Cruise Lines and Branding Partnerships

Cruise lines partner with top brands to appeal to consumers — but are travel agents getting the message? By: Marilyn Green
Blue Man Group on Norwegian // © 2012 Norwegian Cruise Line
Blue Man Group on Norwegian // © 2012 Norwegian Cruise Line

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One of the hottest trends in cruising is the incorporation of famous names in all aspects of onboard life, from entertainment to restaurants, spas and shops. The list includes some of the most iconic brands in the world: Starbucks, Nickelodeon, Ferragamo, Canyon Ranch, DreamWorks, Nobu, Fisher-Price and Jacques Pepin. The use of these brands is part of the way in which cruise lines are positioning themselves in the market. Brands also offer great value and special-interest connections to consumers and travel agents; however, agents have been slow to leverage their popularity.

Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s (RCI) senior vice president of sales, trade support and services, said that for a cruise line, these partnerships are instrumental in helping articulate the brand and its quality.

“Quality is associated with quality,” she said. “You can have an ice cream parlor, but Ben & Jerry’s says quality. Johnny Rockets says great burgers and nostalgia. And, with 150 Central Park, we are using a name that resonates and a prestigious chef, James Beard award-winner Michael Schwartz.”

According to Freed, outside brands connect consumers with a cruise line in a way that internally generated products often cannot. Even though it can be more expensive to partner with an already recognized brand, the pay off is generally worth it.

“Some lines make up their own characters, but it’s not the same as having recognizable ones that kids are excited about before they step onboard. Disney wrote the book on this, and it is still very powerful,” Freed said. “People walk onto Oasis of the Seas and say, ‘There’s Starbucks!’ This elevates or matches the brand’s quality, and it’s very different than branding your own product, which doesn’t connect to outside experience. Plus, we really are using each brands’ products — not just the names. We partner with Mattel, Fisher-Price and Crayola because we cater to the family market, and Fisher-Price developed 16 modules for our young children’s program.”

Actual Broadway productions have high-quality recognition as well, and RCI is producing hits such as “Hairspray,” “Chicago,” “Saturday Night Fever” and more.

“We like to be in good company,” Freed said.

Norwegian Cruise Line takes a slightly different approach with its Broadway shows. Kevin Sheehan, president and CEO, describes Norwegian’s shows as having “a little edge,” including “Rock of Ages,” one of the longest-running shows on Broadway.

Each show is picked for its appeal to Norwegian’s passenger demographics.

“Many passengers include a few days pre- or post-cruise to take in the New York experience, and we want them to have that same kind of experience onboard,” said Sheehan.

Norwegian Epic made headlines with some very recognizable entertainment names, including Blue Man Group, Cirque Dreams and Dinner, Second City and more, and guests can enjoy them all onboard for less than the price of a single performance in Las Vegas — a tremendous added value to the cruiser.

“When you have an industry such as cruising that has a great potential to bring in new customers, the more you can do to make the product relevant to the consumer, the better,” said Sheehan. “These names can persuade the client to give it a try. Then, once they try our cruises, we can turn them into fans.”

Brand names are often important elements of theme cruises, and Norwegian’s theme cruises with Nickelodeon, for instance, have resulted in an ongoing partnership. Going even further, the line has been working with music-theme cruise giant Sixthman and finally acquired the Atlanta-based company.

For Carnival Cruise Lines, high-recognition names onboard range from Hasbro to comedian George Lopez and Food Network star Guy Fieri. Carnival holds numerous focus groups on name recognition, and it chooses partners that it knows its demographic will appreciate. Lania Rittenhouse, vice president of product development, said the presence of these names is part of the evolution of the line and its goal to add value and make the product even more fun.

“George Lopez rated very high in focus groups,” said Rittenhouse. “For him, it’s a great platform to bring consistent audiences to the comedians he supports — for Carnival, it’s a guarantee that we can bring in the caliber of entertainment to which our guests respond.”

Guy Fieri is someone who the guests identify with as well, she said.

“He’s an entertaining, well-known chef and he’s not pretentious. He’s down-home and authentic,” said Rittenhouse. “Burgers rated very high on guests’ priorities, so Carnival’s goal was to have the best burgers at sea without charging the guests for them. Guy’s passion for perfection — he was in on the design of every burger — made this a home run.”

By no means is it only the contemporary lines that bring high-recognition names onboard. Crystal Cruises’ Silk Road restaurants showcase the art of chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa without charging guests. Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria have Todd English restaurants and Jacques Pepin’s signature restaurant is on Oceania Cruises’ Marina and Riviera. Holland America Line pioneered scheduling a roster of celebrity chefs to give demonstrations and classes onboard.

Meanwhile, Silversea Cruises partners with Ferragamo, Bvlgari and Relais & Chateaux, and Oceania and Cunard both have partnerships with Canyon Ranch spas.

In some cases, these relationships go to the very essence of a cruise line, as with Jean-Louis Cousteau’s relationship with Paul Gauguin Cruises, exemplifying the line’s strong commitment to the sea and sensitivity to the environment.

A Sales Tool?
Despite all the high-visibility partnerships the cruise lines have forged, few agents seem to be making full use of them.

An exception to this might be Disney Cruise Lines, where virtually all cruises are sold on the basis of Disney’s distinctive brands; however, that selling strategy has not spread to the other brand names on other lines, according to industry sources.

Several travel agents put the blame on the cruise lines, saying that they are not doing a good enough job communicating about the brands.

“If it’s a one-time event, such as Ken Burns leading a cruise, we might use it as a sales tool,” one agent, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “But I didn’t even know many of these other brands were onboard. The lines are not telling us about them.”

Other agents we spoke with said that they simply sell on itinerary and price, not on onboard features.

Not that there have not been some big opportunities for promotion. Royal Caribbean leveraged its connection to Broadway into a massive publicity move as sponsors of the Tony Awards this year, and treated the awards’ television audience to a number from “Hairspray” performed via a live feed from Oasis of the Seas. This led to stronger consumer awareness, yet according to industry sources, few agents capitalized on it.

Likewise, MSC Cruises’ Baseball Greats cruises are extremely popular with passengers, yet many agents still fail to utilize team fan clubs to help organize groups for the cruise.

“One of the biggest opportunities in our industry is to sell to special-interest clients,” said Scott Koepf, vice president of sales for Avoya Travel/American Express. “It’s a different way to do business.”

Koepf said many agents are product-centered rather than customer-centered. He sees three levels where brand names and branded experiences can be used by agents.

“Brand identification provides a great opportunity to increase our marketing reach,” said Koepf. “There is a small group that will buy a cruise based on brand association alone, and we want to be sure to capture them — people like me, who are theater fanatics, for instance. A much larger group won’t make the decision on the brand alone, but their level of interest is increased by knowing it will be onboard. The third group will say that they have heard of the brand, but it’s not a big part of the decision-making process.”

But, Koepf added, don’t be too quick to give up on this last group.

“They may be blown away once onboard and the brand may figure into their future choices,” he said.

Koepf emphasized the necessity of qualifying clients before telling them about branded features.

“Don’t throw anything at them until you know their likes,” he said.

This message was also emphasized by RCI’s Freed.

“A connection to a known brand that meshes with a client’s preferences goes a long way to close a deal,” Freed said. “There’s a brand for everybody.”

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