When Norwegian Cruise Line six years ago unveiled Freestyle Cruising, its totally innovative approach to onboard dining, the philosophy really should have made the veritable splash that was heard around the world.
After all, the significance of the line's resort-like restaurant setup, in which patrons had a choice of when and where to eat, not to mention with whom, was revolutionary -- not only in the dining respect but also in loosening up evenings' pre- and post-meal entertainment options (no more lines snaking across decks as patrons at one seating headed, as if on auto pilot, to the theater). The concept also left open the possibility of such flexibility that evenings at the spa or the pool were entirely possible -- without skipping dinner.
But it's probably understandable that NCL, in the major throes of regeneration, was a tad too distracted to pound home the point about its Freestyle concept. The line not only embarked on an ambitious plan to rid itself of all of the "old" ships not laid out in the Freestyle frame of mind (inherited in 2000 when the company was acquired by Malaysia-based Star Cruises), but also created a Freestyle-inspired design for all ships built from the rebirth on forward. And NCL, via its NCL America subsidiary, also undertook the massive challenge of reintroducing big-ship U.S.-flagged cruising -- with its all-American Hawaii operation -- to a country that had pretty much conceded that milieu to the Europeans, Maltese, Panamanians and Liberians.
Fast forward: After a tumultuous and ultimately successful six years, NCL's got time to focus. As such, it unveiled today in New York its plans for a brand identity campaign, which primarily cements what most folks already know about the line -- but does so with captivating whimsy and flair.
First it's important to define the NCL version of "Freestyle." Its heart lies with the evening dining options that genuinely do swim against industry current by offering passengers a range of restaurants, from the elegant French Le Bistro and the Spanish-influenced Tapas Bar and Restaurant to sushi and teriyaki.
But today's unveiling of a huge graphical campaign spans not only the advertisements we might see on television or in our local newspaper (or on Web sites like Cruise Critic), but also to the signs you'll see at embarkation ports, billboards in New York City, onboard menus and even a fanciful touch on the round paper disk that holds the evening's turndown chocolate. All cement the NCL philosophy.
Which would be? In a phrase: freedom to choose. That's a concept not necessarily practiced on big-ship cruise vacations, where assigned dining seating and other rules and regulations can hamper a whim for -- whatever.
Whether you know about NCL or not, the ad campaigns, the first sign of the identity program to reach travelers, are a lot of fun -- and will definitely fill you in.
"People aren't looking to watch advertising," says Roy Spence Jr., founder and president of GSD&M, NCL's advertising company, who was on hand for the launch. "So the creative has to break through. It's entertaining and it says something is different here." What was particularly interesting about Spence Jr.'s insights was the fact that Southwest Airlines has been a major client of the firm from almost the beginning. When that airline first started to market itself, most Americans had never flown. These days, some 80 percent, he noted, now can say they've traveled by airplane.
The cruise industry, which now claims that some 17 percent of Americans have traveled on a ship, could use a little bit of Spence, Jr.'s (and Southwest's, to be sure) magic.
The trick to converting non-cruise travelers to passengers is a major challenge, admits Andy Stuart, NCL's executive vice president of marketing, sales and passenger services, who has overseen the brand identity clarification. The campaign, he said today, was "designed to capture the nontraditional, free-spirited attitude onboard."
And free-spirited it is. At today's event, we loved the whimsical colors and the irreverent tone that really did spotlight the niche for Freestyle Cruising.
The line has completely overhauled its Web site (though it won't launch until October 2 -- so don't go yet). Sure you'll find the usual "match the ship to the itinerary" stuff that frankly you can already find on Cruise Critic's Find a Cruise, but what was more fun were wacky features that will allow you to plug in the parameters of what would make a great day (Scuba diving? Long gourmet lunch? Beers in a bucket by the pool?) to figure out which cruise is right for you.
We got a preview of the television ads -- and let us just say that Spence Jr.'s comment about entertainment is dead on. Devoid of the usual hocus-pocus "romantic sunset" scenario, they instead poke fun at traditional cruising. We won't spoil your fun (they'll appear on major networks and such), but will say that we honestly guffawed.
There are some fantastically clever print ad slogans that will appear in travel magazines. Among our favorites:
-- "You must board. You must disembark. Thus ends the list of 'musts.'"
-- "There is no such thing as a romantic table for eight."
-- "Watch the Whales. Not the clock."
-- "Our dress code: Wear something."
Freestyle not only exists in the public rooms onboard, but in cabins as well. NCL's new cabin amenity package includes a doorknob sign that states, "Do not disturb. We're resting up for more fun," and a shoe mitt that displays NCL's new design, which portrays a fish going against the current.
Ultimately, we must confess that our absolute favorite ad slogan (slated to appear in print) is this one: "Woe to the vacationer who is forced to dine at 7 p.m. at table eight with the Wurtzels from Albany."
We don't know any Wurtzels. And our apologies to folks in Albany; we think it's a great town. But the ad makes a point.
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor, and Erica Sapio, Assistant Editor