Positioning Strategy for 6 Leading Travel Brands

Positioning Strategy for 6 Leading Travel Brands

Airbnb, Hopper, Expedia, Southwest Airlines, National Geographic and Booking Lead Other Travel Brands

Six travel brands are recognized for their marketing, including innovation, customer experiences, and social media.  These brands have distinct approaches to positioning strategy, even though they are all in the travel category.

To examine their branding, we’ll review the five critical elements of the positioning strategy framework:

  1. To target (specific audience)
  2. For (defined) frame of reference,
  3. Travel Brand
  4. Is the (functional/emotional) point of differentiation
  5. Because (attributes) reason to believe

Looking across lists of the top travel brands, these six brands are all identified by one third or more of the sources as demonstrating excellence in branding, innovation and business results.

The sources we reviewed to identify these included:

An Introduction to the Top 6 Travel Brands

The six brands that receive the most consistent recognition out of the total of 64 identified are:

These six leading travel brands are an interesting mix of different business models and vintages.

Founded in 1888, National Geographic is the oldest brand.  The brand is known for exploration and visual storytelling. The brand expanded its equity in 1999 to directly enter the travel category with travel expeditions through the National Geographic Expeditions sub-brand.

Created in 1967, Southwest is a low-cost airline.

Expedia was originally started as a Microsoft division in 1996 and then spun off as a public company in 1999.  Expedia is a holding company for other travel brands including: Vrbo, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire, CarRentals.com and Hotwire. 

Headquartered in Amsterdam, Booking Holdings was also founded in 1996 as an online travel agency. Booking Holdings has six consumer facing brands: Booking.com, Priceline, KAYAK, OpenTable, Rentalcars.com and Agoda.

The much younger Airbnb brand was created in 2007 and launched in 2008.  Airbnb offers online rental properties in a marketplace between hosts and guests.  

Founded in 2007, Hopper is the youngest brand with its mobile-only app launched in 2015

Second 6 Travel Brands are Identified as Additional Leaders: Marriott, Delta, Hipcamp, Hilton, Royal Caribbean and Intrepid Travel

There are also another six travel brands that emerge across several ranked lists, but they don’t place as consistently as the top six. The additional six travel brands are:

Three of these are well-known leading travel industry hotel and airline brands: Hilton, Marriott and Delta. The Hilton brand was created in 1919, Delta in 1925 and Marriott in 1927.

Two focus on specific niches, i.e., Hipcamp focuses on camping, glamping and RVs, while Intrepid Travel focuses on small group adventure.  Hipcamp was created in 2013, while Intrepid Travel started in 1988.

Royal Caribbean stands out as the only cruise line recognized. The Royal Caribbean brand was created in 1968.

Let’s review the top six travel brands that are recognized for branding and marketing, along with marketplace success.

#1 Airbnb Positioning Strategy: You’ll feel right at home

Like other two-sided marketplaces, the Airbnb model relies on winning with two target groups: travelers (over 150 million users) and hosts (over four million). The focus of this positioning strategy review is on the traveler.  Airbnb 2021 revenues were $11 billion.

While Airbnb has initiatives for expansion into traveler markets such as business travelers, the core target customer for Airbnb is two budget-conscious traveler groups: young families and  non-family younger travelers, e.g., friends.  36% of Airbnb bookings are for guests ages 25 to 34, 23% are for guests ages 35 to 44.  

Airbnb primarily offers lodging as the frame of reference to travelers. Although the choice exists to book a room or a full house, in 2017, 81% of Airbnb’s revenue was from whole-unit rentals where the owner is not present during the guest’s stay. And while the Airbnb brand has expanded into experiences, these experiences represent a small fraction of its total bookings.

Airbnb has both emotional and functional benefits in its brand positioning. Emotionally, an important aspect to the brand is belonging to the Airbnb community, and the Airbnb logo represents an upside down heart.  As a member of the Airbnb community, the traveler will feel “right at home” as they travel.   77% of Airbnb guests “want to live like locals.”  The brand invites guests to “discover and experience the Airbnb community.”  Functionally, Airbnb is chosen for ease and security of payment, affordability, and wide range of choices.   

Launched December 2021, Airbnb’s ”Strangers aren’t strange” advertising campaign speaks to the emotional desire for travelers to relax and experience common comforts of a home (e.g., showing guests making tea, family going on walks, watching movies together).

