How to trash a brand

22 March 2022
How to trash a brand

The problem for P&O Ferries is not limited to the outrage expressed by employees and politicians over their 'fire and rehire' tactics, but because so many of us are appalled by these strong arm tactics, customers will vote with their feet, and not set foot on a P&O ferry again.

P&O Ferries has become a toxic brand

Beancounters often underestimate brand value. Yet intangible assets represent the majority of value on most company balance sheets, and much of this intangible value is accounted for by the brand. P&O Ferries may have thought it was reducing its employment costs, but by totally trashing its brand and seriously damaging its brand reputation, it has destroyed value that took 183 years and two World Wars to build; as well harming others who share the name. This isn't just a PR disaster, it is wanton brand vandalism.

Collateral damage - P&O Cruises has no connection to P&O Ferries

Perception is everything, so while P&O Cruises has nothing to do with P&O Ferries - operating under Carnival Corporation ownership for 20 years - it has suffered collateral damage to its brand, needing to post this message prominently on its website:

IMPORTANT INFORMATION “As Britain’s favourite cruise line, your loyalty, advocacy and support has always meant the world to us. P&O Cruises has been part of Carnival Corporation & plc for over 20 years and has no connection with P&O Ferries. Our thoughts go out to all those affected. However, please be assured it’s business as usual on our cruises and our crews look forward to welcoming you onboard soon.”

To further distance itself, P&O Cruises has subsequently launched n adverting campaign to distinguish itself from P&O Ferries.

A strong brand with a sometimes controversial history

The P&O business was formed out of the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company in 1837, basing its famous flag motif on the national colours of Portugal and Spain, before adding in routes to the Orient and entering the opium trade. Mail routes followed and P&O’s first passenger services commenced in 1844 with cruises from Southampton to the Mediterranean, where P&O Cruises still operates from.

By the mid-1920s P&O operated over 500 ships, losing 179 in the Second World War. Post-War, P&O played important roles in immigration, leisure, cargo, containerisation, and ferries to and from Europe, including the acquisition, in 1985, of Townsend Thoresen Line, shortly before the ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ capsized off the coast of Zeebrugge, when a public enquiry found the company guilty of manslaughter, although no convictions resulted.

P&O then diversified into ports and logistics, divesting P&O Cruises in 2000 to Carnival Corporation.

Controversially acquired for £3.9bn by Dubai Ports World in 2006, P&O’s European ferry services have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, but its brand remained a prized asset and the 6th most famous travel brand in the UK. Until now.

According to YouGov, P&O Ferries’ brand index score tanked last week from +13.9 to -4.1, and its buzz score fell further from 0.5 to -24.5. Unfortunately for P&O Cruises, the risks of sharing a brand name caused brand contagion, with Britain's favourite cruise line's score dropping from +10 to 0.

Five things this tells us about branding

  1. It can take 185 years to build a brand and one moment of madness to destroy it.
  2. Customers care about their brands, but if brands behave badly they will vote with their feet.
  3. Rebranding under a new name must be under serious consideration for both P&O Ferries and P&O Cruises.
  4. Some management teams don’t listen to advice; others don’t even ask for it.
  5. Brand reputation management is frequently under-valued; and sharing a brand is always problematic.


Peter Matthews
Founder and Managing Director