Perspective: All Hands on Deck

On cruise ships, nothing says 'service' better than a young man in uniform

Ever since Samuel Cunard sent the RMS Britannia across the Atlantic in 1840, the shipping business has looked for various ways to lure passengers aboard—a task that’s not as easy as it sounds. Because the “romance” of being at sea starts getting dull about an hour out of port, shippers have historically crowed about the food and accommodations. During the postwar years, Cunard’s marketers bragged that the Mauretania featured en suite staterooms, orchestra performances and a “luncheon” of cod’s roe on toast and braised oxtail jardinière. Today, boutique cruise line Seaborne promises suites with balconies, on-deck wine tastings and menus featuring Black River ossetra sturgeon caviar. The parallel’s no coincidence.

But when it comes to truly differentiating one boat from the next, few attributes are more important than personalized attention. And because an intangible service can be challenging to portray in a print ad, marketers have for decades relied on variations of the same image: the uniformed, white-gloved attendant. Be it the fresh-faced lad with the pillbox hat in this 1949 ad for Cunard White Star or the obliging flank of stewards in the 2012 ad for Seabourn, the marketing message remains as recognizable as immutable: Sail with us, and we’ll take good care of you.

“It’s an iconic image,” noted Daniel Edward Craig, founder of travel marketing consultancy Reknown. Marketers for the shipping lines, he observes, have long had a hard time capturing the essence of on-board life. “Showing pictures of the boat only goes so far,” he said. “But showing a staffer inspires a lot more of the imagination.”

Indeed so. But the way that image manages to do the inspiring has evolved considerably. In 1949, Cunard White Star (the two legendary carriers White Star and Cunard had merged during the Great Depression) was still following the ironclad traditions of British seafaring. A “deck boy” could join the line as early as age 14 and lived a near-militaristic life aboard, delivering telegrams and draping carpets over passengers who braved the North Atlantic winds as they sipped bouillon out on deck. “You were given the runaround—fetch this, fetch that,” recalled one former deck boy, recalling his seagoing years for the Tyne & Wear Archives in the U.K. “You’d be general dogsbody basically.”

Today, things have loosened up, which is a benefit not just for the employees (who can now, thankfully, be women) but also for the image of the cruise brands. “The expectations of luxury service have evolved,” Craig said. “That 1949 ad shows duty and deference, someone waiting for orders. Today, with that slogan ‘Clairvoyance is a job requirement,’ they’re talking about service being more about anticipation.” In other words, the deck boy of yore is, in today’s parlance, the associate empowered to customize your cruise experience.

With white gloves on, of course.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.