P&O is the rare reputation crisis that really does matter
The damage P&O Cruises has suffered from P&O Ferries’ mistakes cuts to the core of the business, and leaves the separately owned brand with four options.
There are many reasons to invest in advertising. From simple, brute signalling to more slippery semiotic attempts to augment brand image and forge meaning. The list is long and ancient.
But I am struggling to recall an occasion where advertising was used to communicate the two most basic brand precepts of all: existence and ownership. That’s been the driving force behind a series of ads from P&O Cruises. The latest iteration emerged this week across full-page advertisements in the leading British newspapers.
The purpose of the ad was to remind consumers that P&O was completely different from the other P&O and not to confuse one for the other. This proved a tough communication assignment, with advertising legend Dave Trott summarily unimpressed at the outcome.
P&O has a long and storied history dating back almost 200 years encompassing maritime voyages from the UK to Spain and Portugal, the Far East and Australia. But the crucial moment in this chronology came in 2000, when P&O divested its cruise business from the rest of its operations.
P&O Princess Cruises became a separate company operating a fleet of some 20 ships and focusing on longer-haul luxury travel. A few years into its existence, it was acquired by the US travel giant Carnival Group. Carnival now operates 87 ships under a house of brands architecture that includes Carnival Cruise Lines but also encompasses brands like AIDA, Cunard, Costa, Holland America and – as of 2003 – P&O. Carnival has done a splendid job managing P&O and has maintained its high-end reputation and British focus.
Post-divestment, the remaining P&O Group focused on shorter ferry transportation. In 2006 the company was sold to logistics company DP World, ultimately owned by investment company Dubai World. The P&O Group continued to operate as a ‘branded house, different identity’ model – with various subsidiary ferry companies like P&O European Ferries and P&O Irish Sea offering cheap, efficient transportation to and from the UK.
Back in 2000 it was obvious why the two newly separated companies both wanted to hang onto the P&O name. First, it’s a salient and immediately recognisable name with a distinctive four-colour flag/logo that is known around the world, and especially prominent for UK consumers. Second, the company is part of maritime history and has a long and impressive track record. That’s useful if you are trying to communicate safety and reliability on the ferry side of the business, or luxury and grandeur to cruise customers.
Given both businesses were sailing into different sectors, the decision to allow both to retain the P&O brand made perfect sense. It was a practical, legitimate solution that allowed P&O’s single biggest asset – its name – to work twice over. Some might even call it synergy.
Only now, two decades later, is it possible to see the danger in that decision. Things change, and while P&O Ferries was always operating on a lower tier from its more elite cruising sister, the last month has seen the ferry company plumb the depths of reputational disaster. A month ago, P&O Ferries abruptly suspended its operations, offloaded all its passengers and then summarily sacked its 800 staff via a hastily convened Zoom call that had the professionalism of Bank Holiday piss-up down the back streets of Barnsley.
Then, incredibly, things kept getting worse. The replacement crews, recruited partly through Facebook, were informed they did not require any previous experience at sea to qualify for a job. Troubling. Then maritime inspectors suspended several of P&O’s ships partly because of safety concerns attributable to its new, inexperienced crew. This weekend just gone, the company abruptly cancelled all sailings across the popular Dover-Calais route despite it being the busy Easter weekend.
The secretary of state for transport, Grant Shapps, has become so disillusioned with P&O Ferries that he asked the company to immediately rename ships such as the Spirit of Britain, Pride of Canterbury and Pride of Hull to something that does not link back to Blighty. Such is the reputational damage of the P&O Ferries company.
Meanwhile over at P&O Cruises there was, as you might imagine, dark incredulity at the sudden and extensive damage that was being done to its brand by association. It has become common, partly for good reason, to question just how much damage miscommunication and bad marketing actually do to a brand’s long-term fortunes. Brands are more robust and consumers less susceptible than the marketing gurus of the eighties would once have had you believe. But the P&O situation is that special level of marketing catastrophe that will do enormous damage to P&O Cruises for a very long time.
First, because P&O Ferries is not just fucking up, it is fucking up in a manner that cuts to the very core of the safety, legitimacy and operating efficiency of the business. Second, because this was not just one isolated catastrophe in which P&O laid off its people and then everyone forgot about it. The company keeps hurting itself, its passengers and the reputation of its innocent namesake in the most destructive fashion. And, finally and most obviously, the damage is being done because these two separate companies are the same brand and are perceived accordingly.
The P&O situation is that special level of marketing catastrophe that will do enormous damage to P&O Cruises for a very long time.
In theory, of course, they are not. One is part of an American cruise conglomerate, the other a UAE-based finance company. One is a cruise business, the other a ferry operator. And they have been run separately for two decades with zero overlap. But to assume customers know this, or care, or will remember it, is to commit the grave sin of losing market orientation. Sure, the people working at the two companies know the difference, but they aren’t the ones buying the tickets are they?
Several advertising thinkers have suggested P&O Cruises advertising is lacklustre. I disagree. Well, I agree, but I think the issue is never going to be solved by advertising. “Our names may both begin with P&O,” chimes the cheerful (super non-panicked) voiceover, “but that’s where the similarity ends.” Hmm. I don’t think so.
This is a brand architecture issue and needs to be addressed as such. A mistake was made 20 years ago and, no matter how many times P&O tries to tell customers that it is not that P&O, it’s the other P&O, the situation will become more confused and damaging. And every time P&O cancels a ferry at short notice or gets smashed for safety concerns or sets fire to something, P&O – the other one – will have to brace for impact again.
What P&O Cruises can do
So how does P&O (the one that isn’t continually fucking up) get out of all this? Assuming time travel is not an option, I see four options:
1. Do Nothing
It’s often the option left off the strategy whiteboard. This is a shame, because sometimes when you do nothing, the world solves the issue for you at minimum internal effort. If P&O Cruises sits tight there is a good chance that its damaging namesake is going to sink. The business has consistently lost around £100m a year and, given its name is now worse than mud, there is every chance that its Dubai based parent might bite the bullet and just shut it all down.
The problem for P&O (the non-shit one) is that they might have to watch a lot of reputational damage being done before this happens. And there is no guarantee that it ever will.
2. Use Carnival’s house of brands
The good news for P&O Cruises is that it has options – half a dozen of them. If the company really does expect its namesake to continue the destruction of both P&O reputations for the foreseeable future, there is always an option to rebrand some, perhaps ultimately all, of the current fleet of Carnival’s ships under a different name. That would be a shame, because P&O was a great name. But the emphasis is on ‘was’ not ‘is’.
Cunard is another British cruise brand with very luxurious connotations and the right kind of heft. It’s a big branding move to delete P&O from the portfolio, but when you have options, you have options.
3. Buy P&O from DP World
If Carnival really does want to hang onto P&O then it should commit to do what it should have done 20 years ago: get Brand Finance in to value the P&O Ferries brand and make its Dubai owners an offer. Rebranding P&O Ferries to something less damaging (like Isis Cruises or Titanic Adventures) has probably never looked more attractive. And with P&O unified as a cruise line company again, there is time and money to be made from rebuilding the brand from the ashes of the last few months.
4. Rebrand P&O Cruises as Metafloat.com
Our final option is to throw caution to the wind, hire a millennial marketing manager whose ambition far outstrips their experience and put them in charge of the whole thing. They would invariably come up with a swanky new logo, a wonderful direct-to-consumer strategy, a brand purpose that includes “elevating existence using the ocean as a totem”, and a new name that suggests its basically a digital business all at sea. I am joking but only just.