It’s Time for Travel Management Companies to Take Creative Risks in Their Branding

What do you do when you’re confronted with selling a parity product?

You can’t talk up price or technology or service because they’re pretty comparable to your competitors. You can maybe speak to the geographical scope of your offering, but that only gets you so far.

So, what do you do?

If you’re a travel management company, it seems you get your team together and go through an exercise where you confirm, yes, there is parity with your competitors. Bereft of options, you settle on the one thing you think is your differentiator: your people.

You talk about your agency’s expertise and its experience and its humanity (because, people are human, right?). Maybe you even throw “authenticity” in there somewhere for good measure.

And then you decide that, in addition to having the best people, you’re going to talk about things that seem really important to prospects right now: innovation, collaboration, customer-centricity, adaptability, simplicity.

I’m sure more time and effort and money goes into the process, but that’s fairly irrelevant given how often most TMCs end up in exactly the same place.

It doesn’t seem to matter that people can (and do) leave companies. Or that calling yourself innovative, simple, service-oriented or customer-centric (as opposed to customer-ambivalent?) doesn’t make it true. Or that everyone else is calling themselves those same things.

Most TMCs have been content to push out this samey samey brand messaging lacking any creativity. The problem is, it means very little to anyone outside the company, and much worse, it’s not memorable. Prospects are left trying to tell apart a bunch of three-to-four-letter acronym brands all claiming they have the best people…and the best service, and the greatest partners and superior innovations.

Let’s not mince words. The current COVID-19 crisis is decimating the travel industry. Many small corporate travel agencies, and perhaps even some large ones, will not survive it. Thousands of TMC employees have been laid off or furloughed.

For those TMCs who remain, now is the time to re-examine your brand, take risks and change for the better. Doing so will ensure you’re already in the mind of potential customers when business travel demand eventually returns.

Don’t Be Different; Be Distinct.

There’s a long-held belief, both within marketing and outside of it, that being different is what makes a brand succeed.

Brands like Apple are held up as proof that differentiation matters. Time and money is spent analyzing product features and customer benefits versus the competitive set in order to identify the unique selling proposition (USP) as if it’s the marketing equivalent of a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory.

Here’s the thing. It’s all BS.

Brands do differ from one another, but meaningful differentiation rarely exists. In the TMC space, offerings are more about matching competitors than they are about differentiating from them. And even when meaningful differentiation does exist, that’s not what drives consumers’ purchasing decisions.

This isn’t speculation. It’s based on research conducted and compiled by Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science and outlined in the book How Brands Grow (2010).

For example, when Apple first launched its colorful iMac computers, back when PCs were still all the same off-putting beige, 77 percent of Apple users didn’t perceive the brand to be different or unique from its competitors. Turns out, they didn’t purchase it because they wanted a computer that was radically different, they just wanted a computer that was useful—same as every other person purchasing a computer. (There’s a discussion to be had about the power of Apple’s brand building and positioning creating a kind of differentiation, but I’ll leave that to Mark Ritson.)

Some months back I spoke to a travel industry marketer who questioned why, if meaningful differentiation doesn’t exist, companies should spare a single cent on marketing.

That, I responded, is exactly when marketing matters more — not less.

If you’re selling something that isn’t significantly different than your competitors, the way to win is by being prominent and memorable. Distinctiveness is more important than differentiation.

Brands do differ from one another, but meaningful differentiation rarely exists. In the TMC space, offerings are more about matching competitors than they are about differentiating from them.

Let’s go back to a time when we could all go to the pub. Put yourself there in front of the bar, rows of liquor bottles lining the wall behind the bartender. What are you ordering? How do you decide?

If you’re my husband, you have a quick glance at the selection and order a Maker’s Mark. Here we are in the United Kingdom, land of exceptional Scotch whisky, and Kentucky bourbon is his go-to order.

I asked him once why he always goes with Maker’s, assuming he would talk about taste. Instead, he said he could easily spot the bottle by its red wax seal. He knew he could look behind the counter and more often than not it would be there. And he wouldn’t be ordering something too expensive or of poor quality.

Prominent. Memorable.

Whiskey makers have long understood they couldn’t use rational points of differentiation to get consumers to choose their brand. Legendary ad man David Ogilvy said he even tried it once: “It didn’t work. You don’t catch Coca-Cola advertising that Coke contains 50 percent more cola berries” (Ogilvy on Advertising1983).

You may say, “Well, TMCs are B2B brands and marketing and branding is different for B2Bs.” That’s a false assumption.

There may be a longer timeline for customer acquisition in B2B, but according to recent research from Les Binet and Peter Field, it’s just as important — if not more important — to invest in marketing effectiveness (long-term brand building) as it is to invest in marketing efficiency (short-term lead generation and activation). That’s true regardless of whether you’re in B2B or B2C.

And what drives effectiveness? Emotion-driven marketing bolstered by creativity.

It’s time for TMCs to give up their fixation on differentiation and focus on genuine brand building. That’s not an exercise of examining product features versus competitors, but of establishing something lasting in the mind of buyers and customers that allows them to think of you above other brands.

