Not since the mad Emperor Caligula threatened to make his favourite horse a consul of Rome has there been such an ambitious rebranding exercise as that now being attempted by the package holiday company Club 18-30.
The company has approached its advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi with a view to taking the brand upmarket and making it more sophisticated. One can imagine the conversation:
“Hello, is that Saatchi’s? Club 18-30 here. Listen, we’re changing our pitch. We’re going for the sophisticates.”
“Waddya say? Pissed of late? Nothing new there then. Har! Har!”
The puzzle is quite why Club 18-30 wants to change direction. It was, after all, a model of target marketing. It understood its customers perfectly and supplied their needs with efficiency and devotion to duty. It became an article of faith that if, while on a Club 18-30 holiday, you didn’t wake up in a stranger’s bed or in a pool of your own vomit – or both – you would want a rebate.
It would seem, however, that the company’s change of direction gives the lie to the notion that all publicity is good publicity. Last year, Club 18-30 made the headlines in a way that made even the strong stomachs of its directors turn a little queasy. First, three of its representatives were arrested for organising pub crawls for 500 customers in the Greek resort of Faliraki. They were acquitted, but local police, having made several arrests, imposed restrictions on such boozing trips. Then, in a separate incident last October, five company reps were charged with debauchery after they were filmed staging what was alleged to have been an oral sex competition on a beach in Corfu.
That was obviously too much for Club 18-30’s parent company, Thomas Cook, the venerable travel organisation whose eponymous founder made his name and fortune escorting moneyed middle-class Britons to exotic corners of the world, which, in those far-off days when travel was a rarity, was just about any corner. (Interestingly, Cook was a strict Baptist and a member of the Temperance Society and was buried, one hopes, in a grave with plenty of room in which to revolve.) Though the company that bears his name has come a long way since then, it still likes to cling to a vestige of its respectability, and that proved inconsistent with its representatives giving a public demonstration of the core values of its youth brand.
So, at a stroke, so to speak, the decision was taken not to sell Club 18-30, which might have been the prudent thing to do, but rather to change it out of all recognition. This is not an exaggeration, as anyone who remembers Saatchi & Saatchi’s advertising campaign of 1995 will agree. This featured newspaper ads and posters with headlines such as “Beaver EspaÃÂ±a”, “The Summer of 69”, “You get two weeks for being drunk and disorderly”, and, above a picture of a man with a prominent bulge in his boxer shorts, “Girls can we interest you in a package holiday?”
When Club 18-30 was duly brought before the Advertising Standards Authority, it argued that the ads reflected the essence of its holidays through a type of humour and colloquialism that only its broad-minded target market would understand. A grasp of crude innuendo was what passed for sophistication in those days.
Which leaves us wondering what exactly Club 18-30 means by sophistication these days. The word is usually taken to imply something that is stylish, adult, and refined. Of those three, only “adult” could be said to apply to Club 18-30 and then only in the sense that is used to describe adult greetings cards, adult magazines, adult videos, and so on, which, in those contexts, is of course synonymous with juvenile.
But there is no doubting the sincerity of Club 18-30 or its resolve. Only last week, it announced it was dropping Lloret de Mar in the Costa Brava and Benidorm in the Costa Blanca on the ground that neither resort was “sophisticated enough” to meet the demands of its clients.
If the company means what it says, tourists on holidays hitherto thought of as sophisticated had better watch out. For you may be sure that trips to museums and art galleries, nights at the opera, evenings tasting gourmet food and sipping fine wine, tours of ancient buildings, and visits of guest lecturers will all take on a very different character when Club 18-30 holidaymakers are present.
Oral sex, even with the redeeming element of sporting competition, has been discouraged in the Uffizi Gallery since its foundation in the 16th century, and it is unlikely that the rules will be relaxed to accommodate British tastes.
Let us hope that Club 18-30’s representatives are being retrained in plenty of time for the new season. But quite how they are going to get across the message that there is more to sophistication than wearing a Burberry thong and drinking lager from the bottle, is both a mystery and a challenge.
Persuading a clientele comprising sex-obsessed, drunken philistines that there is more to a vacation then simply exhibiting one’s Britishness abroad could prove a task far more intractable than promoting a horse to a high office of state.