Prospects for the Thomas Cook revival as an OTA

Branding, marketing and creative agencies give their verdict

This week’s news of the imminent revival of the Thomas Cook brand as a new OTA wasn’t unexpected, but has promoted debates about its prospects.

Plans to bring the brand back under its new Chinese owner Fosun, which bought what remained of the failed operator for £11 million last November, predate COVID-19.

In January Fosun put together a team of 15 travel industry professionals, including Cook’s former strategy and technology officer Alan French, former head sales, e-commerce and marketing Phil Gardner and former finance officer Raj Sharma.

Since, the brand is understood to have been preparing for a relaunch and is close to finalising regulatory arrangement with the UK regulator the CAA.

The timing of the launch was reported this week by Sky News to hinge on the outcome of the regulatory process and the UK government’s evolving approach to travel quarantines.

In anticipation of the re-emergence of one of travel’s heritage brands as an OTA, experts in digital, online branding and creatives give their views on the prospects for the brand:

Chris Moody, global chief design officer at brand consultancy Wolff Olins, said:

“Like other heritage institutions in the banking, energy and telco sectors, Thomas Cook was slow to realise that fussy customer service and legacy wasn’t what travellers wanted from them, and this ultimately lead to its downfall last year.

“In the changed landscape of last-minute deals and Airbnb, the brand felt dusty and outdated. In order to succeed, Thomas Cook will need to radically reinvent itself, and work hard for its new employees.

“The pandemic has been the catalyst for a completely new kind of brand – the ‘conscious’ brand. The ‘conscious’ brand isn’t just responsible, it’s also responsive.

“Conscious beings are alive, awake, aware and self-aware. They’ll adapt instantly to changing needs and moods among their customers and employees.

“Thomas Cook will need to become flexible, agile, imaginative and truly exciting to lure people still apprehensive about travelling. Coupling this with a name people have known for 180 years, the sky could be the limit.”

Laura Green, digital account director at global digital marketing agency, Croud, said:

“Thomas Cook relaunching as a digital-only brand in a post-COVID world will undoubtedly run into its fair share of hurdles; the main one being consumer trust.

“Thomas Cook may still have many disillusioned ex-customers that were stranded overseas this time last year after they collapsed, who will be difficult to re-engage to book through the provider again.

“This, combined with the travel climate currently with consumers risk-averse on travel with COVID, means there is a tricky market landscape for Thomas Cook to penetrate.

“For both health reasons, and with new travel restrictions being announced regularly; it’s a risk many people aren’t willing to take right now. It’s a nervous time for consumers to book, so there’s going to be a lot of work that’s needed to recapture that trust.

“Having said this, Thomas Cook do have a promising foundation to work on. From an SEO perspective, keeping its domain live has protected some level of visibility across upper funnel content such as destination guides.

“This is a smart move from a brand equity point of view, as there is likely to be a steady amount of traffic coming through to the site, albeit far reduced from the levels before the collapse when you could transact on the site.

“The profile of Thomas Cook is still strong, and if its new owner were to change the brand name they could still redirect and almost have a jumpstart in getting organic visibility fairly quickly.

“In terms of what Thomas Cook will be able to achieve with conversions, this is questionable. The main issue will be recapturing a lot of that transactional content if they do want to be an online provider.

“There’s going to have to be a lot of taking back traffic from the likes of Skyscanner and Google, which now owns a lot of this real estate for flight information.

“They will also have to do a lot of upper funnel activity, not just in terms of SEO, but across digital activation touchpoints alongside a wider ATL marketing push to bridge the gap in consumer trust.”

Keith Jo, head of digital at digital marketing and advertising agency Cheil UK, said:

The decision to relaunch the Thomas Cook brand as an online-only travel agent is an advantageous, albeit ironic, one.

“A time when travel and international tourism has come to almost a complete stop, COVID-19 has put immense pressure on existing travel companies to survive and adapt, and equally presented an opportunity for Thomas Cook to plan its comeback.

“With the advantage of time and starting from scratch, Thomas Cook has a real opportunity to rebuild the brand and business that fully recognises the value of customers and their need of best in class experience online.

“Obvious challenges will be the current environment, such as the constantly changing travel restrictions between countries. But these are factors outside Thomas Cook’s control.

“What the business does have control over, however, is its new offering and taking complete control of its new business transformation.

“A large reason for Thomas Cook’s collapse 12 months ago was because it was still seen as an analogue business, with 555 high street stores open at the time, which seems ludicrous considering the way travel booking was migrating online and had been for the good part of two decades.

“But when the news broke that Thomas Cook was no more, there was a level of sympathy for the brand and many Britons had sentiment and nostalgia associated with the name.

“With proper funding and a fully agile business that takes into account and is best equipped to current challenges, Thomas Cook has a good chance to bounce back.

“Consumers are working and shopping from home more often, and online sales have continued to grow despite shops re-opening in June.

“Thomas Cook must take advantage of online this time around and utilise its access to customer data and shopping habits and have adequate rewards and incentives set up for repeat purchases.

“Online is where Thomas Cook can start ahead of their competitors without the operating costs of brick and mortar high street shops.”

Charles Gadsdon, global director of growth at international creative music agency MassiveMusic, said:

Despite the spectacular collapse of the travel giant last year, Thomas Cook’s 179-year history still holds value as a brand we’ve known our whole lives.

“At this time, where we are feeling worried and navigating uncertain circumstances, familiarity and nostalgia can be extremely powerful. Music and sound can play a key role here.

“Consistent research has shown that companies which invest in their brands will propel with accelerated growth out of a recession and the effectiveness of audio assets has been proven to work better than some visual ones.

“Thomas Cook had a history of using music in a powerful way in its advertising – for example, the dreamy intro of Albatross by Fleetwood Mac for its 1990 campaign, or the more recent playful ads, such as this 2015 advert with a young boy dancing at the side of a pool.

“As a brand it doesn’t have a signature jingle or theme but this could now be in its favour – a time to develop something new that symbolises the future with its positive heritage and expertise at its core.

“A rebrand for Thomas Cook that shouldn’t just look revamped but has the sound of positive change.”