Airbnb brand positioning strategy summary:

  1. To budget conscious young families and non-family younger travelers 25 to 44 (target traveler audience)
  2. For a place to stay/lodging, (frame of reference)
  3. Airbnb
  4. Is the (functional/emotional point of difference) most comfortable place to stay where you feel “right at home” so you can relax knowing you’ve gotten a good value
  5. Because (reasons to believe) each place has unique characteristics, your payments are secure, and the price/value is better than many other options.

Brand strategy expert consultancy Equibrand offers an excellent summary for the Airbnb positioning strategy:

“For local and international travelers, AirBNB is the only booking website that connects you to unique experiences all over the world because we offer the largest selection, most diverse, top-rated and personalized places to stay.”

Personally, I was a loyal Airbnb user and fan until 2021 when a billing dispute that was poorly handled led me to decide to not use the platform going forward.

#2 Booking Positioning Strategy: Great functionality for an “amazing” travel booking

Booking Holdings, the parent company of Booking.com, reported gross travel bookings of $77 billion in 2021. One source estimated Booking.com 2021 revenues at $11 billion.

Booking Holdings is a digital travel company with a functional mission: “make it easier for everyone to experience the world.”

This functionality stands in contrast to the emotional appeal of community and connection of Airbnb.

With Priceline with memorable William Shatner “Negotiator” brand advertising through 2012, the origins of the company’s Booking brand focused heavily on delivering the best price.   In 2018, the holding company renamed itself from Priceline Holdings to Booking Holdings.

In 2022, Booking advertised “Booking.yeah”, with the spokesperson Idris Elba making the promise of being amazingly good at booking.

The commercial goes on to recognize that the Booking brand is not “flashy, sexy, or lit.”  

The Booking brand name of the company is focused on a search term with little fanciful or emotional appeal, continuing in the functional tradition set by Priceline.

Booking is heavily focused on in-the-moment, mobile bookings.  Lodging is an important focus, and the company touts:

28 million reported accommodation listings, including over 6.2 million homes, apartments, and other unique places to stay.”

Booking also takes the approach of suggesting destinations, for instance taking a trip to NYC’s Little Italy during the height of the pandemic when international travel was difficult.

Booking is also recognized for “embracing video,” capitalizing on the insight that 46% of customers watch more video ads on social media than TV, and using “IGTV to embrace long form videos that showcase guest experiences.”

Unlike Airbnb, Booking had 80% of its lodging bookings from hotels, and just 20% from non-hotel accommodations as of 2019.

Booking positioning strategy summary:

  1. To MIllennials with travel intent who are making travel plans in the moment using their mobile devices (target traveler audience)
  2. For lodging  (frame of reference)
  3. Booking
  4. Is the (functional/emotional point of difference easiest with great prices and the best content
  5. Because (reasons to believe) discounts and good prices

With travel restrictions eased in 2022, there will be more spontaneous bookings that are the main focus for Booking’s in-the-moment positioning. It will be interesting to see how well Booking does in capturing this demand, compared with app competitor Hopper.

#3 Expedia Positioning Strategy: Your one-stop shop for travel

Expedia’s 2021 bookings were $72.4 billion, and revenues were $8.6 billion, compared with $12.1 billion in 2019 revenues.  Expedia markets itself as a one-stop shop for flights, car rentals and hotels.  Additional brands in the Expedia portfolio including Vrbo, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire, CarRentals.com and Hotwire. 

In April 2021, Expedia explained the 2021 brand positioning:

a promise to the traveler who wants to be engaged in possibilities, but now more than ever needs to feel supported throughout their journey.  We know that people want to get back to travel, we want them to feel confident in the travel experiences they can have with Expedia.”

The 2021 brand positioning is specifically intended to drive consumer loyalty and help consumers see value “in booking all of their travel elements on a single platform (Expedia).”  Supporting features included a new itinerary experience, ‘pre-bundled products,’ simplified insurance, and more details about popular activities near their destination.

Peter Kern, CEO of Expedia says,

We have so much opportunity to improve our direct relationship with consumers. We’ve historically fished out of the big ponds of Google and meta, etc., and brought customers in and generally not done a good enough job of retaining those customers, making it sticky and making sure the experience is good.”

Kern elaborates,

We are keenly focused on bringing travelers in now, making sure they enjoy all the benefits of what we have to provide – member pricing, loyalty, etc. – and that they get a better app experience, better CRM, which we are rebuilding like everything else, and we really focus on retaining them and keep them coming back as often as possible directly.”

