Royal Caribbean’s CMO Charting Innovative Digital Course

Ignore digital—particularly in the travel industry—“at your peril,” said Jim Berra, who heads up marketing for the world’s largest global cruise line. Berra described the brand’s “four-pronged” social strategy, among other topics, in this exclusive Interview.

Royal Caribbean’s CMO Charting Innovative Digital Course

Jim Berra is fully onboard with marketing in the travel and leisure industry. Berra, who in July 2015 was named CMO of Royal Caribbean International, the world’s largest global cruise line, also served as senior vice president and CMO at Carnival Cruise Lines for seven years.

Previously, he was senior vice president and general manager for Rodale Interactive, where he led the development and marketing of the company’s online businesses. Berra also held marketing positions at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, where he first discovered a love for marketing destinations.

Berra took time out to talk to about the brand’s “four-pronged” social strategy and how best to appeal to the next generation of cruisers. Please tell me a little bit about your day-to-day responsibilities at Royal Caribbean.

Berra: I oversee all things digital, and then I play a role in business strategy, thinking about our pricing and promotional strategy, looking at our distribution and how to be most effective with it. There’s a product marketing component, where we think about innovation and how to take everything that we’re doing on the ship and in the destinations and bring that to market, as well as how to enhance it. There’s an insight and research function, so as we’re assessing the performance of our fleet, the performance of various ports of call, as well as the thinking about new innovations and new opportunities, how do we leverage insight to do that more effectively? I get to wear a few hats here, which is fantastic. How did your background in the hotel industry prepare you for the cruise industry?

Berra: I think particularly on the leisure side of hotels, it’s a very similar consumer journey in terms of how they dream. They explore various options, they narrow it down, and they make a decision. I also understood the distribution and the role of travel agents and the important role they play. From spending time in hotels, I recognized that the Internet was ultimately going to revolutionize how travel is marketed. Having lived through that in the mid- and late-2000s at Starwood, you knew that trend wasn’t going to change, and, as a marketer, you really needed to hone your skills and understand just how disruptive the Web was going to be for travel as a category, and particularly for leisure travel. You started with Royal Caribbean in July. What were some of your initial goals?

Berra: My goals were to get a grasp of the brand and the consumer, learn the team, and think of how marketing is organized and how it sits within the larger organization. Royal Caribbean is a far more global brand than Carnival. It’s the dominant brand in the U.K., Australia, and China, in addition to having a great position here in the U.S., so [I wanted] to understand how the brand goes to market in the various geographies.

We’ve made a lot of progress in the organization and in our marketing analytics, building our plan for 2016, improving our digital experience, and getting the “Come Seek” campaign into the market in October. Why was this an important campaign for you to get the ball rolling?

Berra: I think it’s an opportunity for us. One of the things that attracted me in coming to Royal Caribbean is I don’t think there’s a brand in the category that has a better opportunity to attract new-to-cruise and specifically the next generation of cruisers—the millennial target—than Royal Caribbean. The work and really the intent strategically behind “Come Seek” is to begin to bring to life the cruise experience that we deliver in a way that we hope resonates with that maturing millennial target. Can you talk a little bit about how the campaign is doing that and reaching millennials?

Berra: In addition to the broadcast, there’s been a very heavy social component. Recently we just completed our first big Periscope activation, which we call “Come Seek Live,” where for seven straight days we did a series of live broadcasts with a set of influencers, both in the ports of call here in the Caribbean, as well as on Anthem of the Seas. It went extremely well for an engagement and reach standpoint, and then we also were able to take portions of those live streams and broadcast them in real time into [Wi-Fi-enabled] billboards in New York City. The mantra here is to make our marketing as innovative as our ships, so we’re trying to find new mediums and new methods to reach consumers. Out-of-the-box ideas like that will appeal to younger people, but how do you keep the marketing message strong for the other segments as well—the older cruisers?

Berra: It’s a balance, and so a lot of our research before we even launched the campaign was to make sure that … we’re not in any way alienating active or experienced cruisers. The results early on were quite strong, in terms of the research, and then in the marketplace. We’ve done follow-up testing, and we leverage Nielsen; we’re seeing that it’s resonating with both audiences.

Showcasing the destinations in new and unexpected ways actually appeals to everyone, and so I think we have found one element in the campaign that we think resonates well across kind of all key segments. Let’s talk more about the importance of digital. You mentioned that’s a big component of the job.

Berra: Yes, I think if you look at it, virtually every consumer that crosses the gangway with Royal Caribbean will have spent some time on That’s not to say that they purchased there, but that experience—which we have a long way to go in terms of improving the depth of content, the ease of use, transitioning it to mobile, just building a much stronger content marketing capability, in general—I see that as absolutely critical, not only for this next generation that we want to attract, but in general. But the market has moved there.

