Miami is recognized as the world’s cruise ship capital, but it is also a capital of a different world: that of Cuban exiles who reside in South Florida. Here you can drink freshly-squeezed orange juice, dive your teeth into a mouthful of Pastelitos, a Cuban pastry filled with guava and cheese and wipe up with a famous Cuban coffee. This for the all-too-reasonable price of $2.35!
So why would one with a business sense and an empty stomach betray the local culture by paying $3.75 to drink coffee that is served in a paper cup, has a title that requires linguistic talent to decode its purpose, and which consists of an obscure combination of water, coffee and supplementary additives? It is for the same reason that one is willing to part with $195 to spend a single day with Mickey and Minnie in an amusement park, or pay almost three times more than he/she would have paid to the US Postal Service to mail a registered letter from Miami to Seattle.
What Starbucks, Disney World and Federal Express are selling are not their services. They sell something for which we are willing to unflinchingly pay a premium, something through which they make an emotional connection between us, the consumers, and their companies. It is a perception that resonates with us, and is articulated through a short sentence, usually consisting of less than five words.
Our “Peace of Mind” is well-secured when we need reliable shipping services, and our family is guaranteed to have a “Magical Experience” when we visit Disney’s parks. Try a Caramel Macchiato with a friend or a business colleague and you’ll enjoy the “Social Experience” that Starbucks had in mind for you. You will hardly find these subliminal messages emerging in front of your eyes in any colorful glossy magazine or an entrancing TV ad, yet the messages resonate with the right consumers. So how do they do that?
It is called Branding. While there are many different definitions to what a brand is, I prefer the following one: A brand is the relationship that secures future earning through customer loyalty. With a marine spin, branding is like propeller design: it is about finding the balanced harmony between experience, science and art.
But don’t take it lightly. Branding is powerful, and it has been utilized both for launching new products, as well as reviving existing ones. It powerfully brings “old” products to life in a big way, just look at the rebirth of the Volkswagen Beetle and the Mini Cooper.
Most of these companies are using one sentence, called a mantra, to introduce a concept that sustains itself in the consumer’s memory. It is worth noting that many companies are electing to use this mantra as their conventional mission statement! The need for a mantra arises from desire to communicate with our stakeholders quickly, efficiently and emotionally, before someone else does.
What was once the conventional business wisdom of price and quality differentiation is now evaporating in front of our eyes because differences are too small to recognize and the consumer is becoming far more educated. This is why we see a downward trend in customer loyalty, a rare commodity nowadays.
The niche market of waterborne transportation for passengers can substantially benefit from an effective use of collective branding, similar to the cruise line industry, but not before there is a change in the paradigm of doing business. If one asks leaders in our market, whether a shipbuilder, ferry operator or head of an engineering firm, what the reason for their business’ existence is, the trivial answer one gets is “to make money”, “be profitable” or “service our customers”. Conventionally, these responses would hold water. However, the challenges of getting to the heart and minds of consumers are now of a different nature and require a different approach.
Contrary to conventional business wisdom, the contemporary approach to the question of why businesses exist is because they need to deliver relevant value to their stakeholders. Stakeholders are the individuals or organizations that have a vested interest in the existence of our business. They include more than just our customers, they are our employees, vendors, the communities we serve and the professional organizations to which we belong, just to name a few.
We need to think about the next generation of naval architects who will be interested in designing small ferries and passenger vessels, or where the next captains and crew will come from. Who can we attract to work at the shipyard in light of lucrative propositions by other competing industries? Only by branding our industry with results that impact our message will we be heard substantially louder than as individual organizations. The progress made by the Passenger Vessel Association on these grounds is well-appreciated.
Our industry needs to brand across cultural markets, language barriers and geographical boundaries. One great example of branding is Carnival Corporation. From its inception, Ted Arison and his team came up with the slogan The Most Popular Cruise Line in the World, to later meet this expectation. They changed the perception that cruise ships are all about moving people from port or embarkation to the port of destination by changing the focus and the perception into seeing the cruise ship itself as the destination! They also were the first to read the writing on the wall with respect to demographics and health trends, by designating the first smoke-free vessel, Carnival Paradise.
Learning a lesson from Carnival Corporation, it may a good idea to consider looking at waterborne passenger transportation beyond its intended use as a mere water taxi that moves people from point A to point B. New York Water Taxi already reorganized itself by providing mixed uses, such as sightseeing and special events, which are great ideas, but may fall short of meeting the thresholds of creating the “woo” effect for which the consumer will be willing to pay a premium.
Among the ideas floating around are promoting the idea of mini vacation time during the daytime, or for locations that have a potentially large single population, “We Are Your Partner For Dating©”. Alternatively, for a ferry service, a slogan such as “A Pleasant Way to Begin Your Day©” may be more appealing.
Branding should be approached with careful consideration and preparation. Organizations must be prepared to reflect a consistent corporate identity, train their employees to buy into these cultural changes at all levels and nurture an envrinment that supports the brand. Companies usually fall short on employing their customers and vendors in these endeavors. Good customers are very powerful in transmitting a great message. Don’t forget to track branding efforts and take corrective measures, if and when necessary.