It’s February and in the Northern hemisphere the cold and rain are driving many of us to an almost pathological obsession with summer holidays. And these days such obsessions are easily encouraged. Even ten or fifteen years ago, if you wanted to indulge daydreams of warm, sandy beaches and cool, interesting beverages you’d have to brave the drizzle and venture down to the local travel agents. Not to mention the soggy armfuls of brochures to lug home. But today vacations are available at the swipe of a tablet as online travel and accommodation brands serve up possibilities from every corner of the globe.
One such brand is Booking.com, a site that’s been around since the dial-up modem, Wild West days of the Internet back in 1996. Until recently they relied on digital methods to grow their business. And all that Search Marketing seems to have paid off – after all, over their 18 years of business they’ve booked over a billion nights’ worth of accommodation. As Paul Hennessy, Booking.com’s CMO enthusiastically reminds me, they’re the world’s ‘number one’ booking site. So the question is, why now, after 18 years of business, have they decided to break into the world of big, beautifully produced TV campaigns?
“What we’ve found in many markets is that we were reaching a peak of the number of customers who ultimately reach us through online measures, so in the summer of 2012 we made a decision internally that it was time to tell the world about this company and about this great product and service in the accommodation space,” explains Paul.
Having reached saturation point they decided to take the calculated risk of a big campaign to launch the brand in markets around the world, so the hunt was on for an agency. According to Paul the search was a global one. And the shopping list was a long one. Booking scoured the planet to find an agency that understood their ethos, appreciated the customer-centric approach of the business and could empathise with the consumer. In the end Booking found themselves in a situation that many a fussy shopper, or frustrated romantic, will recognise – months of searching and the ideal partner had been just up the road all along. A short stroll along the canals of Amsterdam they found their perfect fit in Wieden + Kennedy. They’d never set up to keep the project local, but Paul refers to the proximity as the ‘secret sauce’ that enables a uniquely collaborative relationship.
For creative director Genevieve Hoey, the fact that the brand was keen to talk about and to their customers rather than push generic holiday images and flat, hard numbers meant that they were an appealing prospect for the team. Not to mention all that travel.
“I think at the core of Wiedens is the ethos of producing great brand work that moves people,” she says. “It’s really important to find a client that puts customers at the centre of the experience. Travel is an emotional thing. When you only get two weeks off a year and you take a holiday, you have to get it absolutely right. You have to put yourself in the position of the booker and say we’re going to do everything we can to make sure you have the vacation of your life. Booking came to us from that point of view, rather than just talking about price and hard numbers. And that emotional place is where WIedens really turns a corner and sings. To come across a brand as big as Booking that’s willing to almost start from scratch was really, really exciting for us. We were searching for a collaborative partner.”
In fact that emotional element was more than just the excitement of an online brand looking forward to its first big campaign. It was a sensibly thought out, strategic decision. While the traditional trajectory of brands in the information age has seen businesses used to the glamour and profile of TV and film struggle to get their heads around the nitty-gritty of data and figure out how to merge creativity with technology, Booking.com is travelling in the opposite direction. They’re typical of newer generations of online businesses; digital is what they are, usability and functionality and usefulness is in their DNA, and it’s their very focus on the customer that has driven their success to date. Like brands such as Amazon and Google, they’d mastered the details of digital – now they were ready to paint in broad, beautiful brushstrokes.
“We were looking, specifically, for a big idea that would also connect with people emotionally. We knew that lots of data supports the fact that when people connect with brands on an emotional level versus a rational level they’re much less likely to shop around, they’re much less price sensitive and they’re much more likely to tell a friend,” says Paul. “We were already in all the places that people were searching but none of the places where people were dreaming. We needed to move people into that emotional place. With travel, there is an element of fantasy and hoping for some kind of positive outcome. It’s the one or two times where we’re not working, where we get to be someone different and enjoy ourselves.”
Not that the company itself struggled with emotion and passion – it was just a case of sharing that with the rest of the world. At the core of the business is the idea of making every decision with the customer in mind – so unlike some other sites, they make sure the customer service lines are manned 24/7. They manually go through reviews to make sure every reviewer has genuinely visited the hotel they’re talking about. They carefully tag accommodation with any number of interests and desires so that those in need of inspiration can hunt out their perfect fit. As Paul tells me all this it’s clear that the business, though digital is human too.
Plus creating a stronger emotional connection with travellers was crucial if the brand was to stand out in the increasingly crowded marketplace of online accommodation. For both Wiedens and Booking, the key to achieving this would be a pincer movement of humour and relatable, specific insights, as Genevieve explains. “I think you’re aware of what competitors are doing, but Booking have always done their own thing, it’s in their DNA. Rather than having a clichéd couple eating a romantic dinner on the beach, we put the customer at the centre of the experience and created something relatable. Bland, typical travel campaigns is a cluttered category. We needed to make it fun. Travel’s fun! I Also we’re not borrowing interest, we’re not doing anything wacky. We’re just saying ‘we know what you want and we’ve got it’. I think truth in advertising is quite rare, and so many people embellish because they have nothing to say. And Booking has something really simple to say.”
But having decided to tap into people’s limbic systems with a campaign that would move people to smiles and hopefully laughter, the team wasn’t quite ready to abandon the detail and data of digital quite yet. After all as an online business, Booking.com had a wealth of information about their customers to draw from. Paul has a collection of cracking nuggets of insight about how people use the site – for example we might browse holidays on mobiles and tablets at the weekend, but come Monday morning as we begrudgingly return to work for another five days, the site sees a serious spike in bookings.
For the team at Wieden+Kennedy, they had a wealth of info to draw from, namely the 25million customer reviews. Having trawled them carefully, they were struck by the tiny details that people choose to talk about. Travellers were all unique in the tiny details that they chose to enthuse about – but what was universal was that each had one or two things that really spoke to them.
“They were very inspiring because people always want to contribute opinions, and they often turn into briefs for us. What are the minutiae that really make or break someone’s holiday? It could be the tactile texture of the carpet, it could be a breakfast buffet that never closes. These are the things that people talk about to their friends,” explains Genevieve, who says that one of the main challenges was sheer volume of lively views they had to sift through. “That really became a creative springboard. Booking obviously has the widest range of accommodation on the planet so it stands to reason that they’d be able to offer pretty much everything that everybody wants. From that it’s a really great playing field for us to say ‘if you’re looking for exactly that, we know somewhere that does it’.”
So far that insight has led to two creative executions. Booking Yeah empathises with the pressure people face when shouldering the responsibility for sorting out accommodation – because you just know if you get it wrong your wife/boyfriend/mates will have something to say about it. The more recent is Booking Epic which zooms in on the idiosyncratic killer details that turn a good holiday into a great one, and that has just launched in the UK this week.
Traktor are a really interesting combination. They always have double directing teams – they’ve always got a lot of people contributing a lot of thoughts. The shoot was really organic. We were away for a month and while we there we were optimising the script. When we got to the location, we’d suggest ‘what about this, what about this?’ That was the really nice thing about working with Paul and Cort. They’re a very small team on the Booking side, we were a really tight team and then we were away with Traktor. We were quite familiar with working together. It’s really rare to be working on a global brand and to have this spontaneous approach. Paul and Cort have a really great instinct for creative and there’s no need to focus group it straight away. We had so much data in mind for insight, and we’re all travellers, we know what we enjoy. A lot of it happened on the road. I think Traktor were herding us!”
What’s more, it was important to the team that all of the locations used were available through Booking.com. “Everything that we shoot happens in one of Booking.com’s accommodation. When you look at that place we thought ‘god I want to live there’. It’s not all aspirational. We stay true to that. If you’re a customer and you have the means, you could stay here.”
This week sees the campaign broadcast and the brand launch in the UK – the entry point for the European market. Booking.com launched its first campaign in the US last January and in 2013 they also launched in Australia and Canada. And while the overall insight of the campaign is fairly universal, the team are keen to keep tweaking the specifics for every new market. With the voice-overs, for example, they chose local comedians who encapsulate the brand voice but is familiar to the audience (Peter Serafinowicz in the UK, Kath and Kim’s Mick Malloy in Australia and John DiMaggio a.k.a. Futurama’s Bender in the US). “We’re not a one size fits all organisation. The UK is different from Australia, which is different from Canada. We’re committed to making sure that it still lands. There’s always a temptation to let it roll because it worked in the past,” explains Paul.
So moving forward, will we be seeing Booking.com popping up on TVs in other markets?
“The interesting thing about Booking is that we are completely experimental to our core. If customers like it, we proceed. If the customers don’t like it, we re-work it. At no point, certainly not while I’m in the CMO seat, will we say ‘damn the torpedoes, we’re going anyway’ if this doesn’t work in any particular market. We started in January in the US, we launched in Australia in September and in Canada two or three weeks ago and in the UK today. Stay tuned. As long as we keep seeing the momentum and the love we’re seeing from customers, and they’re engaged in the brand, we’ll remain opportunistic.“