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Brands as media owners: how Thomas Cook took creative control of its branding strategy

The line between brands and media owners has been blurring for some time, with many brands experimenting with their own media to reach consumers and showcase brand identity. One excellent example of this is Thomas Cook, and the main room was full for the final session of the first day of the Digital Innovators' Summit in Berlin, as Stuart Adamson, director of Thomas Cook Group's Media and Partnerships division, took to the stage to explain the brand's media strategy and the success they've had as a result.

Stuart Adamson ()

Stuart’s own background is in publishing, and it was this “publisher mindset” that he was able to leverage for the enormous brand and retailer founded in 1841 as Thomas Cook Ltd.

Said to be “the original package holiday”, Thomas Cook has since grown to boast some impressive stats: over 12 million unique users across its websites, 40 million people walking through more than 3,000 stores across Europe, translating into 19 million customers across the world. This is facilitated by a team of 20,000 staff, resulting in a US$9 billion annual turnover.

An innovative multimedia platform

Stuart explained that he encountered a lot of resistance in his quest to change the organisation into an “innovative multimedia platform”, mainly because the staff are “understandably fully focused on selling holidays”, he said. “It’s always going to be difficult to start joining the dots with that many staff.” To address this, he brought in a governance model that made the staff feel comfortable, and eventually succeeded in aligning the teams across markets.

Back in 2010-2011, Stuart’s view was that Thomas Cook was missing out on connecting with customers at key moments during the purchasing process. First of all, he thought advertising should be present on the websites. “We started online, selling advertising onto the sites, but we weren’t taking it to the next level,” he explained.

It was partly due to timing: the peak holiday-booking period is January and February, but people delay buying items such as sun cream until just before their summer holiday. They needed a way to encourage people to come back to the site and to have advertising that reflected what they needed at the right time. 

 

Thomas Cook DIS ()

 

Targeting the right people in the right place at the right time

Since then, Thomas Cook has reached a point where they capture data “from every customer who enters our world”, said Stuart. He added that fresh data is more valuable, and this can be gathered via high street stores as well as online. “There’s a big conversion into real life,” Stuart emphasised. In fact, for every 27 million page impressions, 1,000 people walk into a store as a result.

“We equipped our stores with screens, which tell us when someone walks in, their gender, how old they are, what time they’re coming in, etc.,” explained Stuart. “Then based on that the content on the screen automatically tailors to them: children’s holidays for parents who come in with kids, cruises for ‘empty-nesters’.”

The company also created The Excursionist, a magazine intended to function as an “inspirational content platform” and educational tool. Estimated to reach 1.5 million readers in 2018, it is also a print product and has a strong social media presence. “Social media is obviously a big platform for us. It’s an inspirational environment,” Stuart added. 

The “everywhere” model

Stuart stressed the importance of being ubiquitous: “we had to be everywhere.” He identified the three main strengths of Thomas Cook: its multi-platform nature, its data, and its brand.

From this basis, the team created the Hotel Everywhere platform, which allowed them to reach many customers through promoting hotels based on what kind of customer they wanted to reach. In this way, they connected both customers and hotel partners in a useful way, by using data collected from people visiting website to match customers with right hotels. “We can put hotels in front of the right people at the right time,” said Stuart. Hotel Everywhere, while difficult to sell to hoteliers initially, has since become a huge revenue driver for the brand, with many happy hoteliers in tow. 

Powered by data

They thus integrated Thomas Cook’s legacy system with campaign management and account management - all powered by data. Stuart finished his talk by emphasising that Thomas Cook now has “full creative agency with branding strategy”, and has also made some impressive leaps into new territory: “Google have now given us access to search data and audience data which we overlay onto our own first-party data about people’s travelling preferences,” he explained. “We’re the first non-media agency to have this access.”

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