June 28, 2022

How we won a cruise line while on board

Anna Wilhelm

Strategy Director

As a strategist, it’s a little mind-blowing when field research makes headlines. But in the case of pitching Holland America Line, it did – because it worked.

Publications like Adweek and Ad Age have noted Curiosity demonstrated what it really means to be “all-in” on a pitch by opting to send my colleague and I on that cruise. But if you really hear what Kacy Cole, VP of Marketing and Ecommerce at Holland America Line said to AdAge – that we understood the experience and how to bring it to life  – it wasn’t just a showy gamble. It was effective. The insights we gained in the field took the quality of our work from our already high standard of excellence to over-the-top.

Not to call out our agency’s name or anything, but let’s face the facts: anybody can be curious. Everyone will have the occasional “I wonder” or “what if” pop into their head. But do they wonder it out loud? Do they do something to discover the answer or missing puzzle piece? Are they motivated by acquiring knowledge, or does insight change them once they find it? Are they just curious, or are they curious out loud?

As a strategy department, our journey began long before we stepped aboard the Koningsdam, one of HAL’s Pinnacle-class ships. From initial conversations on whether this research investment would be worthwhile, to engaging with guests onboard, all the way down to the creative team bringing the storyboard to life, there is a consistent theme.

Anybody can be curious. But being curious out loud takes courage.

The courage to take a risk

It was a risk for our pursuit team to bring the idea of putting someone onboard a HAL ship to the table.

It was a risk for our head of strategy to persistently ask for it to be two strategists. 

It was a risk for our executive leadership team to agree not just to foot the financial investment, but to completely reallocate two workloads for the sake of trying something new.

It was a risk for non-cruisers like my colleague and me to say yes, and buy cabins on a cruise departing from San Diego in only four days.

Okay, I’ll admit, our “risk” was primarily spontaneity and commitment to research. We were assigned the arduous task of cruising down the California coast, notebooks in hand. That aside, the bravery of leadership at a departmental and organizational level cannot be understated. If any one person decided the question wasn’t worth asking or decided it wasn’t worth going, we may not have had the insight we needed to pull out the W.


The courage to be wrong

The team put a lot of hours into this pitch before the onboard research, resulting in a number of strategic platforms and creative concepts. So when we engaged with HAL guests onboard the Koningsdam, we asked casual questions while holding the original concepts at the forefront of our minds.

When we were on the cruise, we were essentially undercover – "just two good friends breaking the post-COVID travel seal in the most efficient way possible,” we’d say. As it turns out, cruisers are as social as everyone told us they would be. We heard the best stories and made tons of friends.

The average age aboard this cruise was older than we thought, but they were anything but slow or quiet. They danced the Cupid Shuffle while the BB Kings jazz band played and downed tequila shots in Ensenada, Mexico while making passes at their blushing wives. They were all a little different, but they had a very distinct sense of self and knew what they wanted – whether a quiet morning tucked away in the Ocean Bar with a book or that incredible cocktail they had years ago and had never been able to replicate.

I looked back over our daily field notes before writing this and loved seeing our initial hypotheses break down over time.

One or two days into our 7-day cruise, we knew our initial audience’s psychographic profile was all wrong and needed to be revised.

Four days in, we knew the initial concepts were off-base and wouldn’t resonate with a current HAL guest, and likely not a prospective HAL guest, either. 

(We were also having an incredible time.)

By the last two days of the cruise, we were crystal clear on what was and wasn’t on strategy for HAL. There was no more speculation. We knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we’d struck the goldmine, and we trusted what we found. Even as we upended previous work, we were exhilarated. We weren’t out to prove anyone wrong; we are just strategists who live for the moment of truth-finding.

When we came back and shared our resolute perspectives alongside the research findings, the team was thrilled. Let me put this another way: we upended a month’s worth of hard work – hard work done by VPs and creative directors – and they were EXCITED.

Because they were so willing to be wrong.

We’d all rather be proven wrong and find the best insight than believe we’re right with a mediocre one.

The courage to trust qualitative findings

The team’s response validated not just the risk of going on the cruise, but also the importance of qualitative research.

In a data-obsessed, often dehumanizing culture, the human experience deserves to be honored through brand storytelling. And that’s what qualitative field research makes way for.

We are often asked to back up insights with hard data. Of course, we want our findings to be supported by data and statistics, but even “hard” data is a game of storytelling. For example, you’ll have better luck finding statistics that contradict each other than confirm each other during an election cycle.

By trusting our own qualitative findings, our final pitch was deeply human and full of rich complexity and tension. Kind of like you. Or me. Or any human.

Being curious out loud

Did we go all in? Yes. HAL yes. But we did it to do the work right.

Like many industries, cruising is rife with stereotypes propagated by pop culture, generational gaps, and—for better or for worse—seeds of truth. To get past the grime to the gold, we had to go to the source with open minds, participating in their culture as if it were our own while remaining objective observers. All of us on the team gave each other the freedom to believe some stereotypes were true before the research, and change our minds after.

I don’t think I’m speaking for myself when I say we are so incredibly proud of the work driven by these onboard insights that, even if we’d lost the pitch, the investment was worthwhile. We leveled up our capabilities, not only as a team but as an agency, because we didn’t let risk or our desire to be right get in the way of human truth.

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Feel that? That’s curiosity.

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