(6:15 a.m. EST) -- "X the Rules," an ad campaign launched on January 18, aimed to upend stuffy cliches about passenger ships and distinguish Celebrity Cruises as the most sophisticated big-vessel line at sea.
Instead, the new spin confused and angered a legion of loyal "X-ers," many of whom thought the line was targeting a free-wheeling clientele, one that wouldn't hew to its classy, more traditional atmosphere.
Some two weeks after it was launched, the campaign was sunk.
At least partial credit goes to Cruise Critic readers. Less than 24 hours after the campaign debuted on Celebrity's Web site, its Facebook page and elsewhere on the Web, a slew of threads had sprouted on our message boards. A week later, Celebrity President and CEO Dan Hanrahan was doing damage control via a virtual Q&A.
All that reader feedback had an impact: Tuesday evening, just a week after the Q&A, Hanrahan posted that the line had decided to can the campaign.
"Your feedback encouraged us to do some additional research -- and to use a different methodology than our prior research," he wrote. "We found that a number of people interpreted 'X the rules' exactly as it was intended: To creatively convey what makes Celebrity so special and distinct, and to make our iconic 'X' synonymous with the best in cruising. But there were other consumers who interpreted the line in a way that was not our intention at all. So, we have decided to move away from the 'X the rules' ads."
So what were those unintended interpretations?
The reasons for reader disdain were many-fold. Those who enjoy Celebrity's traditional, slightly up-market feel and focus on service and dining (Celebrity was one of the last major lines to offer a flex-dining option) were especially irked. "Loyal 'X-ers' were appalled," said Laura Sterling, Cruise Critic's senior manager of community content, who's been moderating the boards for more than 15 years. "They thought their cruise line of choice was sending the message out there that anything goes on its ships."
Many readers echoed Sterling's sentiment.
"I believe much of the consternation on the part of Cruise Critic members stems from the mistaken belief that Celebrity intends to relax or even eliminate many of the traditional 'rules,' such as the excellent smoking policy, any semblance of a dress code for formal nights, and worse, in favor of attracting a younger, more rebellious clientele," wrote member PartyAllDaTyme. "It seems obvious now that this is not the intent, but the tagline 'X the rules' would seem to casually give the wrong impression."
For Seapoint, the tenor of the pitch hit all the wrong notes. "To me, it just does not fit the brand character of Celebrity. Celebrity is about excellence, sophistication, refinement. 'X the rules' is the opposite ... it's about rebellion, crudeness, partying. ... If the intended message is 'we break the mold by being innovative and doing things better,' which is a good message for the brand, then a more tone-appropriate way of saying that should be developed."
Others thought the new angle did little to distinguish Celebrity and in fact was more evocative of NCL's "Freestyle Cruising" tagline, which refers to that line's focus on its schedule- and formality-free cruising. "NCL's "Freestyle" says no more rules to follow and you say 'X the Rules' -- what's the difference?" asked Maya57.
"When I saw 'X the Rules,' my first thought was that Celebrity was inviting people to break the rules," said judyfssw, expressing a common opinion. In fact, so many posters were dumbfounded that Celebrity would invite people to adopt a cavalier attitude about onboard policies that the line issued a response on its Facebook page. "'X the rules' is not at all about encouraging consumers to break rules. Quite the contrary; it is designed to showcase how setting new standards and deviating from what's expected can yield something different, better and truly special."
Hanrahan also responded to the claim during last week's Q&A. "It certainly wasn't our intention to tell people they didn't need to follow rules and do whatever they want....We're maintaining all of our policies, our rules and our high standards. . . .I can assure you, we will not stand for people breaking the rules and potentially ruining others' vacations."
Then again, there were plenty of folks who interpreted the campaign "exactly as intended," as Hanrahan said in Tuesday night's post.
"In my opinion, the 'X the rules' campaign does not suggest abandoning the code of conduct expected onboard, rather it proves that in a world where a variety of cruise choices exist, the grass is truly greener with Celebrity Cruises," wrote DiamondPlusDan.
Member DD agreed. "Maybe I'm not getting it, but when I hear 'X the Rules,' I hear X the rules of everyday life. …I can escape the rules of my morning alarm clock, my 'civilized' morning commute, my 40+ hour workweek, my professional business attire, my sensible bedtime, and all the other constraints that are necessary to function as an adult." Furthermore, the campaign "reminds me that Celebrity has X'd the rules of what we expect to see at sea -- the [Solstice-class ships] lawn, ice bar, Cellarmasters [wine bar], the hot glass show, and the other innovations that 5 or 10 years ago would have seemed against the rules."
Sure enough, Hanrahan noted during the initial Q&A that Celebrity's innovative Solstice-class vessels helped spark "X the Rules." "When we built the Solstice-class ships, we said, let's throw out the rules. There was a lot of criticism that the size would be too big and we wouldn't be able to deliver a premium experience. We've overcome that dramatically. . . . Celebrity has never been about doing things the same way that other cruise lines do. That's what led to this campaign."
Whatever the inspiration, Celebrity is now sailing away from the controversy.
"Any campaign that you have to do that much time explaining, well, there's something wrong with it," said Sterling, who added that Hanrahan owning up to it may pay dividends. "He admitted that it didn't quite work, and that they are going to rethink it -- in a public setting. Nothing but good can come of it."
And indeed, the post-admission responses from the Cruise Critic community have been overwhelmingly positive.
"Thank you for recognizing the power of the Cruise Critic community and the loyal Celebrity following within," wrote Rigldbrg.
"Whether I like the "X" ad campaign or not, I greatly appreciate the fact that as a consumer I felt listened to," added Bighairtexan.
And so on, for some 70 congratulatory posts, which didn't go unnoticed by Hanrahan.
"I was very encouraged by the response from the members of Cruise Critic. I took their initial feedback as positive and passionate about Celebrity, and their support of our decision this week was especially rewarding," he said in an e-mail.
So what's next for Celebrity? The new campaign "X is ... [insert awesome thing about Celebrity]" debuted on Wednesday -- with ads created in conjunction with Underhead, the same agency that created "X the Rules." "They are very smart people," said Hanrahan. "At the end of the day, the ad agency people put ideas in front of us, and we make the choice."
The early verdict? So far, the boards are quiet.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor