Test Your Brand: Booking Sites Get Stronger As People Plan Travel Again

What does a pandemic do to travel brands? With Americans mostly prevented from travelling for a year, did absence make the heart grow fonder, or did lack of relevance drag travel brands down? We decided to find out, using the Test Your Brand system to conduct two waves of research in 2021. We ran one wave in April, with travel restrictions still very much in place, then a second in September, as they began to ease. We found that the brands winning hearts and minds are the ones which let people plan for this new era.

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Travel Brands USA 2021 Full Report

We found out how America’s top travel brands have fared during the pandemic using our Test Your Brand platform.

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Test Your Brand is System1’s brand health check, designed to cut through the noise of brand tracking with simple, predictive headline measures backed up by a wealth of diagnostic detail. The Test Your Brand model measures the three factors that drive brand growth: Fame, Feeling and Fluency. Each represents a mental shortcut someone makes when they choose a brand.

  • Fame: If a brand comes readily to mind, it’s a good choice.
  • Feeling: If I feel good about a brand, it’s a good choice.
  • Fluency: If I recognise a brand quickly, it’s a good choice.

Each of the three has an impact on a brand’s health. Fame reflects its current size and prominence in the market. Feeling predicts future growth or decline. Fluency indicates lower price sensitivity and an ability to charge a premium. Together they contribute to a topline 1-5 Star Rating for brands.

A Test Your Brand report goes into detail on exactly what’s driving each measure and what levers marketers can move to increase brand health. But for now let’s focus on those headline measures.

The travel sector had undergone a decade of change even before Covid-19 upended it. It was one of the areas that embraced e-commerce most comprehensively, and the top US travel brands are all web-era companies, with airline brands sitting lower on the rankings.

Three companies dominate the sector online. Expedia owns expedia.com and Travelocity, while Booking Holdings owns booking.com, Kayak and priceline.com. AirBnB, meanwhile, is a sometime Silicon Valley darling which is now finding a long-term niche with American consumers.

Of those three, Expedia is in the strongest position. The Expedia brand itself is top of our Test Your Brand rankings, and the second wave saw sister brand Travelocity join it as a 4-Star performer. The foundation of these brands’ strength is Fame – they are simply way ahead of the competition on mental availability. 23% of people mention Expedia first when asked about travel brands, 16% name Travelocity – their nearest competitor (Booking.com) only gets 4% of first mentions.

But the Expedia brands also perform very well on Feeling – they both create more happiness than rival booking platforms. This is an area where AirBnB also performs well, but it still has low mental availability in the travel sector. It’s a classic example of a brand being very well-known among a young, urban audience but with a much lower profile with the general public.

The outlook isn’t all bleak for Expedia’s competitors – Booking.com has risen strongly in Fame to sit in third place ahead of a pack of other 3-Star brands. Of the airlines, Southwest has the strongest Feeling of any brand mentioned, and as restrictions ease that goodwill should see it grow.

Overall, though, there’s a clear picture. In the pandemic era the brands that have thrived are the ones which offer the opportunity to plan travel and dream of future freedom – while the ones which actually transport and house people (like airlines and AirBnB) have had a more frustrating time. Covid-19 has entrenched online booking and planning even more firmly among American consumers, and the big question now is whether more specialised brands can win back Fame and Feeling from the platforms.

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