Forging Identities

As the cruise industry turns 50, we look back at how a handful of businesses that had been built on the reputations of individual ships transformed themselves into global juggernauts built on the branding of entire fleets, some intentionally, some by happenstance.
By Tom Stieghorst

In 1972, after Carnival Cruise Line bought its first ship, it began marketing the Mardi Gras as part of “The Golden Fleet.”

But that was just so much wishful thinking.

“She was basically a dumpy old ship,” recalled Maurice Zarmati, one of Carnival’s early sales executives. What’s more, Carnival was treading water financially as it tried to get the public to buy in.

Carnival Cruise Line’s then-senior sales director Maurice Zarmati and his sales team pose with the line’s first ship, the Mardi Gras, in the 1970s.

Carnival Cruise Line’s then-senior sales director Maurice Zarmati and his sales team pose with the line’s first ship, the Mardi Gras, in the 1970s.

Carnival Cruise Line’s then-senior sales director Maurice Zarmati and his sales team pose with the line’s first ship, the Mardi Gras, in the 1970s.

“In time, we all went out and had a look at how the passengers were reacting to the product, and we came to figure out they were having fun,” Zarmati recalled.

So the Mardi Gras was rebranded as one of the “Fun Ships,” and the money came rolling in.

Like Carnival, many of the cruise lines that were part of the formation of modern cruising are close to 50 years old. They’ve all figured out a brand that embodies a key attribute they hope will identify their ships for passengers.

Some cruise lines offer “freedom,” others “wow” and still others “connection.” Each hopes to land on something that has a simple, unique and emotional appeal that will cut through the noise and differentiate its line from others.

A few brands, especially Carnival, have stayed fairly consistent with their core message over five decades.

Carnival Corp. chairman Micky Arison, whose father, Ted, founded the line, said, “I think we thought of it as a brand very early on when we came up with the Fun Ships. I believe, as a brand, it is the same now.”

Other cruise brands have meandered or have had brand identities more or less thrust upon them by circumstances, and some have evolved in a fairly methodical way as consumer tastes changed over time.

For travel advisors, knowing a company’s branding and the history of that branding can make it easier to perform one of their key tasks: matching the right client to the right ship on the right line.

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An ad from Hapag-Lloyd predecessor North German Lloyd. At the start of the modern cruising era, transatlantic ocean liners like the Europa and the Bremen were put on “scenic” cruises for the winter months.

An ad from Hapag-Lloyd predecessor North German Lloyd. At the start of the modern cruising era, transatlantic ocean liners like the Europa and the Bremen were put on “scenic” cruises for the winter months.

An ad from Hapag-Lloyd predecessor North German Lloyd. At the start of the modern cruising era, transatlantic ocean liners like the Europa and the Bremen were put on “scenic” cruises for the winter months.

Evolving from ships to brands

In the beginning, there were no brands, according to one longtime observer.

Rod McLeod, a former executive vice president of sales, marketing and passenger services at Royal Caribbean International, recalled, “Back then, they weren’t brands. The industry really revolved around ships.”
Newspaper ads in Sunday travel sections touted the glories of the Sunward, the Flavia or the Princess Patricia.

A brochure for Norwegian Caribbean Line’s first ship, the Sunward, featuring actor Victor Borge as honorary commodore.

A brochure for Norwegian Caribbean Line’s first ship, the Sunward, featuring actor Victor Borge as honorary commodore.

A brochure for Norwegian Caribbean Line’s first ship, the Sunward, featuring actor Victor Borge as honorary commodore.

In Royal Caribbean’s case it was the Song of Norway, and the identification between the ship and the company was so intense that serious consideration was given to renaming the company Song of Norway Cruises, McLeod said, adding, “There was a great affection for the ships in those days.”

Cruising was also a regional affair. New York cruises went to Bermuda. Florida had the Caribbean. And cruise lines on the West Coast sailed the Mexican Riviera and Alaska.

A brochure for Costa Cruises’ Flavia from 1971, when branding was all about the ships.

A brochure for Costa Cruises’ Flavia from 1971, when branding was all about the ships.

A brochure for Costa Cruises’ Flavia from 1971, when branding was all about the ships.

Things began to change with the advent of fly-cruise vacations, which forced cruise lines to advertise outside of their home markets and think more seriously about marketing to a national base.

Marketing executives such as McLeod and Bob Dickinson at Carnival Cruise Line put their branding experience to work in the new industry.

Royal Caribbean’s initial distinction was that it built new ships rather than acquiring old transatlantic tonnage or converted ferries. So Royal advertised newness, Costa advertised “Italian style” cruises and Carnival touted its Fun Ships.

