By now, most marketers have heard about the PR nightmare that plagued Carnival cruise lines' Triumph fleet. What immediately popped into our minds was whether people would consider taking a vacation on board a cruise ship again, especially with Carnival. Prior to the debacle, Carnival’s “fun ship” branding strategy was great, but people cruising on the Triumph certainly did not have that experience.
Will Carnival ever recoup its potential loss of revenue, and its loss of passengers? Will it build back its brand? It is not impossible, but Carnival must take steps to regain its stakeholders' trust.
World-class hospitality brands understand the crucial link between brand strategy and service strategy. This link always gets tested during a service failure. The “recovery” strategy employed by the brand determines whether it is polished or tarnished. Carnival is at present badly tarnished. In addition to the inordinate time it took to rescue the stranded passengers, the fact that Chairman Micky Arison was seen at a Miami Heat game during the crisis only added to an already grievous situation.
World-class service firms treat any “service failures” as a chance to showcase their brand promises. For example, when the Asian tsunami threatened the Maldive Islands, the Four Seasons Hotels hired an airplane to evacuate guests and employees, spiriting them to safety. While it may have cost them dearly in the short term, it polished the brand in immeasurable ways.
The lesson? Just as organizations must have an “in case of fire” plan, brands need a disaster recovery plan. This is especially true for service brands where guest and employee safety is put at risk. This plan must also consider the impact on the brand.
What must Carnival do to gain back its reputation? Carnival must follow three steps:
1. Passengers who endured this event must be turned into brand advocates. A mere refund and/or credit for a future cruise is not enough. Each passenger should receive a personal letter from Carnival’s chairman -- and perhaps a phone call -- offering an opportunity to be a guest on another cruise with all expenses paid. There must also be a series of “surprising and delighting” experiences on board to ensure guests experience being treated like royalty, and in turn tell friends and family about the wonderful time they had.
The key to future success is getting people talking positively about Carnival: In a transparent world, consumer word of mouth is the most powerful branding application.
2. Carnival’s management must institute tangible changes to its safety and contingency plans and procedures and make them visible. Again, in a transparent world, a brand is as a brand does. Carnival can’t simply say it has made changes -- it must demonstrate them. Passengers must be able to see and experience the changes, whether through videos, on-board drills, or even a tour of the boat led by the captain.
3. The company must make communicating the changes part of its long-term branding strategy, through paid media, public relations, and real-time experience. Carnival must do everything possible to embed in consumers’ minds that it takes passengers’ safety seriously. This can’t be a one-off message, but must be seen as what the brand stands for -- its brand equities. Fun will no longer be enough of a promise to keep this brand afloat.
If Carnival puts this plan into effect, it can recover. Look at how Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol crisis in 1982, when it discovered that some of its product had been tampered with, to see how brands can rebound from challenging situations. Ultimately the brand must communicate and demonstrate its recovery strategy. A mea culpa must be made quickly and honestly.
Affected customers must be compensated generously for their trials and tribulations. Future customers must have utmost confidence that the brand will live up to its promise of world-class service. Employees must feel proud that their brand did the right thing. Executives responsible for the situation must pay with their bonuses or their jobs. Owners must be made to feel the financial pain so there is a significant incentive to make sure events like the Triumph never happen again. This is the only way the Carnival brand can hope to regain lost trust in its brand.