It’s shaping an image. It’s finding a style. It’s adopting symbols or characters. It’s embracing your logo. It’s taking a risk or two.

Simply put: it’s investing in creativity. And it’s not something you do for one or two quarters and see if it works. It’s something TMCs need to start doing consistently over years.

Now, here are some tasty morsels to help illustrate a few points:

Mastercard’s ‘Priceless’ Campaign

Before this campaign launched, Mastercard was in decline; Visa was eating its lunch. Mastercard knew it needed to turn around perception to win back consumers and banks and it wasn’t going to be able to do it by making short-term rational arguments. It needed to connect its brand with emotion. More than 20 years after the ‘Priceless’ campaign launched, it’s still part of Mastercard’s DNA.

‘It’s Toasted’ from Episode One of Mad Men

(Skip to 3:13 in the clip) This scene from Mad Men is the equivalent of an Italian chef kissing his fingers. Realizing that Sterling Cooper had to find a way to market a parity product, Lucky Strike Cigarettes, Don Draper turns to a nostalgic, emotional brand image. It’s not poisonous, it’s toasted! I know this feels ethically ooky given we’re talking cigarettes, but the same principles apply to any parity product. We can’t ignore the effectiveness of, say, the cowboy image used by Marlboro to set the brand apart for decades.

Comparethemarket.com’s ‘Compare the Meerkat’ Campaign

This one almost defies logic, but that’s kind of what is so wonderful about it. As an American, I had no idea what was going on the first time I saw two Russian meerkats talking about car insurance. But this campaign, first launched in 2009, is creative and fun, and it has kept what could otherwise be a pretty forgettable website top-of-mind for consumers in the U.K. for more than a decade.

Sharpen your Communications to Cut Through the Noise

How’s everyone doing? Good?

Just kidding. I know this week’s been a dumpster fire. But you’ve clicked on this post for a reason, so let’s get into it.

Chances are with COVID-19 hitting everyone everywhere, you’ve felt more pressure than ever to communicate effectively at work. That’s true whether you’re a senior executive or manager of a small team or an entry-level employee.

And with everyone feeling this way, you not only have to be clear in your communications, you also have to compete with all the other messages banging about in every inbox and in every corner of the Internet.

So, some tips.

Tip #1: Be as direct and brief as possible. 

We’re all feeling a lot of feelings. You may want to share yours and empathize with others. That’s nice. But doing so at length waters down your communications when people are craving straightforward information.

I like this note from the workout app Aaptive:

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Four sentences, yet information-rich.

OK, maybe that’s not your style. Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Write down everything you want to say, then go back and remove at least a third of what you’ve written. I promise you can do it. Start with removing “that”; it’s almost never necessary.
  • Use the active voice. See which sounds sharper: The premises have been searched by the authorities (passive) OR The authorities searched the premises (active). Look for “by” or “have” phrases to spot passive voice. More here.
  • Read what you’ve written aloud. Saying it and hearing it will help you catch any verbal tangles or run-on sentences.
  • Keep your sentences short. Look for commas. If you can replace one with a period and still make a complete sentence, you can reduce filler words and keep your writing tight.

Tip #2: Write for both scanners and deep-divers. 

I hate the claim “nobody reads anymore.” Not true.

The reality is there are people who skim and others who comb through every terms and conditions statement ever put in front of them. The trick is to write for both.

How?

  • Make use of bold text. Highlight the key points in your communications for those who skim.
  • Make use of bullets. Yes, like I’m doing right now. See how much easier it is to track each new point?
  • Make use of subheadings. I’ve seen a lot of CEO messages this week that use solid blocks of dense text. Stop it. Separate ideas with unifying subheadings to make text easier to read.

Tip #3. Don’t bury vital information. 

OK, I realize the irony of making this the third point. But if you follow the first two tips, you may not need this one because you will have cut all the throat clearing.

Just in case: Do not wait until the end to say the important thing.  

Ever notice how news stories tell you the most important stuff up top? That style emerged so editors could easily chop stories from the bottom-up to fit newspaper space. It ensured they didn’t cut the who, what, when, where, why and how.

The readers of your communications will do the same editing exercise with their attention spans. Yes, even if you’re the boss. Make sure you tell them the critical stuff as early as possible.

Tip #4: Include a call to action and next steps. 

What would you like people to do after reading your communication? Should they call a number? Write an email? Stay at home?

Make sure you’re explicit about what you expect of them and about what they can be doing during this time.

In the same vein, let readers know what steps you’re taking. Be specific.

“We’ll be doing everything we can” may seem like a nice thing to say, but it’s not terribly informative or helpful. Detailing even the seemingly small stuff can go a long way to make your audience feel informed.

There they are—my top tips for how to ensure people actually read your communications. Use even one or two of them and your writing will be a cut above much of what’s out there right now. Promise.

Times are difficult for everyone in our industry. If you’re looking for support or advice or an extra set of eyes on something you’ve written, don’t hesitate to reach out.

It’s going to be critical for you to keep the lines of communication open with your teams in the coming weeks. For more information on crisis communications next steps, check out this post from Dots & Lines Inc. president Katharine Farrell.