Priceline.com Trumpets its Shift in Strategy, Offerings

Online travel site Priceline.com is launching a multimillion-dollar national TV campaign with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy touting its new ticketing service, which gives customers a choice of flights, times and airlines.

The company, known for its “name your own price” tag line, is bringing back Shatner, who helped put Priceline.com and online travel sites in general on the map six years ago, to pitch the new service. Leonard Nimoy, Shatner’s former comrade-in-arms on cult TV series Star Trek, also appears in the ad.

It is already possible to choose flights, times and airlines on Priceline.com’s competitors such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. Priceline’s attraction has always been its lower prices, which came at the expense of choice. The new service offers an opportunity for Priceline to grow its customer base and regain market share. The company fell from 17 percent market share in the U.S. airline travel market in 2000 to 6 percent in 2003, according to travel researcher PhoCusWright.

Priceline, which has 18.7 million customers, will retain its signature deeply discounted, “opaque” service, in which the user can’t choose between flights, times and airlines, but gets a lower price.

Online advertising will also play a role in the marketing of the new service.

“We’ll use Google and Overture search and contextual advertising. Banner ads for the campaign will run on eBay, SmarterLiving.com and other travel partners of Priceline,” Keller said. The ads will feature the traditional light blue Priceline color and logo and will link either to the Priceline homepage or a page devoted to the new product. William Shatner is not featured in the online ads.

The Priceline homepage features a link to a preview of the Shatner TV ad. It also has Flash demo of the new service.

In the TV ads, Shatner, a longtime pitchman for the service, settles down comfortably for a meeting with Priceline HR representatives who tell him, to his shock, that he has been fired. He says, “Who could ever replace me?” Leonard Nimoy then strolls casually in and Shatner greets him, then registers that this is his replacement.

“We felt this would be a humorous way to make the point that now consumers have a choice,” said Brett Keller, Priceline’s chief marketing officer. The TV ads will run for a good portion of the year, Keller said. The exact time span has not yet been determined. “There will be some follow-up creative later in the year talking about the benefits and features of the new product,” Keller said.

“I think the campaign and the ads are an effective vehicle,” said Lorraine Sileo, an analyst PhoCusWright. “They made online travel mainstream with Shatner. It’s one of the things that made them the billion-dollar company they are today.

“That [the new service] will definitely attract a percentage of the market that’s not going to do opaque air,” Sileo said.

Priceline has struggled since the bursting of the dot-com bubble, enacting a reverse stock split in June 2003 to avoid NASDAQ delisting. Seeking to become a one-stop shop for online travelers and reverse its fortunes, the company purchased Rentalcars.com that same month.

Sileo said the new feature will help Priceline compete against top three online travel sites Expedia, with 40 percent market share in 2003, Travelocity, with 20 percent, and Orbitz, with almost 18 percent.

“The new features will help them grow their business, and the campaign will a good job of getting online buyers’ attention,” Sileo said.

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