Thomas Cook on reviving its struggling brand with a startup mentality

Two years ago, the travel agency was front and centre in the news as it slowly crumbled under the crushing weight of its own debt. Now the brand is back on the market, rebuilding online with a new proposition. 

From having journalists camped outside its offices to now rebuilding a brand with over 180 years of heritage, Thomas Cook has begun anew as an online travel agency (OTA) with digitisation and customer-centricity at its core. 

It seemed the end for the high street staple as Thomas Cook received winding-up orders on 23 September 2019, as the business failed to secure £200m in bank loans to clear some of its mountainous debt, which amounted to over £1bn.

Speaking at the Festival of Marketing: The Year Ahead this week, Thomas Cook’s chief digital and marketing officer Jo Migom recalled September 2019 as being the hardest period of her career as a marketer, as she and her team were glued to the news to gain some direction in what was a tumultuous time.

“But I believe in a phoenix rising from the flame,” said Migom. A skeleton of the original team was formed to pitch to investors for aid in reviving the brand.

“We thought there was a slim chance [for investment] because of this phenomenal brand, which is to me and to many people, synonymous with travel. We had a plan we called project Firefly, and for that very slim chance we had to really start from scratch and digitise,” she said.

Eventually, Chinese conglomerate Fosun acquired Thomas Cook’s brand assets for £11m on 1 November, there beginning the rebuild of the brand.

We thought there was a slim chance [for investment] because of this phenomenal brand, which is to me and to many people, synonymous with travel.

Jo Migom, Thomas Cook

A pivotal moment in convincing Fosun to invest was showcasing how the Thomas Cook brand still had salience with the British public and had the potential to return to what it was.

“What I felt was core to us winning the pitch was actually playing user [feedback] recordings, because [although] this brand was damaged, we were able to keep testing how customers felt about it,” said Migom.

Recordings from customers expressed continued belief that Thomas Cook was a household brand and their empathy for its situation, as it could not control the current landscape.

Returning with a team a fraction of its former size, work began to reinvent Thomas Cook as an OTA, starting with the brand testing a prototype website.

Is the Thomas Cook brand worth saving?“We built a prototype website without a logo because we didn’t want to interfere with the user feedback,” Migom said. “[When] we revealed that it was Thomas Cook coming back, we had people saying, ‘oh really’, ‘is it just coming back’, ‘is that for real’, and really feeling very excited about reliving their memories.”

With the glowing feedback, Fosun greenlit recruitment. The small team was working out of CEO Alan French’s basement, taking staff from the old Thomas Cook and talent from startups.

In fact, the brand is actively emulating startup culture, which the chief marketer believes will foster a customer-centric attitude.

“We consider Thomas Cook to now be a startup and we want to operate with those principles. I think customer-centricity is a core difference between big corporates and startups,” Migom said.

However, Thomas Cook is a startup in the fortunate position of having strong brand equity, which drives 30% to 40% of web traffic and greatly affects cost per acquisition, she noted.

But the brand did not rely solely on its brand strength for its revival. Thomas Cook embedded customer effect scores and net promoter scores (NPS) into every employee’s targets, as customer-centricity is where the brand plans to differentiate from other OTAs.

We consider Thomas Cook to be a startup and we want to operate with those principles. I think customer-centricity is a core difference between big corporates and startups.

Jo Migom, Thomas Cook

Coupling this with a more enhanced digital approach to its services, the brand has seen customer effect scores triple compared to the old Thomas Cook scores.

“We were given a great chance to start from scratch and I already knew everything that wasn’t working well. So we could get back to the drawing board and just apply what we knew worked well, and change what we knew didn’t work,” said Migom.

The brand still has a “long way to go” in developing its digital proposition, she added. But despite departing completely from having physical branches, the brand claims to still have high scores for human contact even though it now uses contact centre staff that work from home.

Of course, having relaunched late the previous year, the new Thomas Cook business was still in very early days when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world in March 2020. Travel restrictions across the globe were immediately put in place, with holidays banned and consumers told to stay at home.

“The product we sold was illegal, which is incredibly challenging to navigate as we were very new,” Migom said. However, the brand pivoted “very quickly” and adapted to the new circumstances, such as by showing destinations of the different government travel lists in the website’s search panel.

New audience, new slogan

With its new digital focus, Thomas Cook has been targeting younger consumers who have been more willing to go travelling even in the current climate.

The brand realised it had to cater its service to this audience, Migom said. It therefore had to make booking a holiday as easy as buying a pair of socks on an ecommerce platform, as younger consumers look for holidays in a “very different way”.

“Attention spans have shortened. Influencers are determining what we buy and what we think is good for us,” she added.

The new Thomas Cook app was built with this in mind, integrating inspirational travel content with the capability to book a holiday in one-click. Innovation like this is at the core of the Thomas Cook brand, Migom explained, as it pioneered travel agencies and the use of brochures as the travel market evolved.

On top of this, the brand realised its famous tagline from 1984 – ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it’ – not only carried weight with older demographics, but also with younger people. This insight has spurred it to create a new iteration of the slogan: ‘Love it, Book it, Thomas Cook it’.

The business now has ambitions to expand out of the UK into other European countries. It also plans to further differentiate itself from other OTAs by providing services to customers even while they’re on holiday, as from customer feedback, Thomas Cook found there is a desire among holidaymakers for activity suggestions. The brand could even provide coupons in future.

“That’s one of many exciting things on the horizon,” Migom concluded.