Ads from the early ’90s for the Carnival Fantasy labeling it one of the “Fun Ships.”

Ads from the early ’90s for the Carnival Fantasy labeling it one of the “Fun Ships.”

Ads from the early ’90s for the Carnival Fantasy labeling it one of the “Fun Ships.”

Four big brands from the 1960s and 1970s still command the contemporary North American market today.

For Royal Caribbean, founded in a trailer next to the Howard Johnson’s motel in downtown Miami in 1969, the big brand evolution occurred in the late 1980s. That’s when Richard Fain, previously a board representative for one of Royal’s owners, became chairman and CEO.

Fain headed the design committee for a new ship, the Sovereign of the Seas. He put a soaring atrium in it, and he added other features that often elicited a “wow!” from passengers.

That wow became the cornerstone of Royal’s brand in the 1990s and beyond, fed by Fain’s fascination with innovation and the need to redefine cruising as an active vacation, most famously through the rock-climbing walls installed on Royal ships beginning with the Voyager of the Seas.

“Richard defined the modern cruise industry,” McLeod said. “Sovereign was a redefinition of what the cruise ship was.”

Carnival Cruise Line also began building new ships after its original trio of purchased vessels, and it retained Joe Farcus to do the interiors.

A protegee of Morris Lapidus, designer of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Farcus created a style that quickly became a key element of the Carnival brand.

“We called it entertainment architecture,” Zarmati said. “It really woke you up when you walked on the ship.”

On the early ships, Farcus covered the exotic lacquered woods reminiscent of ocean liners with metallic wallpaper, and he installed carpets with angular patterns in palettes of pink, magenta and orange.

Later, Farcus would dream up fantastic themes: Egyptian pyramid rooms and bars with stools shaped like oversize hands. His work can still be seen on 23 of Carnival’s 26 ships, although it has been muted in some refurbishments.

In advertising, Carnival’s brand was carried in the 1980s by Kathie Lee Johnson (the future Kathie Lee Gifford), a singer and morning talk show host whose perky rendition of “Ain’t We Got Fun” defined Carnival for years in the first national TV ad campaign for cruising.

The future Kathie Lee Gifford was the face of Carnival Cruise Line.

The future Kathie Lee Gifford was the face of Carnival Cruise Line.

The future Kathie Lee Gifford was the face of Carnival Cruise Line.

Today, the brand is much the same, although the product is grander. “Our soul is, we’re fun, we’re casual, we have a good time,” said Adolfo Perez, senior vice president of global sales and trade marketing at Carnival Cruise Line. “Anybody can have a good time. Whatever your kind of fun, whether it is relaxing and doing nothing or the hairy chest competition or Family Feud or whatever it is, I think that we do that.”

Perez added, “Obviously, over the years, we’ve stayed true to that and also to the value proposition.”

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) had a harder time defining its brand in the early years. Although it was the first cruise line to the Caribbean market, having been launched in 1967, the company shuffled through a series of slogans without much consistency.

An advertisement for Norwegian Caribbean Lines in the 1970s with the theme “First Fleet of the Caribbean,” one of a series of slogans Norwegian Cruise Line used early on.

An advertisement for Norwegian Caribbean Lines in the 1970s with the theme “First Fleet of the Caribbean,” one of a series of slogans Norwegian Cruise Line used early on.

An advertisement for Norwegian Caribbean Lines in the 1970s with the theme “First Fleet of the Caribbean,” one of a series of slogans Norwegian Cruise Line used early on.

Typical, perhaps, was 1993’s slogan, “Elegant Yes. Stuffy Never.” Clark Reber, who worked in sales at Norwegian for 27 years before leaving last year for Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, said Norwegian’s brand was all over the map.

“If you take ‘Elegant Yes. Stuffy Never,’ what does that mean?” Reber said. “I think NCL’s struggle at that time is that they tried to be everything to everybody. I don’t think there was a brand promise.”

Norwegian’s big branding moment came in 2000 when it was acquired by the parent company of a cruise line in Asia, Star Cruises. A ship being built for Star was switched at the last minute to Norwegian, but it had too many casinos and not enough space in the dining room for the traditional two dinner seatings. So Norwegian converted some of the casinos to specialty restaurants and called it Freestyle Dining.

Though the “Freestyle” concept was born of necessity, Norwegian ever since has made choice and freedom the pillars of its brand.

“Freestyle Cruising really dropped the gauntlet on what that company was,” Reber said.

Princess Cruises also ended up with a brand that was not a product of market research or strategic planning.

Founded in 1965 and headquartered in Los Angeles, Princess was in the right place at the right time when TV producer Aaron Spelling went looking for locations to shoot a new series based on a book called “Love Boats.”

