TUI’s knocking copy assault on Thomas Cook will do the UK travel industry no favours

Jeremy Ellis, marketing director of TUI Travel (pictured), must be feeling pretty pleased with himself. Not only has he emerged, after 20 years in the wings, as the new brand-meister of Thomson Holidays and First Choice. He has also managed to land his principal rival, Thomas Cook, a satisfying punch below the belt with his first real ad campaign.

Whether it’s a knock-out blow remains to be seen. But knocking it certainly is. And for that reason it’s attracting all the wrong sort of attention in the financial press, which is savouring the prospect of a second-round comeback from punch-drunk TC.

Knocking copy – the art of negative comparative advertising – is fairly unusual outside budget airlines and politics (which doesn’t, in any case, obey the usual advertising regulations).

And for good reason. It’s fraught with potential legal difficulties, and not many advertisers are robust enough to live with the consequences of an onslaught from the livid victim.

Of course, TUI doesn’t admit to the campaign being knocking. That would be to concede grubby, tactical opportunism. No, “This advertising campaign was meant” – and here I quote from the FT – “as a brand reassurance message and to clarify any confusion between the two separate companies.” And what confusion might that be? Well, “In the past there has been consumer confusion between our brands and our competitors’.” Of course there has: Thomson and Thomas Cook, they’re so alike.

Luckily, TUI has now been able to come up with some clear brand differentiation for the first time: we’re the financially solvent ones. As a USP it’s quite telling, I suppose. Here’s an example of the campaign, from the print ad run by Thomson: “Another holiday company may be experiencing turbulence, but we’re in really great shape.” And here’s the copy that featured on the website of First Choice: “No worries about your holiday AND no worries about what you’re spending… Unlike a certain holiday company we could mention, you don’t need to worry about the way we run our business.” Ouch!

As is well known, Thomas Cook has had a few tribulations this year: the Arab Spring for example, and the further collapse of its holiday market in France and Russia. All of which has resulted in three profit warnings, the ejection of its chief executive and the very public and humiliating supplication of its banks for £200m-worth of financial sticking plaster to tide it over until Spring 2013. Oh, did I mention the collapse of its share price to penny-status, overnight?

Nevertheless, Thomas Cook will not be taking this drubbing from its main competitor lying down. It has reported the First Choice ad to travel trade body and regulator ABTA (though not the Thomson one which, bizarrely,TC’s interim chief executive Sam Weihagen earlier called “a very good ad”).

Ooooh, you say, and what are they going to do about it? Well, according to ABTA’s rules (Clauses 6B and 6L) no member may bring the industry body, or other members, into disrepute; nor may they make representations about the financial status of other members. Theoretically, contravention of the code can lead to expulsion from the organisation. While we’re there, I suspect Thomas Cook could also seek redress from the Advertising Standards Authority, under the CAP clause dealing with ‘denigration’ of a competitor.

But it probably won’t; and nor will TUI be expelled from ABTA. A smack on the wrist is the worst it is likely to endure: the prospect of the UK’s biggest tour operator being ostracized by its trade body is frankly preposterous.

Nevertheless, I think TUI may have overreached itself, and for this reason.

Thomas Cook’s response to its crisis has not so far been well-received in the travel trade, particularly among the travel agents on which it depends for much of its UK trade. The company recently ran its very own ‘reassurance’ campaign, the key element of which was a one-off £170 saving (170 years old, geddit?) on 2012 holidays. For which read: more discounting in an industry where margins are already reduced to the bone, more undercutting of agents’ commission and, quite possibly, irresponsible dissipation of the recently acquired £200m bank loan.

Whether this perception is fair hardly matters. The point is it may well be reversed by TUI turning Thomas Cook into a maligned underdog. If there’s one thing worse to the British way of thinking than bungling incompetence, it’s smug triumphalism.

Sooner or later TUI’s Ellis may find himself smiling on the other side of his face.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.