“It was pilot error,” says Bob Dickinson, Carnival Cruise Lines’ president and CEO. “The first thing we did was open the bar. The drink of the day was ‘Mardi Gras on the Rocks.’”
It was a troubled start for the company that would, less than 15 years later, become the largest cruise line in the world. While running aground may have given competitors fodder for jokes, Dickinson knew Carnival had a much bigger concern — there was a problem with the way the company was presenting itself to the world.
The brand was, ‘The Mardi Gras — The Flagship of the Golden Fleet.’ The problem was, there was only one ship, it wasn’t golden and “Fleet” was a brand of personal care products that included enemas. The ship sailed half empty and lost $8.5 million in the first year.
The brand obviously needed a major overhaul. And it didn’t take great inspiration, or a midnight epiphany to come up with a new brand.
“When I came down (from the parent company), I had the advantage — I was, among other things, the chief marketing officer,” Dickinson says. “I had the advantage of not knowing anything. I let the company run for a while and didn’t get too involved for a week or two and just studied — studied the other lines, the brochures, what else was going on.”
Those observations resulted in one of today’s best-known brand names: Carnival Cruise Lines.
Starting the voyage
Dickinson could have hired high-paid consultants or a prestigious marketing firm to come up with the new brand, but it wasn’t necessary. Instead, he just asked himself a simple question.
“What do people like on vacation? They all want fun,” Dickinson says. “They may define it differently, but they all want fun. That was the creation of Fun Ship. We started to brand that as early as January 1974. We kept developing the brand.”
Changing the branding of the cruise line wasn’t complicated because the old Golden Fleet brand had poor recognition among consumers.
“The good thing about that brand is nobody really knew it,” says Dickinson. “When we changed to the Fun Ship, there wasn’t a lot of retraining to be done. It wasn’t like Esso becoming Exxon, because everybody knew Esso.”
Dickinson never would have come up with the simple brand name had he allowed himself to get overburdened by the day-to-day drudgery of his job.
“When you are a CEO or a brand manager or a CMO, you need to spend a certain amount of time away from all the little things that the job entails,” he says. “You need contemplative time. I see a lot of people in the business. They have phone calls to return, they have e-mails, they have meetings. At the end of the day, at the end of the week, at the end of the month, even at the end of the year, a lot of their job gets trivialized, and the inmates run the asylum. Others are setting their schedules.
“Frequently what happens is that necessary planning and strategizing, that big-picture, looking-at-it-from-30,000-feet positioning, doesn’t take place because time is eroded by all the minutia.”
Removing yourself from the business is important to gain a clear perspective.
“There is a level of detachment that a CEO or a CMO should have from the day-to-day of the company,” says Dickinson. “Obviously, they can’t be detached all the time. It’s very, very important that they have unstructured time where they can think and they can meditate and they can manage by walking around.”
It’s not an easy change for some executives to make. It takes discipline and dedication.
“They have to start with a little bit of time management,” Dickinson says. “They have to carve out time to do this. Whatever the project, if you don’t create time for it, it never gets done.
“I liken my job as CEO to being the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor does not play an instrument when he is performing. He lets everybody else play the instruments. Whether it’s the winds or the percussions or the strings or the brass, they’re all working together. They’re all in harmony. That’s the job of the conductor. It’s also the job of the conductor to decide what’s going to be played. Where are we going to be?”
Dickinson recognizes that it can be difficult to make the change to that mindset because there is a stigma attached to a CEO who doesn’t spend most of his or her waking hours on the job.
“There are other executives I know in different businesses that kind of laugh at my work hours — I take time off, I take vacation,” Dickinson says. “I may not leave for work until a quarter to nine. I rarely stay past five. I want to get that jump on the road home, but we get the job done, and it’s not a question of working long hours. It’s a question of working smarter, not harder, and getting the right team around you.”
Defining the brand
Developing a great brand means understanding who you are and who the competition is, and targeting your message.
Dickinson see as his competition not just other cruise lines but the vacation industry in general. He wants one thing for his guests, and that is fun. To create a brand that’s fun at heart means looking at any place people might go to have fun, because that’s where the true competition lies.
“We consider ourselves to be in the vacation industry rather than the cruise industry, because cruising only captures only about 3 percent of the overall vacation industry in North America,” he says. “This year, there will be about 10 million North Americans taking cruises.”
That compares with some 90 million people who will visit Las Vegas and Orlando. And it is to those places that Dickinson turns to for inspiration for his fun-based brand.
