In 2011, Carnival Cruise Lines concocted Fun Ship 2.0, a package of branded experiences meant to rejuvenate its older ships and provide a consistent fleetwide product.
The anchor was a 40-something celebrity chef with spiky blond hair and a brash, everyman demeanor.
Two years later, Carnival has served more than 1 million hamburgers at Guy's Burger Joint, and Food Network star Guy Fieri has been exposed to millions of Carnival guests.
"It just goes to show you how successful you can be aligning yourself with a celebrity that fits your brand," said Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Gerry Cahill.
Fieri is just one of dozens of brand names now sailing the seven seas, as cruise lines increasingly forge partnerships with recognized commodities that reinforce their market message.
A familiar brand is a bridge that first-time cruisers can safely cross to try cruising if they're uncertain about what it is. Agents can use what they know about clients to find the brand that excites them, then leverage the emotion the client associates with that brand to drive home a sale.
Scott Koepf, vice president for marketing at Avoya Travel, said, "The key is to know your customer and then present the brand that actually resonates with what that customer's interests are."
The roll call of brands at sea includes kids' favorites like Nickelodeon, DreamWorks and Hasbro, entertainment ranging from Dancing With the Stars to Blue Man Group and celebrity chefs from Todd English to Geoffrey Zakarian and a host of others.
Mass-market lines with the biggest budgets tend to have the broadest stable of well-known names, though upscale lines also partner with upscale brands. Oceania Cruises, for example, has partnerships with Lalique crystal, Wine Spectator magazine and the designer Ralph Lauren.
At every price point, cruise lines affiliate with names that mean something special to a target passenger base and help define a unique selling proposition in the market.
For Carnival these days, that boils down to two buzzwords: unpretentious and fun.
Fieri fit the bill on both counts. While some celebrity chefs strive to impress with refined meals and elegant presentation, Fieri's signature show is called "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."
His personality is down-to-earth but outgoing and a bit outrageous. There's nothing on the menu at Guy's Burger Joint that is hard to pronounce, said Lania Rittenhouse, vice president of product development at Carnival.
"We did some research, and Guy Fieri scored very, very high in terms of who our guests like to watch and who they related to," Rittenhouse said. "He was just a rock star, and everyone loved him. There was this chatter he created."
Carnival is in the process of installing a Guy's Burger Joint on 16 of its 24 ships. It was important that the burgers be free of charge, Rittenhouse said. "We want to deliver the best burger at sea, and not only that, but have it the best value, so we have it complimentary."
In entertainment, Carnival has partnered with comedian George Lopez to manage and supply talent to a branded comedy club. Lopez is known for his plainspoken take on Hispanic family life.
A deal with Hasbro brings branded toys and games into the mix. Carnival plans a Twister game on the Carnival Sunshine, which will debut in May.
"Our guests love game shows," Rittenhouse said. "They're the kind of people who like to be in the audience or on the stage. They participate, they're very vocal, and they love challenges.
"When we took a look at who was out there to see who was all-American and who had a lot of brands people grew up with ... Hasbro has that cachet," she said. No secondary brands
At Royal Caribbean International, the brand watchwords might be top-shelf and innovative.
"We don't want to be affiliated with secondary brands," said Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president for sales, trade support and service. "We want to be the best brand in the category."
Examples include fashion names Coach and Guess, ice cream purveyor Ben & Jerry's, children's characters created by DreamWorks Studios and vintage diner concept Johnny Rockets.
In the coffee category, Royal made a deal with Starbucks to serve its name brand on the Oasis and Allure of the Seas, and a second Starbucks brand, Seattle's Best, on other vessels.
"The coffee is more expensive than having our own little Royal Coffee Emporium," Freed said. "But that first-time cruiser, when they come aboard and they see brands they're familiar with, they go 'oooh.'"
Royal's newest brand partnership is with Mattel, which makes America's favorite doll, Barbie. To appeal to young girls and their parents, Royal is incorporating a Barbie movie night and Barbie story time into its Ocean Adventure youth club.
A $349 Barbie Premium Experience is also offered on a dozen Royal ships and should be fleetwide by May. It includes lots of Barbie merchandise, a fashion show, a Barbie-themed cabin and other extras. Freed said the price is more to offset costs than to make money.
"We're not looking to make significant dollars off of this," she said.
Perhaps no line has been as active in signing brand partnerships as Norwegian Cruise Line, where the desired market profile can be summed up as edgy and contemporary. Sailing with Blue Man Group
One of the first brand names to define the latest iteration of Norwegian is Blue Man Group, a trio of humanoid actor-musicians who wear bald caps and uniform blue makeup.
"Everyone loves Blue Man Group," said Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan. "But it is a little different when you think about the traditional cruise entertainment with the old-fashioned Broadway shows, where [the cast] is running around dancing and singing like they've been doing for 40 years on the ships.
"When I say to anyone in New York or anywhere, we have Blue Man Group, they always say 'Oh my God! You have Blue Man Group on the ships?' It's like an $80 or $90 show in Vegas, and they can watch that for free as part of their cruise fare."
