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.’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.