Oprah, Gwyneth and Martha Hit the High Seas With Their Branded Cruise Lines

Creating activations and continuing campaigns on ships

gayle king on a horse on the beach
Part of Martha's branding for her ship included photos of her and her best friend Gayle King riding horses on the beach.
Courtesy Holland America

When Gwyneth Paltrow announced that her lifestyle brand, Goop, was throwing a “wellness” conference aboard a celebrity cruise ship later this year, she joined a cadre of content doyennes.

Within the last several years, the cruise ship industry has partnered with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart to create branded content for each mogul’s community. Even though themed cruises are nothing new—see the Nascar Cruise or the Kiss Kruise—Winfrey’s and Stewart’s cruise partnerships run deeper, with customized programming and excursions, ranging from tailored menus to appearances and swag in the gift shop, each with Winfrey’s and Stewart’s own touch. And Goop is unique in itself for being a one-off activation event.

The cruise industry is expected to carry 32 million people this year, almost double the amount of a decade ago, according to its own trade group, the Cruise Lines International Association. The average cruise lover is about 47 years old, and naturally, there’s a synergy between that demographic and those who worship at the altar of Stewart and Winfrey.

a sidebar about shaq on carnival cruise

“This is the bread and butter of the industry,” said Judy Pearl, a travel adviser who’s been in the industry for more than 40 years. “Internally we call them pied pipers, or come-along cruises because of their ability to attract people to join them.”

Even though Paltrow told USA Today that she wasn’t sure how long she’d stay aboard the ship, Goop at Sea will be a daylong event featuring Paltrow, Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehnen and a roster of “trailblazing healers” and surprises. Scheduled to set sail in August on an 11-night Mediterranean tour, tickets to the event cost $750, though it’s only available to travelers willing to drop another $4,799 for the celebrity suite class.

Goop’s fevered community can be polarizing, but that hasn’t stopped brands from wanting to partner with Paltrow and her lifestyle publication. In January, Netflix announced that it was releasing a six-episode series called The Goop Lab.

“Our community is very passionate; it’s a strong bond, and that’s something that brands want,” said Wendy Lauria, Goop’s svp of brand partnerships.

O, The Oprah Magazine debuted its partnership with Holland America Line in 2017, hosting an Alaskan cruise with Winfrey and her best friend, CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King, onboard. Last year, Winfrey and King held a “Girls Getaway” cruise to the Bahamas. Between the sails of the two cruises, other excursions featured themed programming, including lectures from O Magazine editors, cooking demonstrations and guided meditations.

Before the partnership, the cruise line was an advertiser in Winfrey’s magazine.

“Oprah has the innate ability to bring people from very diverse, different backgrounds together,” said Jayne Jamison, svp, publisher and chief revenue officer of O Magazine. “There were a lot of synergies and a lot of opportunities for us as a brand. It’s also a great way for Oprah to get in front of her fan base.”

Both cruises featuring Winfrey sold out within the first 24 hours, a sign of “the Oprah effect,” as Jamison calls it. The two brands plan to continue collaborating.

When the European cruise line MSC began expanding to North America, it turned to Martha Stewart for an “exclusive partnership,” featuring branded Martha Stewart excursions, gift packages and special recipes when sailing during a holiday. However, Stewart’s involvement doesn’t translate to an onboard appearance: While the ads featured Stewart riding a horse knee-deep in the cyan water of the Caribbean, Stewart has yet to sail on an MSC cruise.

While each has its own distinct qualities, most of Paltrow’s, Winfrey’s and Stewart’s audiences are women.

Pearl said, “A majority of all travel decisions for our clients are handled by women, who coordinate their family’s schedule and decide where the family is going.” Of the 2,700 cruisers aboard the ship Winfrey and King headlined, only 60 were men, a little more than 2% of passengers.

“Partnerships are an important brand strategy in our industry, bringing like-minded, appropriate programming to our guests,” said Sally Andrews, Holland America’s vp of public relations. “Women are the primary decision-makers around travel. Travel advisers and travel agents are really important in cruise booking; they’re primarily female.”

And even if travelers aren’t expecting to see Oprah at the breakfast buffet, the possibility doesn’t hurt ticket sales.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 10, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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