The company expects its redesigned loyalty program will cover all the brands as an innovation.  Expedia claims 24 million active loyalty program members, a sizable number of participants.

Related to driving loyalty and aligning brands, Expedia has hinted that it may choose to consolidate brands.

We may conclude that we need fewer, or certainly that we are going to lean into fewer, and if that makes sense we will do that.”

Expedia Super Bowl 2022 advertising mocks consumer spending on physical product categories like smart phones and cars. It suggests that the consumer will regret only the places he didn’t go. Expedia labels itself as “Made to travel.”  Based on the loyalty program focus across brands, we’d expect more evolution in the brand creative. 

Expedia’s media group touts a wide range of customer travelers, including “custom audience profiles” such as:

  • Theme Park Enthusiasts
  • Solo Adventure Seekers
  • Family Road Trippers
  • European Leisure Travelers
  • SE Asia Beach Goers
  • Winter Ski Enthusiasts

Another source summarized Expedia’s different traveler segments as “Business,” “Vacation” and “Hot Spots.”   Looking across this, Expedia appears to have more focus on leisure travelers across different segments.

As of  3rd quarter 2021, lodging made up more than 75% of Expedia’s annual revenue, while advertising and media contributed 7% (primarily Trivago), airfare 2% and other made up around 14%, including car rental, insurance, cruise and destination services.

Expedia positioning strategy summary:

  1. To leisure travelers (target traveler audience)
  2. For hotels, flights and car rentals(frame of reference)
  3. Expedia
  4. Is the (functional/emotional point of difference one-stop shop that makes travel choices easier to integrate
  5. Because (reasons to believe)  a wide range of choices for flights, car rentals, hotels, along with the best loyalty program across travel categories (loyalty program is still being rolled out)

#4 Hopper Positioning Strategy: Stress-free and savvy travel bookings

Known as a “travel unicorn,” Hopper was “on track to generate $1.5 billion” in sales and 70 million customers in 2021, although the company was not yet profitable. Like many other travel brands such as Priceline (renamed to Booking in 2018), Hopper promises travel price saving.  For example, Hopper claims an average savings of $34/night on hotels, while making travel more convenient

Hopper deliberately positions itself as “fintech” rather than a flight booking app because around half of its revenue comes from add-ons to the bookings.  Hopper is recognized as highly innovative by Fast Company for “relieving travel pain points.”

Example add-ons are the price freezing feature where travelers pay a fee to hold the price of a flight or hotel for up to 14 days or a fee to cover disruptions like missed connecting flights.  Some 60% of Hopper’s customers purchase add-ons. 

Hopper also offers these features to travel partners like Capital One, Kayak and Marriott’s Bonvoy through Hopper Cloud.

For marketing, Hopper focuses on paid social with influencers representing “100% of the acquisitions ad budget,” according to Hopper’s head of user acquisitions, Makoto Rheault-Kihara. 

Hopper balances its paid social advertising budget across a number of social channels, with Facebook a favorite for reach, but also including Twitter, Tiktok, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest. 

Rheault-Kihara explains in an interview,

The costs we pay for install are often lower than other OTA pay for cost per click… Creative skills are a lot more important, and the biggest lever is the image or the video. With social they aren’t actively looking for a product, in that context, it can be easier to advertise a simple product like cheap flights. We can see the customers 125 days before they book, nurture them in the app until they are ready to book.”

Hopper is recognized for using paid ads to boost its reach, running “Instagram Stories ads to reach and engage millennial North American travelers.”  With this specific initiative, Hopper reached 7.5 million consumers in the US and Canada, with an “80% higher booking rate for new users.” In another example, Hopper used Snapchat to effectively target its consumers.

Positioning Strategy for 6 Leading Travel Brands

Hopper has also expanded to hotels and car rentals, along with fintech.

Hopper positioning strategy summary:

  1. To Millennial and Gen Z travelers who want to make a savvy travel booking but are not quite ready to book (target traveler audience)
  2. For airfare(frame of reference)
  3. Hopper
  4. (point of difference) helps you get a better price with no stress
  5. Because (reasons to believe) Hopper predicts flight and hotel prices with 95% accuracy up to one year in advance from the largest flight database in the world and offers add-ons to help achieve good pricing

#5 National Geographic Expeditions Positioning Strategy: Explore more deeply and gain unique access with National Geographic

The National Geographic Society has a storied history around member explorers, exploration and education.   The National Geographic brand offers magazines, TV programming, social media, merchandise, and travel through National Geographic Expeditions and its travel partners (e.g., Lindblad, G Adventures).  National Geographic Expeditions revenue was estimated between $6-$13 million. 

