Inside Thomas Cook Airline’s efforts to fly out from under its parent company’s shadow

Thomas Cook is best known for its package holidays, but its U.K. airline now plans to operate separately from Thomas Cook’s tours. Having started out selling solely to the travel group’s tour operators, Thomas Cook Airlines is now on a mission to become a brand in its own right — letting consumers know they can book a seat without committing to a Thomas Cook package deal.

With an oversaturated market and limited brand awareness, here’s how group digital director Nick White is getting consumers on board:

Getting experiential
Part of the airline’s digital strategy is to show, not tell, consumers what it has to offer. Since 2013, it has invested heavily in its fleet. By next spring, 95 percent of its planes will be either refurbished or new.

To give prospective fliers a view of this investment without getting them on board, the travel brand is joining those leveraging experiential platforms like VR.

In March, the airline released a 360-degree video that gives users a panoramic view of the economy and premium cabins on its A330 aircraft. Viewers who uncovered three clues hidden inside the video could enter to win a holiday to Los Angeles worth £3,000 ($4,400).

The video has clocked up over 176,000 views, and, according to White, the competition (now closed) received 14,000 entries in total. The brand will use the technology in future campaigns.

“How can I actually understand where I’m going on holiday?” asked White. “VR is a great way of bringing that to life. Ratings and reviews are nothing like seeing and touching it yourself.”

No more display ads
One thing the brand is looking to leave behind is display advertising. “Display went through a huge boom, and it’s very difficult to quantify the benefit,” White said.

While retargeting is still important — the airline is still working with Criteo, for example — the airline will be channeling its prospecting budget back into social media and VR. Here, White says, it’s easier to quantify traffic, engagement and sales.

And despite the buzz, another technology Thomas Cook Airlines is staying away from is the chatbot. Having grown Waitrose’s e-commerce business, White says his time in retail helped him see that automation isn’t what customers want.

“Rolling out a standard response, I don’t think that works any more. Obviously, it’s difficult to talk to everyone one-to-one, but the consumer expectations are there, and brands have to respond,” he said.

Creating a personal feel
“The feedback we get from customers is that the industry is too commoditized. There’s a feeling of being herded like cattle,” White said.

To differentiate, Thomas Cook Airlines is now looking to personalize its customer experience. This will happen online through the usual e-commerce tools like Qubit (part of the brand’s plan to increase conversions) but also inside the brand’s planes as they become increasingly connected.

“Our focus is on pre-booking and post-booking,” he said. For example, White said a flight attendant could tap into customer data on an iPad at boarding and ask if travelers enjoyed their last trip to a specific destination with the airline. Trials of this on-plane experience are scheduled for later this year.

Making ‘uplifting’ content
Another part of Thomas Cook Airlines’ digital strategy is to forge an emotional connection with its social following. Having upped its video and photo output, the brand is now looking to create “uplifting” and shareable content.

Its most recent digital campaign, created with Catch Digital, it tapped into the internet’s love of cats by showing felines testing out its cabins. So far the video has almost 25,000 YouTube views.

“Social media wasn’t really on my radar five years ago,” said White. And now, The airline’s social budget has increased 500 percent in last two years, though he declined to divulge any figures.

This “uplift” also applies to the brand’s interactions on its social platforms, which — for the reasons above — are staffed by real people. For example, one traveler who expressed love for airline chef James Martin’s ginger pudding was sent a case of it.

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