Booking.com's global PR head on Japan, data, and the fallacy of awards

In Tokyo, Leslie Cafferty discusses her aims for the brand in Japan and why it's important to give freedom to local markets.

Lisa Cafferty
Lisa Cafferty

It’s hardly a household name in Asia, but Connecticut-based Priceline Group is the biggest online travel company in the world. Many will be more familiar with Booking.com, Priceline’s key brand, even though it only began actively promoting itself three years ago (it launched in 1996).

Leslie Cafferty oversees communications for both entities. In Tokyo recently, Campaign asked her about Booking.com’s aspirations in an increasingly competitive market, the challenge of balancing global and local strategies, and the importance of collaborative culture for the brand in achieving its goals. She acknowledges that brand marketing and communications has been late evolving, but says the focus has typically been on product. Maturity and the need to grow in key markets like Japan, China, India, and the U.S. were the driving factors.

Here is a distillation of Cafferty’s most notable observations on her company and the PR industry.

Booking.com’s brand is not yet where it needs to be in Japan
The growth in inbound travel to Japan has been an obvious boon for the platform, and Cafferty says the market is extremely important for Booking.com globally. But the brand could be better understood domestically, especially as online travel sites converge on the goal of offering more holistic experiences and unique accommodation as opposed to hotel aggregation.

Booking.com aims to build out its "long tail" of individualistic properties but is still synonymous with hotels. "We’re not the most well-known player, that’s for sure," Cafferty says. But the company is working to raise awareness of its services outside the field of hotels, and the fact that its listings are instantly bookable.

Cafferty says any online travel or tech company is a potential competitor, but that it’s important to focus on identifying gaps in the market and providing (and communicating) a "frictionless" service rather than making comparisons. "We’re constantly pushing to the point of ‘what doesn’t exist today?’, not ‘what’s Expedia doing? What’s Airbnb doing?’"

Global people need to spend time understanding local markets
Efficiency and consistency make it tempting to execute a standardized global communications strategy in every market, says Cafferty. But she acknowledges that would be a mistake. While global campaigns can sometimes carry well, most of the time they need to adapt to market nuances. An influencer-based strategy may work well in one market, but a similar approach is likely to fall flat in another.

"Any investment outside of the global strategy is going to be for what is the highest ROI in that market, and that’s where we really rely on our teams on the ground and look at data," she said. "I think traditional marketers have a hard time with that because they want to control the brand so much. There’s something to that, but I don’t think any business should be in the business of dictating something to a customer. So if customers in Japan like to engage with Booking in this way, let’s go with it because ultimately that is adding value."

Wherever possible, data should validate PR
Cafferty is not a believer in advertising value equivalency, but she does take into account the volume of Booking.com’s press coverage. She admits that not everything is measurable. But she says as far as possible, Booking.com’s PR function works to demonstrate the part it plays in driving customers to the site. That involves working with data analysts "because as a PR person, I was trained in writing and communication, not data analytics."

Data is also key to investing in "blurred line areas" including working with influencers or co-creating content with a media outlet. "We work really hard to track that traffic back to our website and ultimately through to conversion. That’s where the opportunities are really exciting…we are a big company and we have more to invest if we see the right signal is there."

Collaborative culture has been central to Booking.com’s growth
PR people can easily feel isolated in a large company. But Cafferty says at Booking.com it’s seen as imperative for PR and other marketing functions to exchange data. The marketing department, she says, restructures on average twice a year "based on data and insights."

"We’re always encouraged to think strategically and smartly," she says. "Not just, ‘this is our project. We share data across a lot of our teams. It’s really about having an open flow of communications between all of the functions and making sure your organization is not just siloed into a structure because that’s the way it’s been done before." She thinks the collaborative mindset is in part due to the company’s flat structure and Dutch origins: the small size of the market meant that it almost immediately became borderless in its operations.

Agencies are 'arms and legs' rather than brains
For Cafferty, no outside party can understand a business as well as the people who work in it. Indeed, she sees the key attribute of an in-house PR person as knowing every facet, from "fun stuff" like brand and product to tax laws. She sees the value of PR agencies as being strong media contacts and local understanding, and less about strategy or creativity, although those attributes can still be important. She would like to see all agencies (including advertising and media) innovate their processes to be faster.

"There’s still a lot of, ‘this is the way it’s done’," she says. "We have to get through it faster and the more we can rely on data, the better." Otherwise, brands will increasingly connect with the Googles and Facebooks of the world directly.

Cannes winners don’t necessarily represent creativity in PR
The last point may not encourage people to spend their careers on the agency side. But Cafferty also sees many in-house people wasting an opportunity to be creative by seeing their job as simply to defend and react.

"More people in our field should be creative," she says. "I don’t think everyone in the function sees themselves in that way but the good ones do." At the same time, she doesn’t see awards like Cannes as defining whether or not the industry is creative.

"At the end of the day, I just don’t know what [winning an award] delivers for your company or your customers or your bottom line," she says. "Creativity happens all the time…many people who don’t win awards are doing very creative and good things."

This story first appeared on campaignasia.com. 

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