How important is branding in the world of online travel? “Not at all” some of the early noughties innovators in online travel might say.
These numbers-based techies relied on understanding search engines and aggregating others’ content. As maths was more important to them than marketing, many were sceptical or even suspicious of softer branding matters.
Over time, the more successful pureplays sought to add a layer of competitive advantage over their algorithms, and some began investing in their brands, realising that retaining clients was as important as winning them in the first place.
The incumbents, on the other hand, possessed strong brands, but underestimated the web. The purpose of branding is, in fact, hard-nosed: to maximise returns by increasing margin and reducing the cost of customer acquisition and retention. The process of branding is to align what the business offers around a proposition that can be consistently communicated throughout the awareness, perception, purchase, consumption and repurchase stages of the brand relationship.
The ideal is where customers recommend your brand to others at no cost to you. With success comes further demand, economies of scale and higher-quality suppliers. Easy.
So, as the credit crunch and weak-pound market gets tougher, who will fare better: those that have invested in their brands or those that play the numbers game? A search for ‘last-minute luxury offers Italy’ provided my shortlist and from the top 10 results – avoiding the three sites Nucleus designed – I chose a trio of brands that represented my sample.
* The following reviews were accurate at the time of publication and the advertising campaign may have altered since. The Great Online Holiday Hijack 2008 is available to download for free at Nucleus.co.uk
Peter Matthews is managing director of Nucleus
Fleetway is an ambitious travel agency that has managed to migrate much of its business online, having been ‘supplying great value holidays for over 35 years’.
Looks like a business that is reluctant to invest in its brand, which is a shame as the current look and feel probably puts some people off. It’s fairly minimal and clean but has the feel of a site designed by the product search system team.
Search-box blues. This is one of those sites where the only way you can get to any content is via search boxes, long drop-down menus and a ‘live search’. I found it difficult enough to scroll down to ‘I’ for Italy, let alone ‘U’ for US. Some decent navigation would provide a better experience than waiting for interminable search results…
Once you get to a holiday result, there’s minimal information and just one image. Clicking on ‘full details’ creates a pop-up with standard hotel description and a couple of pictures (one being the one you’ve already seen). Not exactly rich content. There are no destination guides or added value content either, so the site relies on pay-per-click and affiliate advertising to drive traffic.
Compromised by some flawed ‘no matching results’ for simple searches like ‘seven nights in Tuscany’ from ‘all London airports’ means search results will be a big drop-off point. I imagine conversion will be very much better on specific late offers for packaged dates.
Revenue Generation: 17/25
A pureplay company that knows the value of a good name. But this is a double-edged brand asset, as it must be hell protecting this generic name’s intellectual property.
Lastminute.com’s branding system overly relies on its distinctive magenta wordmark and white background. Colour palette apart, there’s not much else that distinguishes the website. It’s clean and functional and pretty much everything else is dedicated to seducing search engines. Effective, but beginning to look a bit dated.
‘We found more than 100 holidays that meet your criteria’ boasts the welcome on an Italian landing page linked to my search phrase. Only trouble was that all the results were skiing resorts and, given that it’s August, I was thinking sand, not snow. If you move around and find your own way to the ‘modify search panel’ and change the pre-set ‘winter sports’ for ‘beach and resorts’ you end up with late deals in Turkey. Not exactly Italy, but what the heck…
As long as you get back to the homepage, there’s plenty to see and it’s pretty well laid out in a lastminute.com kind of way. I was intrigued by the ‘Top Secret Posh Hotels’ section, where distressed five-star properties were offloading inventory without disclosing their names. Reminded me of Priceline’s ‘Name your own price’.
Using manual, destination-based, navigation, I found a four-star week in Sardinia, including British Midland flights, for just £877 per person. Confirming the booking was easy once I declined the insurance and accepted adding 2% for paying by credit card.
Revenue Generation: 23/25
This website is the epitome of an early noughties pureplay. It’s basically a link farm, but Google still ranks it eighth for this search, which means it must still generate significant traffic.
The Google result takes you to a Western Europe landing page comprising a table of links to other sites. Design input is absent, apart from a globe logo and some Pan Am-inspired typography (how original!). The homepage reveals that the design budget didn’t exceed $10 in 2002 and hasn’t been increased since.
The absence of brand design is perfectly complemented by an absence of usability. Clicking on any of the links takes you to a variety of small travel websites who have gathered together, as if in therapy, to celebrate their awfulness. The separate hotel search facility on the homepage lacks finesse but is functionally okay.
Having searched for ‘Last minute luxury offers Italy’, ‘luxury’ was nowhere to be found and only by scrolling down did I find ‘Italy’. Clicking here took me toLizandBarry.com who welcomed me to ‘Our Italy’. As proprietors of a bed-and-breakfast hostelry ‘Their Italy’ didn’t match with ‘My Italy’, so I turned tail and returned to RatesToGo finding a hotel search engine. It worked predictably, and searched 15,000 hotels, but none I’d ever heard of.
Generates fees and commission to hotels listed in its booking engine. Search engine rankings will be key to generating free traffic, but with little content of its own, Google could wipe out its business model overnight. Alexa confirmed that Ratestogo.com’s reach has dropped significantly over the past 12 months.
Revenue Generation: 20/25 but decreasing