Brand positioning at sea

Thanks to a combination of foreign parentage and international clients, we’ve been crossing the English Channel up to a dozen times a year since the mid nineties. During that time we’ve seen the passenger channel crossing market change dramatically with competitor strategies seizing the the ferry providers’ two most important brand positioning concepts. They’ve had to reposition in response and the story has become very interesting from a brand strategy perspective.

Brand Positioning Loss #1: “Fast”

So, the ferry used to be the only sensibly priced way to get your family to Europe. It was easy to use, reliable and if you needed to get there slightly faster, the providers developed new Hoverspeed and Seacat options that could shave a useful few minutes off the journey.

In 1994 however the channel tunnel opened and immediately redefined the definition of a quick sea crossing. And justifiably so; we would never book ahead because with three crossings an hour, we could always just turn up and jump on the next train. 45 minutes and a ham sandwich later, we were back on the motorway. In the minds of customers, Eurotunnel had so effectively captured the concept word “fast” that in just three years, its passenger vehicle numbers had overtaken those passing through the entire port of Dover.

Even today, look at how Eurotunnel leverages this advantage with their website description:


This was an unwinnable battle for the ferries so they had to reposition and headed in the only competitive direction they thought possible by embracing budget travel. Back then a chunnel crossing was a couple of hundred pounds but we were often able to cross by ferry for less than twenty. The customer experience was functional rather than luxurious and messaging was soon transitioned to align with this, focusing on amazingly cheap crossing deals. Customers even found they could save more than the ticket cost on cheap beer imports and the term “booze cruise” was launched.

Brand Positioning Loss #2: “Cheap”

The problem with what Seth Godin calls “a race to the bottom” (and we must always listen to Seth!) is that there is always somebody else willing to go further. In this case it was a new type of airline business model that allowed passengers to get their families to far sunnier parts of Europe than Calais for the price of a decent meal. As we know, this concept exploded in popularity with passengers putting up with all manner of compromises in order to get what they considered to be unbeatable value travel. Ferry passenger vehicle volumes continued to plummet as these companies redefined and captured the word “cheap” from the ferry firms.

Again, this positioning continues today:

20140608cSo in less than 15 years, ferry providers had lost their two most powerful brand positions, being no longer the easiest or the cheapest. Where was left to go?

Where Next?

On a couple of recent ferry trips, we think we may have spotted their next move … and it’s far more positive. Last year we chanced an extra £10 to upgrade to a VIP lounge and were amazed at the experience. All the brand touchpoints were beautifully aligned with priority bording leading to a relaxed lounge of comfortable leather sofas significantly located at the very prow of the ship. Table service and free coffee easily refunded the entry price and there were desks and power points to make it easy to work on the journey. It felt more like cruising than just racing across the Channel and we began to think of the crossing as a valuable break in the journey rather than a chore. We began asking “what were we even doing with the hour we’d saved on the Eurotunnel anyway?”

Ferry providers are taking the one thing they cannot change about their service (i.e. the time it takes) and are creating a competitive advantage by building a positive customer experience around it. If they can extend the VIP feel to the rest of the ship – and it’s starting already with free Wi-Fi throughout on DFDS – we feel it’s a very strong strategy that seems to be bearing fruit.

There’s a good lesson here for all businesses too:

  1. Be flexible – don’t wait ten years to react to the inevitable
  2. Understand which are the fixed and the variable components of your service – what can you change if you need to
  3. Search each for advantages from the customer’s perspective and action them congruously into every point where you and the user touch

It will be interesting to see whether they can continue the push, capture the word “comfort” and turn their fortunes around. There’s more work to do but if they can extend this to their wider communication channels and finally replace crossing with cruising, it stands a great chance. What do you think?

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