You’re in a three-table Brussels coffee shop with your boyfriend late one fall morning, sipping espresso and flipping through a design magazine from the boutique next door. The owner walks your avocado toast to your table, sits down and the three of you start to chat. She tells you about her weekend plans, and how much the neighborhood has changed over the years. When you ask for a dinner recommendation, she says you’ve got to try her sister’s hole-in-the-wall just a few blocks over.
If this sounds like the most stereotypically millennial travel dream, then thank you, mission accomplished. There’s cultural immersion, the feeling (cursory and illusory though it may be) of an authentic, localized experience, real personal connection, and, well, avocado toast.
If this is the type of experience millennials truly covet, then it’s a wake-up call to the cruise line industry. Because for better or worse, their product stands in stark contrast. Traveling inside a floating city populated largely by people who share the same language and culture, with occasional stops for pre-planned, commoditized excursions executed with military efficiency, is a far cry from that stereotypical millennial dream.
And so, while the world’s major cruise lines claim that cruises are growing in popularity among millennials, they’re also taking clear and obvious steps to be a little less Love Boat and a little more Instagram. In its television spots, for example, Royal Caribbean insists “this is not a cruise” and “you are not a tourist.”
Royal Caribbean's commercials insist, "this is not a cruise."
It was within this difficult atmosphere that in 2016 Uniworld launched the most audacious attempt to cater cruises to millennials yet: a new brand, U by Uniworld, touted as the world’s first cruise line available exclusively to guests ages 18 to 40.
U by Uniworld: "the first and only river cruise for the young and young at heart."
Featuring onboard yoga classes, rooftop camping, mixology, local street food and quinoa burgers, U by Uniworld couldn’t possibly have checked more millennial boxes. And yet, by April 2017, they changed their age range to 21 to 45, citing high demand from older travelers.
Regardless, they soldiered on in their attempt to generate buzz with their key millennial demographic. The brand coordinated with several top travel bloggers, who descended upon Paris last fall for a launch party and hands-on preview of the cruise experience.
Among those influencers were travel blogging couple Jack Morris (@doyoutravel) and Lauren Bullen (@gypsea_lust). Boasting 2.8 and 2.1 million Instagram followers respectively, they travel from one exotic location to the next, marketing their photo editing presets one absurdly blue ocean at a time.
As part of their participation with U by Uniworld’s launch event, the couple posted a photo album and a short video capturing Paris from their perspective. All of the content is trademark Jack and Lauren: glamorous, youthful and romantic without ever feeling particularly real. The video received at least 50,000 views, while the photos garnered at least 130,000 likes. For Jack and Lauren, content creators whose value depends upon generating numbers like those, this was a great opportunity to give their audience what they wanted.
But what did it do for U by Uniworld? In my assessment, absolutely nothing. Let’s start with the video. Before I color your perceptions any further, please watch below:
Believe it or not, this video was produced on behalf of a cruise ship—and one that promises authentic experiences, at that.
This video is a 103-second ode to the most stereotypical Parisian romance imaginable. In between shots of Jack and Lauren basking in each other’s influential glow, you'll count 33 separate shots of the Eiffel Tower, to go with obligatory shots of crepes, macarons, and the Louvre's glass pyramid.
Lest I sound cynical in my analysis, let me be clear: the only reason I’m harping on the video’s cookie-cutter sensibilities is because it was made on behalf of a brand that desperately needed to be seen as anything but cookie cutter. Instead, the video feels like what a five-hour excursion into Paris from a cruise ship might be expected to: a rushed, surface-level look at the city’s greatest hits.
But whether or not the content elevated the brand is only half the problem. Perhaps more important, where was U by Uniworld in the video? Save for a few extremely quick shots you’d have to watch multiple times to have a chance of noticing, the brand is almost entirely absent.
Without the video’s caption, which reads, “Back in October we spent a few days sailing through the French rivers on board ‘The B’ – a new luxury boutique ship by U by Uniworld,” there is no way a viewer who isn’t intimately familiar with U by Uniworld would ever be able to discern the brand’s presence.
