P&O Ferries pillories planes and trains to attract UK holidaymakers 

P&O Ferries' poster campaign tries to win out over faster and more convenient modes of transport by shifting the conversation to comfort

In an attempt to pry frustrated UK holiday makers away from flights and train travel, P&O Ferries launched an OOH campaign that poked fun at the pain points of its competitor services, highlighting why ferries may offer a better alternative.

The campaign, created by Publicis•Poke, London, ran as a series of outdoor ads that were strategically placed in airports, train stations and key travel routes across the UK. Called There is Another Way, the first phase of the campaign ran from 19 April until July 2023.

The ads focused on relatable frustrations that plane and train passengers face. Pointing to the inferior views in the Channel Tunnel, alongside an image of views to the open sea, one poster read ‘The tunnel has a great view if you’re into concrete’.

Another ad ran with the line ‘100 times more legroom than a first-class airline seat’ with an image of a holiday maker laid out on a daybed, with nothing but air and sea beyond.

Made to look reminiscent of an envelope, each ad featured vast white space, in a nod to the spaciousness of ferry travel, with messages displayed in simple black text. Each ‘envelope’ was stamped with the tagline ‘There is another way’.

In addition to the OOH ads, similar iterations were launched in print. The brand also sent out 57,000 ‘fake boarding passes’ in direct mails to new and existing customers. The passes included a QR code that took existing customers to a booking page that included a 10% discount, while new customers were directed to a landing page with tongue-in-cheek messaging that highlighted the benefits of ferry travel.

Jo Harvey, head of customer marketing at P&O Ferries, said in a statement: ‘Our ambition is to put ferry travel back on the map. Sometimes an overlooked mode of transport, we wanted everyone to see that you don’t need to compromise on what you bring or how comfortable your journey is when you travel by ferry, so that you can start your holiday when you set off.’

In an evolution of the campaign, the brand has since followed up by offering discounts for its services to travellers who have suffered flight cancellations. First made available between 25 July and 10 August 2023, the brand offered people who had tweeted their frustrations about cancelled flights and responded with a #keepyourholidayafloat invitation to nab a limited-time 20%-off discount code by entering their original flight number on the P&O Ferries website. 

Following issues with UK air traffic control on 28 August that led to the cancellation of over 1,500 flights, the limited-time offer was rolled out again the next day and ran until 3 September, this time focusing on providing in the moment travel options for those impacted by a sudden event.

Results / ​​​​​​​The agency reported that after two months of the regionally targeted campaign, consumer awareness for the brand’s advertising increased by 120%, and brand consideration increased by 18%. Bookings saw a 120% increase versus the previous year, whilst the brand’s YouGov brand score, which had fallen the previous year, moved back to a positive score with a 155% increase.

Contagious Insight 

New wave disruptor / With the humorous tone that P&O adopted in this campaign, the brand was able to reposition itself as a fun disruptor in the travel industry. A member of the team behind the campaign told Contagious, ‘The ferry category has been shrinking for decades, with travellers opting for faster, more convenient, and often cheaper alternatives. We needed to change the way we positioned the business, from leaders in the category to challengers in the broader travel market. As we couldn’t outspend the competition, we needed to disrupt. The objective was to not only capture the current ferry audience, but also to convince travellers to switch from other travel methods who currently see ferry travel as inconvenient and outdated.’

Ferry operators don’t necessarily have the typical edgy archetype that many successful disruptor brands adopt. In this campaign P&O was able to leverage its position as a flagging challenger in the market to playfully poke fun at its competitor services, without looking as if it was aggressively punching down. By embracing the tagline ‘there’s another way’ the brand openly acknowledged that its services aren’t the most popular and showed some humility in doing so. In the process P&O was able to refresh its brand image and breathe new life into a somewhat forgotten mode of travel without looking too smug.

Anchoring the experience / Without the low-prices, or speed of travel, that brands in competitor transport industries can offer, P&O needed to find a way to reframe the benefits of its slower and comparably more expensive services.

Fortunately for P&O, in 2022 a combination of Brexit red tape, a post-pandemic return to travel and staff shortages had culminated in a ‘Summer of Chaos’ that triggered frustration with conventional air and train travel. During the first half of 2022, 37% of flights failed to leave on time, a 12% rise versus the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. On top of this thousands of flights were cancelled, luggage was lost, and passengers in the Channel Tunnel had even been trapped in darkness for hours. Frustrations with air travel were refreshed by the recent UK air traffic control collapse that led to the cancellation of 20% of UK departures and 27% of arrivals, impacting 250,000 people on the first day and leaving thousands of passengers stranded for 48 hours after the glitch. These recent memories provided P&O with familiar pain points to work with that were still fresh in the minds of consumers and could be used to make many of the more relaxed elements of ferry travel look comparably favourable.

A spokesperson from the agency told Contagious, ‘A challenging market became our opportunity. The cost of living and summer of travel disruption in 2022 had given people a reason to re-evaluate the way they travelled. People were tired of being seduced by short travel times and fake up-front costs only to be scorned by hidden add-ons. So, we used bold product facts to remind them that trains and planes might be faster, cheaper, or more convenient, but P&O Ferries are still the most enjoyable way to travel.’

The behavioural science phenomenon of anchoring to experience suggests that grounding the positives of one proposition against the known negative experience of something else can help to exaggerate how positive a proposition is seen to be. This is because we are primed to compare the new positively framed option against the familiar negative experience it has been anchored to, ultimately amplifying how positively it is viewed. With this series of print ads, P&O was able to anchor to tiresome experiences that are familiar to anyone who has travelled by plane or train, and assert the greater space and views available to those travelling by boat. Additionally, by placing the ads in airports, train stations, they had the opportunity to land with people in the context within which these frustrations may be particularly raw.

You won’t discount us in the future / ​​​​​​​In the immediate-term, discounted ferry services may be logistically problematic to use as replacements for cancelled flights. Equally, the short window for their use likely means few people will be able to use them for their next trip away instead. However, P&O faces the issue that ferry travel is broadly just being forgotten. In this sense, the offer of the discounts can help P&O by reinforcing the idea that there is another way to travel, making its target consumers think about its services at a time when they are already frustrated with competitor modes of transport. The next time one of these disgruntled flyers is looking to book a flight, but frets over their recent negative experience, ferry travel could spring to mind as an alternative worth thinking about.

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