“If you look at Las Vegas, it’s an attraction and resort destination,” he says. “Orlando is the same thing. Our other competitors are hotels and sightseeing destinations, such as New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. You have to think about the business in terms of not just who might be your immediate competitors but what other competitors there are for the time and expenditure of money.”
You have to look at the entire competitive landscape to get an understanding of how you can gain marketshare with your brand.
“Who are your competitors?” he says. “If the money wasn’t spent in your company, where would it be spent? It may be a direct competitor, or it may be something indirect. If people don’t buy a Carnival cruise, they may buy a dining room set a year earlier than they need to, or turn in the car a year earlier, or buy a timeshare. They may go on another cruise; they may go to Las Vegas. They may visit Aunt Minnie. We’re talking about a product, in our case, that’s discretionary. Believe it or not, people don’t have to cruise, which is annoying, but true.”
Dickinson says it’s important to keep the brand focused on a simple concept to help present a clear message to consumers.
“I’m not trying to be everything to everybody,” Dickinson says. “I’m not a snake oil salesman. You have to put limits to what you are and market what you are and what you aren’t. That’s what delineation of a brand is all about.”
Maintaining the brand
A brand is only as effective as the people being asked to live it, so people are an important component of a brand. Dickinson contrasts the approach he wants his employees to take with that of a posh hotel.
“The Ritz-Carlton is a very nice experience,” he says. “You wouldn’t call it fun. It’s very nice. It’s very elegant. There’s not necessarily a lot of smiling there. There’s not a lot of interaction with the guests.”
For guests to be happy and have fun, Dickinson knows he has to keep employees happy.
“You have to treat the people very, very well,” he says. “The senior management and I have to be very tuned to the shipboard morale and everything else and be very, very confident that we’re doing the right things and treating everybody with respect and dignity. Could you imagine if that wasn’t the case? The CEO goes onboard a ship to face 900 crew members. He’d be in danger of his life.”
Dickinson doesn’t just rely only on anecdotal evidence to gauge crew satisfaction.
“Several years ago we introduced a crew comment card,” he says. “We asked the crew to evaluate everything — from me to the captain to the cooperation shoreside, their immediate department heads, the quality of their cabins, the crew area, the gym, the lounge, crew food, the vision of the company — everything. We get an evaluation twice a year and we can tell immediately what the issues are and then we can address them. We’re getting a formalized feedback from the crew, very systematic, very easy to put metrics around it.”
With that information in hand, the company can take immediate action.
“If we have a change in chef on a particular ship, and all of a sudden there is a huge amount of pushback on the food, we find out what the problem is — too bland or too spicy, too this or too that — then we get it sorted out,” he says.
Contented employees can more easily dedicate themselves to delivering on the brand.
“We have a guest focus; it’s all focusing on hospitality,” Dickinson says. “Everybody can do their jobs, but to do it with a smile and to bring warmth into the vacation atmosphere is so much more desirable.”
The company also uses programs run by a local university to help its more than 30,000 employees based on shore and across its 21 ships to learn to work better together to make sure the actual guest experience matches the experience the brand is selling.
The company also watches trends in the vacation industry to make sure the brand stays associated with quality and doesn’t fall behind its competitors.
“For example, two years ago we introduced Carnival Comfort Bedding, taking a cue from what was happening in certain segments of the hotel industry —Westin Heavenly Beds and so on,” says Dickinson.
A good way to understand how well your brand is being delivered is to experience it like a consumer.
“When was the last time you bought your product, you went on your Web site, you went to your retail store — whatever it was — through the eyes of a consumer?” says Dickinson. “What is that consumer experience? How does it compare to your competitors’ experience?”
The experience for Carnival’s customers has been a good one, and its financial results reflect that. Carnival Cruise Lines is part of Carnival Corp., which owns several independently operated cruise lines.
The parent company posted revenue of more than $11 billion last year, up from $6.7 billion in 2003. The company does not break out revenue for individual cruise lines, although Carnival Cruise Lines, which carried 3.3 million passengers last year, is the largest single contributor to that figure.
And Dickinson will continue to make sure that the passengers who walk down the gangplank will do one thing on board — have fun.
“What makes our brand come to life is, when you go on a Carnival ship, everybody is having a good time,” Dickinson says. “This is not a reserved country club at sea. This is not an elitist vacation.
“People are enjoying themselves. People in their 80s will be dancing, where you wouldn’t catch them dancing on another ship.”
And you may just see Dickinson on the dance floor with them.
HOW TO REACH: Carnival Cruise Lines, www.carnival.com