Other familiar names on Norwegian ships include Nickelodeon children's characters, Second City comedy, Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian and the "Howl at the Moon" dueling piano show.
The company's latest branding frontier is the Norwegian Breakaway, a New York-centric ship debuting in May. It has formed a number of partnerships with New York institutions large and small to help recruit first-time cruisers from the area where it will homeport.
A high profile example is the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, who will serve as godmothers to the ship. Breakaway will also have Sabrett hot dog stands and a pastry shop based on the reality show "Cake Boss."
One factor driving the growth of branded partnerships has been the large number of new franchises created by cable TV.
"Cake Boss" first aired on the TLC channel in 2009. It follows baker Buddy Valestro and his family as they operate Carlo's Bakery in Hoboken, N.J. In its first season, 2.3 million people, on average, watched each episode.
Andrew Coggins, a business professor at New York's Pace University who follows the cruise industry, observed, "What TV brings is widespread brand awareness; it reaches a wide market."
Other examples include the Hub, a digital and satellite TV vehicle for Hasbro products created with Discovery Channel. And, of course, Disney Channel, which has synergies with Disney Cruise Line -- a line that was itself created from one of the most recognizable consumer brands.
Another hit show that has crossed over to cruising is ABC-TV's "Dancing With the Stars," which pairs accomplished dancers with celebrities in a season-long competition.
Performers from the show will headline six Holland America Line theme cruises in 2013 and 2014, and dance lessons and shows developed in collaboration with the program will be featured on all 15 Holland ships.
The price tag for brand partnerships is rarely disclosed, and the Holland-ABC deal is no exception. All Holland Executive Vice President Rick Meadows would say is, "It's an investment, but it's worth it." Deals not made, partnerships dropped
Some intriguing tandems never make it to the alter because of financial cold feet. The luxury suite section of Norwegian Epic is branded "The Haven," but it could have carried the St. Regis name. Likewise, the legendary Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn was considered as a partner for the Epic's steak restaurant, but no agreement was reached.
"We kind of edged away from a lot of those," Sheehan said. "To do the deals, you had to give them economics."
Cruise lines can recoup some of the upfront expense by charging for branded experiences onboard. On Royal Caribbean, it costs $4.95 to get into Johnny Rockets, although the food itself is free. A Ben & Jerry's cone runs from $2.50 to $4.75, even though there is free ice cream elsewhere on Royal ships.
Royal Caribbean's Freed said that most branded products are not big contributors to onboard revenue, and some of the most expensive deals Royal has signed cost the passenger nothing.
"DreamWorks is a completely complimentary experience," she said. "We took a brand that we pay a lot of money for, we do the complimentary character breakfasts, we don't charge for those, we do the parades, an ice show with DreamWorks characters. There's even an Aqua Theater show."
Some brand partnerships aren't meant to last. The Cirque du Soleil deal with Celebrity Cruises has fizzled, and Cunard did not put a Todd English restaurant on its most recent ship. The chef's draw with foodies isn't what it once was, Cunard Vice President Stan Birge said.
An early effort at Costa Cruises to ride a brand was its 1999 partnership with Zeffirino, a renowned restaurant in Genoa. It didn't work because of the line's multinational clientele.
"What may be big in Italy probably in the U.S. is going to be unknown, and vice versa," said Ruben Perez, Costa's general manager for North America.
As cruise lines increasingly source passengers from outside their traditional waters, they either have to tailor their brands to regional markets or have partners that have global traction.
Royal Caribbean thinks it has found such a brand in DreamWorks, Royal President Adam Goldstein told an audience at the recent Cruise Shipping Miami convention in Miami Beach.
"I think its very compelling to first timers that such entertainment appears on our ships, not only in the United States but, for example, in China where, if anything, the characters are more popular than they are here," Goldstein said.
For travel agents, brands can be a chance to demonstrate value both to customers and to cruise lines.
Andrea Botto Joyce, a Cruises Inc. agent in Wallkill in New York's Hudson River valley, said she uses Royal Caribbean's new Barbie tie-in to market to families with small children.
"I think people tend to spoil their children on vacation and want them to get a dream experience, so I think this package would interest many people who have little girls between the ages of 4 and 11," she said.
But Joyce said many clients don't know about Barbie yet, and might find out only after it is too late.
"It shows how important a travel agent is to someone, because they could go on the Oasis and see the [Barbie fashion] show happening, and they would like to have had their child be part of it."
Koepf, of Avoya Travel, said agents likewise are invaluable to cruise lines that have invested in brands but need agents to match the right customers with the right brands.
He said agents shouldn't lead with the brands, because not every one appeals to every client.
"If Norwegian has Nickelodeon, but I don't have kids, then I'm not interested. I don't care," he said.
Once you find a client's hot button, however, a brand that speaks to that interest can be a final argument that wins the sale for an agent.
"It's a huge benefit for them to close by saying, 'Well if you like blues, you like jazz, guess what this ship has? If you like Broadway musicals, guess what this ship has?" Koepf said. "Those are all very strong closers, basically." Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.