The title was changed to “The Love Boat,” and the series, which ran from 1977 to 1986 on the ABC network, practically came to define cruising. Because the line’s Pacific Princess was used for location shots, it also associated Princess Cruises with the show — a link that remains today.

In recent years, however, Princess has played down its “Love Boat” roots. While it still focuses certain special events on the show — and the horn on its Royal-class ship still sounds the musical theme from the show — that’s about it.

Rai Caluori, executive vice president for fleet operations at Princess, said, “We’ll tip our hat to our history, but it doesn’t feature front and center in our marketing.”

Princess president Jan Swartz said the current branding is about “connections,” a concept that she said is part of the line’s DNA.

Connections have always been a driving concept for Princess, she said, “whether you’re talking back in the day with the Love Boat or to destinations or between our guests and other guests or guests and the crew, all of that played a part in the TV show, and what we’ve done is to take that DNA and modernize it.”

Modernization, in fact, is gospel for all cruise brands, none of which wants to be seen as falling behind the times or growing stale.

Chris Nurko, chief innovation officer at Interbrand Group, a New York consulting firm, said, “You have to shift the product experience to meet the modern idea of what the brand is. Brands have to constantly stay fresh.”

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An ad for the MSC Melody from MSC Cruises, which started out as Lauro Lines.

An ad for the MSC Melody from MSC Cruises, which started out as Lauro Lines.

An ad for the MSC Melody from MSC Cruises, which started out as Lauro Lines.

When legacy drives branding

That’s particularly true for heritage brands, such as Cunard Line and Holland America Line, both of which infuse their brands with their histories.

Holland America dates to 1873, and it still celebrates its Dutch roots on its ships and in its marketing. But brand president Orlando Ashford has shifted the spotlight to music, food and destinations, with upgrades in each of those areas.

“Holland America is the cruise line for the modern explorer, for the foodie, for the music lover of all ages,” is how Ashford describes the brand. “You’re doing things you’ve always done historically but in a modern, elevated way.”

Likewise, Cunard built on its legacy in transatlantic passenger service to create a new-era liner, the Queen Mary 2, which offers the old crossing experience with a host of modern conveniences and efficiencies.

Some brands have had to claw out of the wreckage of nearly dead predecessors. The moribund Italian firm Lauro Lines was rebranded as MSC Cruises in 1988 by the container-shipping giant Mediterranean Shipping Co. and has since grown into the fourth-largest global cruise brand, with a fleet of 17 ships.

Early on, MSC played up its Italian roots by, for example, securing film legend Sophia Loren as godmother of its ships. Today, however, it emphasizes a more pan-European experience, said Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC Cruises USA.

“It’s a European touch across the board,” he said.

Sasso was also involved in another phoenix brand, Celebrity Cruises. Around 1988, the line’s original Greek owners recognized that their aging fleet, then operated under the Chandris family name, was not competitive. So they forged a new brand, Celebrity Cruises, of which Sasso served as president from 1995 to 2002.

One of the line’s first branding moves was to partner with chef Michel Roux to make culinary excellence a brand identifier, which remains today.

“Dining and food for Celebrity was the iconic piece of the product,” Sasso said. “People embraced the brand, and that’s how Celebrity started to grow.”

In 1997, Celebrity was sold to Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which has since positioned it as “Modern Luxury.” Under current president and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the branding has grown to embrace female empowerment and LGBTQ rights.

Because it can take years to establish brands, new companies sometimes shortcut the process through affinity partnerships. Viking Cruises, for example, has associated itself with quality and classicism by sponsoring PBS dramas shown under the Masterpiece label. It hit the jackpot with “Downton Abbey,” a huge success for public television.

Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president for marketing, said, “Viking’s guests, many of whom are Masterpiece viewers, enrich their lives through history, culture and exploration. We strongly believe in marketing the Viking experience to like-minded travelers.”

Some cruise lines are just born into brand royalty. Such was the case with Disney Cruise Line, whose parent, the Walt Disney Co., has the world’s 10th most valuable brand, which Interbrand estimates to be worth more than $44 billion.

But in the 21st century, even Disney’s branding can’t stand pat with just its legacy animated characters. Its brand is continually being updated, with cruise days themed to newly acquired Disney assets, such as “Star Wars” and Marvel.

Carnival, too, has refreshed its approach since the days when Gifford crooned “Ain’t We Got Fun.”

Today, the face in the brand’s marketing belongs to NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, who was appointed chief fun officer two years ago in a playful send-up of the corporate CFO abbreviation.

Arison said the Carnival Cruise Line product has become much more sophisticated over the three-decade span between Gifford and O’Neal, but the same basic message endures.

“From a marketing point of view, it’s not all that different,” Arison said.

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