Priceline.com Chief Marketing Officer Brett Keller said that
only Michael Jordan for Nike and Bill Cosby with Jell-O were
in Mr. Shatner's league as iconic endorsers. Which is precisely why
he had to be killed off.
"One of the challenges we face is that Bill is so awesome and so
closely associated with Priceline that we needed to grab back
consumers' attention," Mr. Keller said.
The problem was that Mr. Shatner is so closely identified with
his character, The Negotiator, and Priceline is moving to focus on
its fixed-price discount (at 200,000 hotels in 140 countries)
instead of the name-your-own-price business Mr. Shatner made
"Bill is the face of name-your-own-price, and we felt we had to
really get the message out about this," said Mr. Keller. "The
published-price segment is the fastest-growing one for us."
But try telling that to Mr. Shatner. "No one was more shocked
than I was," he told Ad Age in an interview. He learned about The
Negotiator's demise in traditional Hollywood fashion: reading the
script he was sent for the next commercial. "After they picked me
up off the floor ... I saw what was happening," he said with a
Mr. Shatner made clear that he understood the business decision.
"They wish to bring attention to the fact that Priceline does offer
another service, this maximum discount without having to make a
bid," he said. "That's the reason they're killing off the character
-- to bring attention to another part of the business."
(Mr. Keller's version of the story is somewhat different: He
said he personally reached out to Mr. Shatner to tell him he was
receiving several new scripts from Butler Shine -- and "one in
particular stands out in which we basically throw you off a cliff,"
Mr. Keller said he told Mr. Shatner. "He took it in great stride,
and that 's the way he's been for 14 years.")
How he got the news might be in question, but one thing's clear:
Mr. Shatner didn't get the bus -- er, boot -- because the campaign
didn't resonate. According to an analysis by ABX comparing three
recent Priceline ads with one spot each from Travelocity and
Expedia, Priceline's averaged 20% better than its rivals. In fact,
it came in almost 5% higher than the average for all TV ads in its
The only area where the Priceline ads trailed its competitors
was in reputation. While the reputation scores were not low, they
were not as strong as Travelocity's or Expedia's.
Mr. Keller also said the change to focusing ads on its
fixed-price service was not precipitated by any shift in
Priceline's financial health. In its most recent financial earnings
report, for third quarter 2011, the Norwalk, Conn.-based company
posted revenue of $1.5 billion, up 45% from the year-earlier
quarter. Mr. Keller added that the new direction of the ad campaign
was not a reaction to one-stop shopping offered by Kayak.com.
"Absolutely not," Mr. Keller said. "This is less about the
aggregators and more about what we have to offer."
Between Priceline, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, Orbitz.com,
aggregator Kayak.com, and a new entry, RoomKey.com, online travel
is a competitive, $109 billion-a-year business, according to
PhoCusWright Research, which that predicts the industry will grow
another 8% this year to $117 billion.
According to Kantar data, Priceline spent $31.5 million in
measured media through the first 10 months of 2011. In the same
period, Travelocity spent $50 million, Expedia $40.7 million, Kayak
$28.6 million, and Orbitz $18.4 million.
Couldn't Priceline.com have just kept Mr. Shatner and put him in
a new role for the fixed-price service? "You would think," Mr.
Shatner said. "But they are so imbued with the passion of getting
this message out that they thought the best way to do it was to
bite the bullet. Or, in my case, biting the dust."
Ah, but this is the world of TV. Nobody is ever really dead, and
Mr. Shatner actually remains under contract to Priceline. So will
we see The Negotiator again? Depends on how the next phase of the
campaign does without Mr. Shatner.
"I think, based on the ad, he has perished, but I think it's
also fair to say that , based on how this current campaign moves
forward, we'll make a decision on the direction we go," Mr. Keller
said. "We're very much a results-driven company. The next phase of
the campaign follows the aftermath that follows the demise. You
will hear from the survivors of the crash talking about The
Negotiator and what he has done for them, and some of their
feelings about what he has taught them about our new products and