Motivationally, the National Geographic brand appeals to target consumers who are passionate about education and exploration. Other characteristics of target customers that the brand claims include: photography enthusiasts, adventurous minded, nature lovers and history buffs.

Demographically, the overall National Geographic brand reaches “a wide demographic.”  According to one source, consumers aged 55+ are more likely to watch the TV channel.  By comparison, survey research finds that 17% of young adults under age 25 regularly read National Geographic magazine, compared with 10% of adults ages 55+.   Given the moderate to high price point for National Geographic Expeditions, the demographics of the Expeditions consumer base are likely higher income, better educated and over age 39.

The overall National Geographic brand is powerful, and National Geographic is closely associated with photography excellence.  National Geographic has been the top non-celebrity Instagram account with over 200 million followers across several of its accounts in May 2020. National Geographic also encourages amateur photographer participation through its Your Shot program. 

Positioning Strategy for 6 Leading Travel Brands

Despite its relatively small size in travel bookings, the brand’s visual storytelling means it punches well above its weight in travel influence. The brand earns recognition for travel social media marketing and travel storytelling.   Collaboration between storytellers, photographers and nature geeks “humanizes Nat Geo’s page and increases their brand awareness.”

National Geographic Expeditions markets the following points of difference:

  • Expert guides and photographers
  • After hours and special access to sites
  • Multiple modes of travel”

National Geographic Expeditions strategy summary:

  1. To Explorers (target traveler audience)
  2. For travel experiences (tours)(frame of reference)
  3. National Geographic Expeditions
  4. (point of difference)  gives you access to unique travel discovery experiences that are educational and explorational while supporting the work of National Geographic Society researches and grant recipients
  5. Because (reasons to believe) they are brought to you by National Geographic, our travel partners and leverage our unique, expert resources

#6 Southwest Positioning Strategy: Low fares and no hidden fees with fun, caring service

With $16 billion in 2021 revenues, Southwest stands out as an airline who is recognized for building a distinctive brand positioning and for aligning the company’s business strategy to its brand positioning.

This business model delivers low-cost pricing, extremely efficient operations and exemplary customer experience. Southwest focuses on customer loyalty beginning with the employees.  

Southwest goes so far as to publish their “proven” business strategy:

  • “Robust route network
  • Compelling brand appeal
  • Super financial position”

Southwest’s vision is aligned:

To be the world’s most loved, most efficient, and most profitable airline.”

While Southwest seeks to increase its revenue from business travelers, it is still primarily a leisure-focused airline.  The target market for Southwest airlines is a budget-minded leisure traveler. Specific demographics are middle-class families, small business owners, and young adults. 

According to one analysis, Southwest targets the “Sharer” psychographic motivational segment, which is described as committed to their families, hardworking, risk taking and appreciative.

Emotionally, Southwest comes across as a caring, yet fun-loving airline, primarily through the customer service delivered by its employees.   While Southwest offers low prices along with a fun and caring experience, other low price travel brands often lack these dimensions.

Even prior to COVID, Southwest offered more flexibility than other airlines when it came to changing flights or rebooking flights.   Specifically, no change fees, which now are common in the industry.  Southwest touts “Transfarency,” which means customers are treated honestly and fairly, and low fares stay low with no unexpected bag fees, change fees or hidden fees.   

Southwest offers Wanna GetAway Fares, with great low prices.  A 2022 commercial humorously highlights the appeal of getting away.

Southwest positioning strategy summary:

  • To budget minded leisure travelers, specifically middle-class families, small business owners and adults (target traveler audience)
  • For air travel(frame of reference)
  • Southwest
  • Is the (point of difference) low price airline with no hidden fees
  • Because (reasons to believe) Southwest offers Transfarency, has great customer service and Wanna GetAway Fares

For a PDF of the travel brand comparison chart with the six leading brands and the six additional brands, click here.

Positioning Strategy for 6 Leading Travel Brands
Positioning Strategy for 6 Leading Travel Brands

For more resources on positioning strategy, visit the brand positioning strategy resources page. Or register for an upcoming office hours.

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