I could make the argument that no category on Earth has been more disrupted than travel by digital, and so at your peril you ignore it. We definitely have a long way to go. We’ve made some changes to our organization, to our analytics. We’re evaluating our technical infrastructure, and we’re adding resources to create more content, more in real time. You mentioned Periscope. What other ways are you using social media?

Berra: We have a four-pronged strategy. We definitely see Pinterest as an area of opportunity. We’re relatively small in terms of our following in number of pins to date, but we think there’s a real opportunity and a nice overlap demographically with Pinterest. On YouTube, we’re going through a complete audit of our current videos, making them more discoverable, thinking about where the gaps and shortcomings are in terms of whether it’s how-to videos or more inspirational videos. [There is] a real focus on creating more content in that one- to three-minute category that we think is very important for consumers who are trying to evaluate whether our brand and cruising is right for them, and then obviously making it more discoverable.

Then Instagram is probably our sweet spot. With such a visual category, we have the opportunity every day to surprise and blow people over with the type of imagery and experiences that our guests and our crew are having on board our ships at any given moment. To that end, we’ve launched a program where we’ve begun to leverage our crew in what we’re calling crew-generated content. We’re having them post with the hashtag, and then we’re taking the best of the best and rebroadcasting that, primarily through Instagram.

Then in Facebook, it’s becoming more of a paid medium. There’s great targeting and advertising capabilities, so while we’ll continue to work it from an organic standpoint, I think the real opportunity is to get more sophisticated from a paid media and targeting standpoint. What has been your biggest challenge at the job so far?

Berra: The number of initiatives. I think that it’s a very ambitious company. Almost all roads lead to marketing, and so just the time management and being able to make sure that I have enough time in the day to really think about what’s next [is challenging]. To me, [that] is the most critical question that any marketer has staring them in the face. What would people be most surprised to learn about your job?

Berra: How much time you spend on the analytical and financial side of the operation. There’s certainly a creative component and a content component, but I would say I’m 70% quantity- and 30% quality-based. Speaking of analytics, how do you use the data and metrics you collect to help the company grow?

Berra: It helps us understand what aspects of our experience are resonating with guests, from the moment they check in to the ship and hit the port all the way through the experience. It obviously is helping us with media-mix optimization and how to spend our dollars more wisely. It helps in the creative evaluation, and it also really helps us pinpoint where we have opportunity for growth or [where] we have challenges.

Today we’re moving at such a speed, particularly from an e-commerce standpoint, that you have to get very good at synthesizing and leveraging data. That’s something that definitely changed in the 20 years that I’ve been doing travel marketing. The depth of analytics and the pace with which you get recording is a quantum leap from where I was mid-’90s when I started my career. What do you consider to be your marketing philosophy, and how has it changed over your two decades in the business?

Berra: I really do believe in “fail fast.” Have a hypothesis, have a measurement framework so that you can evaluate win, lose, or draw, and then go for it. Until you expose something to consumers … and you can use research as a guideline, I don’t think you know until you know. I’ve become more relaxed with that.

I think the other thing is in a digital world, where 24 hours later you can change course, or an hour later you can change course, your ability to experiment and test and learn has scale with speed. It’s so different than where it was 15, 20 years ago. I’ve become more comfortable with failure, provided you have a good hypothesis and a good testing framework. Looking back at your career, would you say you’re most proud of in terms of marketing innovation?

Berra: I think being part of the team that created Starwood Preferred Guest, which at the time it came out was, I think, redefining loyalty programs, not only in hotels but also in airlines. The level of risk the company was willing to take and then how well that has performed over the years is something I’m extremely proud of. What do you learn from actually being on the ships and interacting with the people?

Berra: It’s a great question. What we get to do every day is market something that people really look forward to. They get engaged on our ships. They celebrate anniversaries on our ships. They meet new people on our ships. They have these incredible experiences, so that’s fulfilling and reconfirms why you’re in the industry. Second, you really watch how guests interact with the product as a whole, and that helps you think about how to tell the story better to people who’ve never crossed a gangway. What can we expect from Royal Caribbean in 2016?

Berra: We’re going to become more sophisticated in our regional marketing. Our products aren’t the same. The consumer’s not the same. Plus I think we need to create a level or regional sophistication that we haven’t had historically. We talked about digital. Digital’s going to be a core focus. Can we improve the booking experience? Can we improve the shopping experience? Can we add deeper content? I think that’s really important, and then I think our media mix and how we gauge marketing effectiveness will also get more sophisticated. Those are three themes that are pretty important to me as we go forward.

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