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Comment: Thomson’s £5m gamble on an early Christmas

Juliet DennisIn the world of retail Christmas comes earlier every year – Selfridges and Harrods have had their festive goods on display for the last four months.

So it’s perhaps surprising that Thomson Holidays caught the industry unawares this week by launching its usual turn-of-year campaign more than two months early and with none of the usual pomp and ceremony.

No warnings or hushed phone calls from public relations executives to ensure good coverage in the trade press – just a rather understated press release.

For at least 20 years the industry has stuck to a tried-and-tested formula: tour operators launch their biggest campaigns of the year as the January sales start on Boxing Day to tap into the traditional peak season booking period.

For months in the run-up to Christmas, companies keep details of their campaigns top-secret. Marketing executives and managing directors are sworn to secrecy. Journalists only receive information a few days in advance and are bound by strict embargoes.

Thomson’s decision to bring its annual campaign forward to October 22 is significant for several reasons. It gives the company an opportunity to steal a march on competitors, most notably Thomas Cook, at a time when its major rival is still in the process of recruiting a new chief executive.

The chance to put its brand in front of consumers recently back from their holidays and ahead of rivals at a time no other travel companies are advertising on television was indeed key to the decision-making process, according to Thomson’s head of marketing Jeremy Ellis.

The fact television viewing figures are particularly high at this time of year with popular shows such as X-Factor – during which Thomson’s first ad features – makes the timing even more alluring. Despite two million fewer people than last year tuning in, peak figures for last Saturday’s live show hit 11.9 million. 

Launching a high-profile, brand building campaign at this time of year is all the more interesting given the current climate. Some commenters on Travel Weekly’s story saw it as an act of desperation.

There are unlikely to be more early bookers this year, or significantly more holidaymakers booking in 2012 which, by most accounts, will be at least as bad as this year.

But by getting out there early, Thomson hopes to get a larger slice of the holidaymaker pie. Quite a smart move – if it pays off.

To spend £5 million on a branding exercise – the most it has ever spent on this type of campaign – suggests not only that Thomson is oozing confidence as its main rival continues to struggle, but also that it means business. If the market isn’t going to get any bigger, Thomson needs to poach customers from rivals to achieve the growth its shareholders and the City will be looking for. In the post-slump universe, market share is king.

But how successful will the exercise be? Are consumers going to take much notice given the current concerns about inflation, soaring food and winter fuel bills, the instability of the jobs market, and the fear next year’s family budget will not stretch to an overseas break?

It will be difficult to gauge its success, as this isn’t the usual price-led campaign designed to translate into immediate bookings for the high-street agent. But it will give something for other major operators to worry about. It is too late now to get quality TV advertising slots before Christmas, although rivals may rethink or up the ante with their post-Christmas campaigns.

The chances are the peak booking period will be an even more cut-throat affair as operators battle for consumers’ attention. There will inevitably be some even more attractive discounts or value-added offers.

And no doubt companies will seek to make even better use of their social media resources to inspire loyalty. Already Thomson is planning to post a ‘behind the scenes’ film on YouTube – so if the 90 second TV ad isn’t enough, you can watch another two minutes on how it was made.

Thomson may not see the bookings flood in as a result of this early Christmas launch, but it clearly believes getting its brand in front of people now will pay off. We will know whether its gamble has paid off when the New Year hangovers have cleared and the tills begin to ring.

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