Skift Take

Travelocity is sold on the durability of the Roaming Gnome, who outlived the Priceline Negotiator. We remain skeptical about whether the Gnome strikes the right chord with today's consumers.

Whatever you think of the Travelocity Roaming Gnome — the online travel agency’s irreverent advertising icon created in 2004 — he’s back with quips blazing and is apparently here to stay.

The peripatetic garden sculpture, who occasionally travels with supermodels and has always championed the Travelocity customer service guarantee, had been deemphasized for a time under the reign of the Leo Burnett agency, which took over the Travelocity advertising account in 2010.

For example, a Mountain Air spot published in January 2011 emphasized 30% savings on ski vacations booked through Travelocity, and the Roaming Gnome only made a token appearance at the end of the commercial.

But, if you thought the Roaming Gnome had been put into mothballs along the lines of Priceline Negotiator William Shatner and Expedia’s Where You Book Matters¬†tag line, then Travelocity signaled the Roaming Gnome’s comeback-kid status with its announcement today that it had ditched the Leo Burnett agency and brought back McKinney, which created the Gnome.

McKinney had been Travelocity’s advertising agency from 2003 to 2010, but was dumped around the time that there was a leadership change at the OTA.

Was the Gnome destined to roam alone, reverting into a mere garden ornament?

So were disagreements about the use of the Roaming Gnome the deal-breaker for Burnett, leading to the switch to McKinney?

That may be an oversimplification of what occurred behind the scenes, but suffice it to say that the current Travelocity leadership probably feels more comfortable with McKinney, and believes that the Roaming Gnome can spark engagement, spur wanderlusting and hit home on the OTA’s brand messaging better than a focus on rock-bottom prices for ski vacations and beach getaways.

In fact, when the Roaming Gnome’s premier status was resurrected several months ago, Travelocity saw its brand metrics get an immediate upgrade.

One of Travelocity’s latest commercials, Dune Buggy, punctuates the fact that the Roaming Gnome is back, and is apparently as durable as the sands of time.

Or, at least Travelocity thinks so.

But others may wonder whether the Roaming Gnome, despite his very adept and conversational tone in social media, may seem somewhat “old” and a product of a bygone era.

Can he really inspire 20-somethings?

Yes, he can, according to McKinney’s Philip Marchington, who is credited with being the “father” of the Roaming Gnome.

“Gnomes are ageless and as such their relevance to a target is more about the child-like youthful wonder they instill in people of all ages,” Marchington, McKinney’s group creative director, told Skift.

“Not a book to be judged by its cover, a gnome,” Marchington added.

Former Travelocity CEO became a believer 

If there are skeptics about the Roaming Gnome’s utility, there are also converts.

Travelocity founder Terry Jones, who left the company in 2002, well before the Gnome’s emergence, says when he heard about the introduction of the Roaming Gnome, he “thought it was somewhat daft.”

“We’d put a lot of money behind that [previous] logo and I wasn’t sure of the brand value of a rather obscure British lawn gnome game,” Jones says.

But, Jones says Travelocity invested considerable resources into the Gnome, “and with some good creative, they got great brand identification and tie-in from it.”

Jones has advertising roots and, in a twist, states his dad, brother, uncle and nephew all worked at the Leo Burnett agency, the one that Travelocity just severed ties with.

“I grew up believing and still believe that if you take the time to invest in a symbol you ought to keep it,” Jones says, adding that Burnett developed many iconic brand symbols, including the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Maytag Repairman, the Marlboro Man, and Tony the Tiger.

The Roaming Gnome, it is hoped, may walk in their shoes.

You can alter the meaning of your brand symbol, but dumping it outright can be foolish, Jones says.

It didn’t ultimately happen in the Roaming Gnome’s case, but It’s something a new advertising agency of record might do, Jones says, although he doesn’t endorse such moves.

“It is usually something the new agency does so the account man can go home and say, ‘Honey, look what I did today,'” Jones quips.


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Tags: advertising, travelocity

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