Holland America hires Curiosity as creative agency

Behind the pitch: How the cruise line will look to refresh its brand after the pandemic, which had a severe impact on the cruise industry.  

Holland America hires Curiosity as creative agency

Holland America, a cruise line with ships that visit nearly 400 ports in 114 countries around the world, has chosen Cincinnati-based Curiosity as its creative agency of record following a five-month competitive pitch led by Mercer Island. 

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The brand, which is owned by Carnival Corp., previously worked with multiple agencies on a project basis, according to Holland America VP of Marketing Kacy Cole, who took on the role about six months ago. Curiosity will be charged with handling all brand, creative, and social media duties moving forward, which includes a brand refresh and updated positioning. The independent agency’s first work for Holland America will launch around August or September, Cole confirmed.

Standing out

Cole said she had been introduced to the Cincinnati-based agency’s social media work from a former colleague and was immediately intrigued. However, the agency did one thing to stand out from the 10 agencies brought in for the pitch, according to Cole.

“It felt in some ways like [they were] a wild card because they were so creative and innovative. What I think was the most important thing was that they actually put two people on board our ship as an early semi-finalist. You don't actually have to go on the cruise to really get hooked on it, but they put two people aboard and really understood the changes we've made in the product, the anticipatory service that the crew does, [that] we have the best entertainment at sea, and they really [showed they] experienced [Holland America] completely through every aspect of their pitch. You could really tell that they understood what the experience was about and how to bring that to life.”

The agency sent two strategists on a seven-day California coast cruise and they ended up writing the strategy that was shared during the pitch later on in the process while onboard, according to Ashley Walters, partner, and chief development officer at Curiosity. Another reason Curiosity stood out for Cole was the collaborative fit between the agency and the company.

“They feel less like an agency and more like an extension of our own team,” Cole said. “I think we had great personality fit, but [they were] also very open to feedback and collaboration on how to be better, how to maybe take a small pivot versus a hard right, how they evolve with us and evolve our story.”

A rebounding industry

The company will look to rebound after the pandemic severely affected the overall cruise industry. 

Parent company Carnival Corp. had worldwide revenue of $1.9 billion in the fiscal year ended November 2021 (56% from North America) compared to $5.6 billion the previous year and $20.8 billion in 2019. Other brands under Carnival Corp. include its namesake brand Carnival, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, Cunard, P&O Cruises, AIDA Cruises, and Costa.

This, in turn, affected advertising spending. According to Carnival’s annual report released this year, advertising expenses are charged under “selling expenses,” which are a broad range of expenses including marketing and promotional expenses. “Advertising is charged to expense as incurred, except for media production costs, which are expensed upon the first airing of the advertisement. Selling expenses totaled $340 million in 2021, $348 million in 2020 and $728 million in 2019,” the Carnival report stated.

Carnival’s business is rebounding, per its most recent quarterly report. “As of March 22, 2022, 75% of the company’s capacity had resumed guest cruise operations,” the company said in a statement. “Since the middle of January, the company has seen an improving trend in weekly booking volumes for future sailings. Recent weekly booking volumes have been higher than at any point since the restart of guest cruise operations.”

Loosening regulations

The Center for Disease and Prevention has also been loosening its regulations on cruise lines. In March, the CDC dropped a two-year advisory that warned Americans against going on cruises. In May, the organization also lowered its cruise ship vaccination status thresholds from 95% to 90% of passengers under the COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships. Cruise ships that opt into the CDC program are required to share the vaccination status of each vessel with the CDC, which in turn is then posted on the government entity’s website.

“We obviously have federal regulations, which we follow and that's what we support,” Cole said. "It’s been very interesting for someone who's an avid traveler. I look at hotels and airlines which have not had as many regulations as cruises. On the marketing side, we do a tremendous amount of communication with people. Once they sign up, we also flag [the ship’s passenger] vaccinations and what those requirements are throughout the process.”

Holland America paused all cruises in 2020 and resumed cruising in July 2021. The company is almost back to full cruising capacity with its 11th ship set to be back in service in early June, which means that all Holland America ships will have resumed sailing by then, according to a spokesman for the brand. 

As COVID continues to affect the world globally, Cole says the cruise line’s midsize ships offer an advantage for the brand. “It's not crowded in comparison to some of the other 5,000-person ships,” Cole said. “I think that's an advantage for us in the situation where our cabins are slightly larger. We have more open spaces, we have lots of deck space, lots of open air, and we're supporting not only federal guidelines but ones that we continue to uphold for ourselves.”

A shift in marketing strategy

Holland America will reach its 150th anniversary this fall and will look to amp up its storytelling.

“We have so many great stories to tell whether it be about our anticipatory service from our crew, whether it be about new itineraries, or our milestone anniversaries, for example,” Cole said. "There are just so many stories, and I think we have historically not done as good of a job on that, especially when you think about the payoff of the experience on board. I see us being a brand with people who want to travel by sea or vacation by sea. It's not just cruising or limited to cruising. It's really about how do you experience something more than just what people traditionally think of a cruise.”

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Curiosity will also help the brand create a more unified marketing funnel, according to Cole.

“The difference that I'd like to lead for marketing is really bringing brand marketing and performance marketing together," said Cole, rather than have each discipline compete for budget. "The strongest marketing happens when they come together. That's another reason I would say we are leaning on Curiosity, to really bring that brand to life and pull that through all the way down to the programmatic level."

This is the latest significant win for Curiosity, which won creative agency of record duties for FreshDirect earlier this year.