Juliet Strachan
Sep 2019


178 years of Travel & Tourism history came to an end on Monday, with the collapse of Thomas Cook. Since then, there has been a flurry of opinions and questions: What went wrong? Why did such an iconic and well-loved brand go under? How did this happen so quickly? and perhaps most importantly for everyone involved: Is there any future for the brand going forward?

That surely depends on what (or who) caused its demise in the first place, along with what are the residual impact and implications for the brand? Is there sufficient positive value and feeling in the brand to give it potency and value going forward – does it have the resilience to survive this catastrophe?

Thomas Cook seems to have failed for two reasons: firstly, their failure to read their market, understand consumers’ needs and priorities and to change to reflect them (lack of consumer understanding and insight); and secondly some disastrous management decisions, not least the huge mistake in buying MyTravel, which is reported to have lost the business more than £1bn.

Some have said there is no comeback for brands tainted by financial failure, but I disagree. We only have to look at the financial sector to see brands recovering and rebuilding consumers trust*. If they can do it, Thomas Cook certainly can!

It is said ‘you can’t buy love’, but actually, when it comes to brands, you can! Any new owner of the Thomas Cook brand will be buying the love, heritage, nostalgia and feel good factor associated with this great British High Street institution. The ‘blame’ for the downfall is already being (rightly in my opinion) placed at the feet of management, whilst the behaviour, fortitude and dedication of Thomas Cook staff, who have ‘kept calm and carried on’ during this crisis, will keep the values and essence of the brand not just alive, but thriving, at least for a while.

(* The Charisma Index 2019 shows significant uplift for major financial brands including Barclays, which has seen ratings rise over 10% in the year to July 2019)

So how does a new owner harness that immense good will, that ‘love’, and rebuild the brand? In my view, there needs to be much better balance between actionable and emotional brand dimensions to build a successful and truly resilient brand and market leader. We all know and use conventional brand measures to understand brand strength – consideration, recommendation, values etc. But to truly understand the future potential for a brand, we have to look more closely at how consumers think and feel about it – the actionable and emotional qualities associated with it.

Arguably Thomas Cook as a brand has very high, fundamental strength in the more emotional relationship dimensions:

  • delivering on its’ brand promise – Thomas Cook delivered great holidays and didn’t let customers down (until now)
  • has integrity as a brand – despite its failure as a business, the brand still has a reservoir of recognition and ‘affection’. It has been a brand people trust, in so far as it’s never let people down, and it’s been around for 170+ years with no real problems of consumer dissatisfaction or malpractice
  • has generosity: can be easily positioned as a brand giving something back to society – Thomas Cook pioneered the package holiday to allow middle and working class people to travel further afield for the first time. Since then it has gone on to expand the travel and tourism possibilities for successive generations

However, where the brand has been let down and allowed to decline is on the more actionable qualities:

  • A sense of purpose – It is widely acknowledged that the brand was complacent and relied too heavily on past fame and heritage (without making either relevant to modern day consumers) – it had lost a sense of where it was going and what it was for
  • The courage to innovate – The brand did not recognise and respond to the surge towards online search and booking – fewer and fewer consumers really value sitting in store with a consultant to plan their break
  •  And a consciousness of consumer needs and what really matters – The brand failed to listen to consumers, to understand their changing needs and to respond appropriately

(Purpose, Courage to innovate, Consciousness, Delivery, Generosity and Integrity are the 6 core dimensions of The Charisma Index)

This lack of focus has resulted in too much weight on the ‘ethical/relational’ dimensions, and not enough on the ‘active’. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad place to be, because at least it has the chance to be seen as more on the consumer’s side – the modern day consumer champion, helping those time poor consumers to access the right holidays. But it needs to sharpen up in purpose, in courage and in consciousness of what really matters to its customers.

It will take a new owner and team with real vision to resurrect the Thomas Cook brand. It will take true insight into the brand-consumer relationship, and taking the brand much closer to its consumers.

But for the right owner and the right team, it can be well worth it, in financial and business terms. AND consumers will love you for it!