If you’ve lived long enough to remember when the World Wide Web was new, delicious, and an exciting discovery ripe with untapped gems just waiting to be unearthed, it won’t be hard for you to acknowledge we’ve come a long way in less than two decades. With the emergence of technology comes a cycle of initial “Wow Factor,” with a subsequent period of conscious applied application following and eventually — or shall I say inevitably? — concluding with an almost automatic expectation as the technology becomes integrated invisibly into our lives as human beings. We don’t know how to live without it, as it never occurs to us that we would.
Remember when just over 18 years ago there was little online of what we genuinely take for granted today? Apple Computer was in the midst of betting its future on the ill-fated Newton, Amazon had recently changed its name from Cadabra, and no one had ever heard of “The Negotiator” or “Name Your Own Price.” In the midst of the silicon gold rush, a small company called Priceline.com emerged with big ideas, committed to flipping the ecommerce model and giving more power to buyers versus sellers.
During Priceline.com’s 1997 online debut, they weren’t a travel site; in fact, the company intended to take on eBay with a marketplace where buyers could name their price. From new car sales to yard sales and even naming your own price for gasoline, Priceline.com made its way through uncharted waters. Adjusting to customer demands has allowed Priceline.com to grow to the number one travel company in the world, with $50.3B in bookings in 2014 and over 13,000 employees in 200 countries.
Rolling with the changes
How does a startup from 1997 survive the Silicon Valley bubble burst followed by the unanticipated travel industry crash post 9/11? “It was a like a one-two punch as a startup in the travel space. We were forced to embrace change,” said John Caine, chief product officer, in an exclusive interview. “Priceline.com in 1999 versus the Priceline.com of today is totally different. We are much less attached to the idea of changing ecommerce and much more attached to customers.”
I asked Caine what was different about Priceline.com during a time when other .coms and startups were crumbling. He replied, “I think having a startup mentality and being able to adjust quickly to the demands of customers and the marketplace has allowed Priceline.com to thrive over the past decade.” After 9/11, when the travel industry tanked, Priceline.com made a bold move. In 2005 Priceline.com bet the company on international purchases in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which business would eventually become booking.com, the world’s largest reseller of hotel rooms.
“Priceline.com had to reinvent the business post bubble collapse, to be a travel company instead of a marketplace. Post 9/11 we pivoted to international. We pivoted again in 2009 to become a mobile first company. Today we are deeply aligned with the customer so we can detect that next trend, jump on it quickly, and execute it at scale,” said Caine.
Caine added, “That has created a sense of a perpetual startup at Priceline.com. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we are really passionate about what best to do today. The techniques we use are about getting information from the user instead of an ivory tower.”
Priceline.com’s ability to pivot and change with the times has also been key to keeping their marketing campaign featuring acting legend William Shatner fresh and new over the years. With glowing admiration in his voice, Caine recounts the decision to choose Shatner as Priceline.com’s pitchman. “When we talk about Priceline.com as a marketer, we’re talking about William Shatner,” said Caine. “The very first question people ask me when they hear I work at Priceline.com is, ‘Have you met Bill?'”
Evolving the message
If you head to YouTube, you can see the evolution of the online age through Priceline.com’s advertising. Shatner’s role evolved with the mindset of the consumer. The first stage in that evolution was marketing to a customer in the early 2000s who needed to be encouraged to go online to make purchases.
Priceline.com’s initial pitch to the consumer was to “come online and save.” “What we needed was a future-facing and very approachable spokesperson that our audience could connect with,” said Caine. In 2006, the company again responded to changes in consumer behavior. Consumers were more Internet savvy and now it was not enough to say, “come online to save money.”
In 2006 the message shifted to “why you should save money with us,” as other online competitors in the travel space moved in, such as travel search engine Kayak. Thus was born The Priceline.com Negotiator, who would have the “skills to get you the best deals.” Caine said, “The Name Your Own Price buyer-driven commerce model was brand new and kind of scary for consumers, so we needed a spokesperson to make it a safe, familiar, and connected as opposed to a foreign idea.”
The last piece of this three-part evolution is the pivot in 2010 to mobile first, addressing the latest shift in consumer behavior. “We’ve gone through three big revolutions in response to consumer demands, and it’s different now. What Priceline.com is saying now is, ‘All you need is your mobile device!'”
What excites Caine the most is to see how technology is changing not only how we market products and services to consumers, but how technology is shaping the way we live, work, and play. Things we take for granted today, such as the ability to schedule a last-minute trip on the day of departure, all executed using our mobile device in the car while on the way to the airport. This was impossible 10 years ago. Priceline.com is in the midst of supporting consumers in creating and shaping the future of how we travel.
As Caine said, “The bigger the technical change, the more profoundly the effect on humans, the less we will eventually notice it. It gets into the fabric of who we are.”
Are you a marketing executive or CEO looking to learn from the industry’s best and brightest brands and most innovative disruptors? Join us for GrowthBeat August 17 and 18 in San Francisco and hear John Caine share more about Priceline.com’s compelling growth story and strategy for 2016 and beyond.
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