Six Flags property as opposed to another?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: I don't believe there's another place that is close to home, is close to our consumers, that provides an entertainment opportunity where you can be alive, engaged and living with your friends and your family as much as at Six Flags. And a season pass to our parks is less than a day at Disney, and it's in your backyard.

Ad Age: If the economy improves, do you suddenly raise prices again?

Ms. Vieira Barocas: We're not all of a sudden going to start jacking up our prices. But we do monitor it. As a business we need to grow revenue, we need to drive revenue. So if there's an opportunity, we'd do so. But I don't see that happening in the near future.

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