Travelocity is best known for its Roaming Gnome, a symbolic mascot that rivals such marketing icons as the Geico Gecko and the Energizer Bunny. But a successful company needs more than just an iconic figure to sell its brand.
So when Travelocity was looking to change and grow two years ago, it hired Bradley Wilson as its new CMO.
In his position, Wilson, who received his MBA from The Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, is responsible for brand strategy, customer life cycle management, and marketing communications for Travelocity North America. He is also responsible for keeping up with the Roaming Gnome throughout all of his adventures (such as a trip the two shared to Austin last month).
CMO.com contributing writer Keith Loria recently caught up with Wilson on break from one of his many travels. Their discussion includes how Wilson put Travelocity back on the “digital shelf,” brand rejuvenation, and proving marketing’s impact to the C-suite.
CMO.com: First I would like to delve into your background a bit and find out how you became part of Travelocity and interested in marketing and branding, in general.
Wilson: I became interested in marketing back in business school, and focused on finance coming out. It was more of a general management focus and style, but I think, opportunistically, I worked my way into this role.
I first had a product-management-type role with Match.com, which quickly morphed into a broader, holistic view of managing a 360-view of the customer with Blockbuster. When I got to Nutrisystem, I really got in tune to what I call this branded response model and methodology--understanding how to acquire customers by making sure that we were mining their behaviors to retain and to serve those customers with new products based on a defined criterion of segments.
About two years ago I was informed of [the Travelocity] opening by a recruiter in the Northeast. Being from the Dallas area, I knew it was a terrific brand and had a reputation for having a great team and being a pioneer of e-commerce in the travel space. I also believed the Roaming Gnome was a great, iconic character within that brand framework. To me, it was interesting to get the chance to work with a great brand and challenge myself from an operational e-commerce business perspective. And with this position I would be able to combine all of my past experiences and knowledge for a major brand.
CMO.com: Upon taking the job, what were your initial goals and what did you hope to achieve? How did you define what you wanted to accomplish?
Wilson: I firmed them up in three buckets. The first was to rejuvenate the brand, the second was to get back on the digital shelf, and the third thing was really around building this winning culture and team.
CMO.com: Talk about that digital shelf. Why was this so high on your to-do list?
Wilson: A study showed that most people on average look at 13 sites before they make a booking and have 42 hours to plan that trip. We’re lucky to be in that consideration strip, but it’s often started in search engines. We simply were not showing up when people were looking for key destinations or air origination and destination routes. A large part is acquisition economics [for this so-called shelf space within Google and other TravelSearch engines] are really high, and the cost of distribution is getting higher. We were not very strong in the operational nuances of making ourselves effective in those arenas, meaning providing the right content and visibility to send to those channels [that] the consumer could seek out, making sure we had the right bidding platform and making sure people had the right product and right price in front of them. We needed to completely remake our DNA here. This past Memorial Day season, we really saw a sharp change, particularly with our hotel business where we are demonstrating strength on this front.
CMO.com: It all seems to come back to rejuvenating the brand, something you accomplished pretty quickly in the position. What was it that needed to be done?
Wilson: We have an icon that four-fifths of all people can recognize and link to Travelocity, and that’s virtually unheard of in marketing. Our brand metrics are as strong as anyone’s in the category, but the brand hasn’t had the presence that it has enjoyed in years’ past. It probably hasn’t had a fully integrated marketing campaign by most people’s accounts, and it certainly didn’t have the investment. We set out to reshape the mission of the brand, and our new campaign that came out in March really tries to speak to who we are as a leader in travel.
CMO.com: That would be the “Go & Smell the Roses” campaign (five television commercials featuring the Roaming Gnome and a new call to action for consumers). Tell me how that came together and the importance of the message.
Wilson: This is something that we thought of two years back, but it took some time before it launched because we needed to do a few things first.
I felt that we didn’t have the right team [and] we didn’t have the right visibility on the digital shelf yet. Also, I really wanted to make sure that we came out with a message that really spoke to who we are. We also wanted to blend cultures of existing talent with new talent, needing to let that blend out with things we wanted to explore. We wanted to create a culturally enlightening message that shared the purpose of our brand, one that is carried out in communications with this [“Go and smell the roses!”] rally cry for what we authentically believe.
The idea of "Roses” is that we have this unbelievable, beautiful, whimsical nature to our company and our brand that other companies just don’t have, and we wanted to express that. At the same time, [we wanted to] demonstrate that for 16 years we have been a very efficient brand and able to get people from Point A to Point B very effectively. There are millions of people who want to go on vacation with family or a weekend getaway with their loved ones. We had several different spots showcasing the uniqueness of many of the world’s spectacular destinations, and we have the Gnome front and center acting as a fellow traveler. It’s great instigation for what we wanted to say.
CMO.com: The third bucket you spoke of involves the Travelocity team. There was a lot of retooling in that area over the course of the past two years. Why was this a necessary component of success?
Wilson: By and large, we were looking for new people to come in and lead in this new construct around making sure we were putting the best brand-led, customer-centric framework for how we go to market.
CMO.com: With a customer base who tends to be younger, hipper, and more tech-savvy, how has that played a role in your marketing decisions? Conversely, how do you attract the older customers who might not be as tech-savvy and appeal to them as well?
Wilson: I think we appeal to both. If you think about our 16-year existence, which is defined as old today. . .many people associate us as a leader in the travel category from that generation, and some of the things we are doing in the social arena, such as our “Let’s Roam” video series, attracts more of the younger generation, who are consuming video before purchasing travel today.
CMO.com: Obviously, a strong social media presence is necessary for any company to succeed. Tell me a little about Travelocity’s strategy and how important you feel the company’s presence is to success.
Wilson: When you consider the travel journey, from dreaming to planning to booking to the actual trip, nearly two-thirds of people ask their friends where to go or for recommendations. Nearly 60 percent of people get inspired through their friends’ travel or trip posts within social media. More than 50 percent share something in the social arena at least once a day. Our content and social efforts are a big part of what we do today. We have in beta a Web site application that really lets consumers—through conversations and engagements—share the travel experience in the social space.
CMO.com: With all the digital channels you have to deal with, how can you measure what works for marketing, and how do you prove this to C-level?
Wilson: First and foremost, the way to break through is to show metrics meaningfully. During my first seven months, we showed performance improvement across all the key metrics, and anytime you do that, you develop credibility for maybe some of the softer, less P&L impactful metrics. We have a framework around our brand message, so the common things, like awareness consideration, intent, and things of that nature, often are leading indicators to financial performance metrics. We have done a good job articulating this framework that provides linkage to performance. Most important of all, we measure our success around the customer and their satisfaction with us as a brand. The beautiful thing about creating a customer satisfaction metric, whether through a Net Promoter Score or the like, is that once you set the vision and go through the reporting exercises, it creates a shared purpose and accountability metric that we can all rally around.
CMO.com: Which of your marketing innovations are you most proud?
Wilson: We already hit on a few of them. The first one is the team. We have a first-class team, and what’s remarkable is that we set up and structured the organization in a manner that focuses on the customer first. Much of the dialogue that we have today is about what’s good for the customer. The second thing is that we are offering new products for customers that are truly meaningful in a new social world. Mobile is front and center in this dialogue. Lastly, the “Go & Smell the Roses” campaign was shaped through our brand story framework but is also deeply rooted in who we are.
Bringing a campaign to light is difficult. Doing it while taking extra steps to fully create a meaningful narrative for our brand that’s authentic to what we are trying to do for the customer, with the talent and team that we have, is what I’m most proud of.