To confirm this, I showed the video to the kind of millennial U by Uniworld wants to reach—Abby, a mid-20s young professional who loves travel and fashion.
ROI: Did you notice the cruise ship in the piece?
ROI: What did it make you think about cruises?
Abby: "Didn’t cross my mind."
ROI: Did you notice anything in the video whatsoever that made you think about—did you notice a boat of any kind?
An increasingly frustrated Abby: "No boat, no cruise, no train, no airplane, no car, no subway ever crossed my mind."
ROI: So, watching that video didn’t make you more interested in learning about cruises of any kind?
So, it’s safe to regard the video as ineffective for the brand. But Jack is an Instagrammer far before he’s a Youtuber, so how about those photos? Unfortunately, his Instagram content suffered from identical problems. Out of the four photos he posted, only one appears to include the U by Uniworld ship—but even that one is unclear. Once again, if it wasn’t for the caption (“spent the last few days celebrating my birthday aboard the new @UbyUniworld boutique ship – cruisin’ the French rivers and exploring new places along the way”), there is no way any of his followers could possibly even notice the brand, much less form an opinion about it.
Other than the caption, Jack's Instagram photos for U by Uniworld almost entirely exclude the brand.
In fact, in reviewing the hundreds of comments left on that Instagram album, only one—one!—speaks directly to the ship: “It looked amazing from everyone’s stories,” wrote lisahomsy. “The ship is insane!” Lisahomsy, it turns out, is a “travel and lifestyle content curator” with 304,000 followers, so her motivations for this comment may be less than authentic.
So, how’d this mess happen, and whose fault is it, anyway?
Well, for as much as I’ve disparaged Jack and Lauren’s storytelling, their content is completely in keeping with what attracted their followers to them in the first place. And while their failure to effectively include and promote U by Uniworld should serve as a warning to any brand looking to work with them, it’s very likely they weren’t given enough information from the brand on its content vision or objectives.
U by Uniworld and its partner agency, DeckerRoyal, did not respond to requests for comment to this story.
Branded content expert Michaela MacIntyre is familiar with how these types of ineffective collaborations happen, despite the best intentions. “So many influencers get, you know, a deal with a brand and all the brand asks for is a promotion, or a piece of content,” she said. “They don’t actually build a personal, face-to-face relationship with them, and talk them through, these are my brand messages that I want to get across.”
This stands in stark contrast with how brands work with creative agencies, even on one-off projects to produce something as small as a 30-second social video: “you’d brief them properly, you’d stay in touch during the process, you’d ask to see early iterations or you’d ask to see a storyboard of what they’re thinking and how they’re thinking of doing it, you’d offer feedback along the way,” MacIntyre said.
Compared to that creative agency, creators like Jack and Lauren have a tremendous advantage in many respects: they have a built-in audience and distribution, a keen eye for what their audience wants, and the ability to move quickly and take risks that might not fly in a more buttoned-up setting. But this example shows there’s still much work left to shore up the quality of content being produced in collaboration between brands and creators.
The photo below was one of the four Jack credited to U by Uniworld:
This photo was taken on behalf of U by Uniworld.
Now take a look at this one, posted 9 days later and credited to Uber:
This photo was taken on behalf of Uber.
This is not unique, authentic storytelling of any kind. It’s copy/paste content creation that doesn’t just shortchange the brands that pay for it, but the audience, as well.
As for U by Uniworld’s influencer event last year, the surest measure of success would be that it drove so much millennial demand that they sold out the new 21-45 age range. Instead, earlier this year, they announced the removal of the age restrictions entirely.
Hot on their heels comes a new entrant to the “cruise line for millennials” game: Amadeus Global. Their plan?
“Amadeus’ strategy is to market through social media and major influencers for the demographic, partnering with Zaven Global, which specializes in influencer-based travel, and with athletes and celebrities who have more than 1 million followers,” writes Marilyn Green at TravelAge West.