For an advertising character, William Shatner's Priceline.com spokesperson has had quite an extensive storyline. As one of the longest-running spokespeople in history, he has been at it since 1997, when 90 per cent of the discount travel website's advertising was on the radio (the other 10 per cent was in newspapers). And now Mr. Shatner is shepherding the brand's first marketing push into Canada.
The new advertising campaign launched this week features The Negotiator – the name given to the Priceline spokesperson in 2007. And it comes at a time of increased competition in the online travel and tourism industry.
As competitors such as Expedia and Travelocity are spending heavily on marketing, with arguably more well known brands Norwalk, Connecticut-based The Priceline Group Inc. – which also owns online services such as OpenTable and Kayak – reported that its operating expenses rose 39 per cent last quarter, as it works to expand to global markets, including China and Canada.
The celebrity touch has seen the brand through transitions before. In 2004, when the online travel industry was expanding and Priceline's market share plummeted, the campaign co-starring Mr. Nimoy and Mr. Shatner helped bring it back into consumers' minds. Bookings rose significantly, and its net income grew 66 per cent compared with the previous year.
More recently, Priceline struggled with the declining popularity of its original "name-your-own-price" system, given people's tendency to comparison-shop across a growing number of travel websites. It needed consumers to understand that it had shifted to transparent discounted prices, rather than asking customers to enter bids. So in January, 2012, the brand threw The Negotiator over a cliff in a fiery crash. He later emerged, unscathed. It has since been revealed that he had a secret daughter, played by Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco, who helps him to advertise the way the site works now.
As an actor and a celebrity, how do you weigh the decision to be a spokesperson, to lend your image to advertising? Other than money of course.
Some people plan at great length, they have advisers … it's by intuition, for me. A friend of mine came to me and said, "There's this company and they want you to do a couple of radio commercials, and here's the money." So I did a couple of radio commercials.
That turned out to be Priceline.com, which was part of the dot-com bust. Everybody, including myself, thought that's the end of the Priceline thing. But the major difference between Priceline and most of the other dot-coms was that Priceline had a real service. So it was able to survive.
Priceline's chief marketing officer has said that he believes Michael Jordan repping Nike and Bill Cosby for Jell-O were the only other endorsers as iconic as you.That's quite a compliment. People tend to disparage advertising, and selling out. But a great campaign contains the seeds of a great imagination, in order to capture the audience who is dulled by so much material coming at them. In order to have a great campaign, it requires great talent in that field. It has to be shot well, it has to be written well.
Advertising is all emotional. You get somebody to buy something through their emotions. I believe there's something very artistic about a great advertising campaign. It's something I'm very proud of.
How did The Negotiator take shape as a character?
There was a moment when we were talking about who this guy is, coming to this commercial thing from the actor's point of view. … Somebody had a big motorcycle there. I got on the motorcycle, I was wasting time as we were getting ready to shoot. I drove around the block a few times, and then, the concept of being slightly crazy about getting a good deal came to me. And I went back to the agency people who were all gathered around the camera, and I said, "I think I've got it." This character we're talking about is slightly insane. All he wants to do is get a good deal for the customer. And that's the way they've been writing it. He's slightly nuts.
I remember being saddened. [Laughs] But having been in science fiction a lot, that doesn't mean anything. You dance around the fire, and you light a little sage, and you can come back. In the same way, when they killed Captain Kirk off, I had a plot already, how to bring him back. I published it as a book I called The Return.
In the commercial case, too, I had a plan. The bus crashes into a riverbed. So I said, "Look, the next commercial has got to be a shape that gets out of the water, and climbs these steep mountains, and arrives at a roadside. And you can't quite see who it is. On this deserted road, along comes a car that stops and somebody rushes out of the car. And then you reveal it's me, bloody and bruised and broken, saying, 'I can help you get a ticket, or rent a car,' or something." They didn't go for it, but they brought the character back.
Whether it's self-effacing, or self-mockery, I'm not quite sure. But certainly The Negotiator is a wonderful character. … Latching on to the insanity, it's like tilting at windmills.
How many ads do you do for Priceline in a year? Has that increased with the demand for online content?
In the past, I've done three commercials a year, and that was it. This year I've signed a new contract, and they want to make a few more. … They're going to spend a lot more money on advertising in the next couple of years. I'm not sure what the content will be, but they are going for digital content as well, on a more deliberate basis.
As a Canadian, you know how ubiquitous U.S. pop culture is here. Does the campaign even need an introduction to Canadian consumers?
Well, you could be right. It could very well be … that most of Canada knows about it. On the other hand, there's something wonderful about the fact that this is a Canadian campaign. And it will make a difference.
For his casualness. Yeah, yeah!
What are your thoughts on that, as someone involved in travel advertising?
I think that the image is valid. Here you have a casual guy, who says, [adopts ultra-casual tone] "Well, you can do this, and you can do that." But that's against the intense guy who'll say, "I'll get you the best deal, I promise I'll get it for you, or I'll go nuts!" Who would you rather be with?
This interview has been edited and condensed.