From blank slate to luxury brand at lightning speed

In 2017, Tenet CEO and Managing Partner Hampton Bridwell came upon a rare opportunity: The chance to put all of Tenet’s skills—and the firm’s philosophy—to the test by creating a brand for a category innovator, entirely from the ground up.

“Storylines started as an intriguing idea,” Bridwell says. “Take a lifestyle experience once available only to the very wealthy – a life of cruising the ocean full-time, actually living aboard ship as owner of a ‘cabin condo’ – and make it accessible to a new population. But that’s all there was: an innovative but untried entrepreneurial concept in a field with no true competitors. Starting from zero is unusual in our industry and a golden opportunity to prove the value of our approach. So we decided to take an equity interest and really showcase what we can do.”

Storyline founders Alister Punton and Shannon Lee recognized Tenet’s potential right away. “Launching a new endeavor like this is very fluid and fast-paced,” Punton says. “We’re in startup mode the whole time, thinking on our feet so we can get to launch day in the shortest time possible. We don’t have the luxury to sit back and ruminate, and we can’t afford any missteps or wasted effort. We have to get everything absolutely right the first time because we really have only one shot at it. When we looked at Tenet, we saw a world view that dovetails nicely with our own thinking.”

Like minds help shape a startup

What captured Bridwell’s attention was how closely aligned the concept was to Tenet’s own point of view about innovation, user experience and the interaction between brands and business strategy. “This is a prime example of market, business model and product innovation creating a new category. Crafting the brand is very much part of that and can make or break the whole effort. And one of the central themes that really appealed to me on the innovation front is that they’re creating value where it once was being destroyed.”

What’s unique about Storylines?

Traditional cruise lines depend on a steady flow of ever-newer, larger and more extreme ship designs. Because of intense competition, a ship is commercially viable for a relatively brief time; many years less than its actual useful service life. Ships that are no longer marketable typically go to the breakers to be sold for scrap.

Through Storylines, those ships can embark on a new life. After a full refit to the latest standards and transformation into vessels designed for comfortable full-time occupancy, they set sail on a continuous world journey. The pace is relaxed and the port stays leisurely. Cabin-condo owners can come and go as they please and stay with the ship for as long as they like, renting out their cabins when they’re not on board.

From the Storylines side, Punton and Lee understood the importance of brand in launching a startup. “We’ve been involved in a number of startup ventures,” Lee notes. “We’ve seen first-hand how important it is to send the right message immediately. It’s our opportunity to set the tone and course for the whole company – for investors, business partners, employees and our prospective customers. We think very much as Hampton does; brand strategy must go hand-in-hand with business and engagement strategy.”

A solid starting point sets the stage

Tenet rallied resources from across the firm, building a team of business and web strategists, engagement specialists, editorial resources, designers and developers.

“The elements of a terrific brand story were all there,” Larry Oakner, Tenet’s Senior Partner for Engagement, says. “A whole new experience built around an innovative, life-changing offering. The elegance of ocean travel. A chance to embark on a whole new, adventurous life as an affordable alternative to traditional real estate and retirement offerings. We knew we could make something really special out of this.”

To make the idea work, it would have to be introduced and positioned correctly. The team ran an initial test of the affordable cabin-condo product concept under the name My Home At Sea, and got a very encouraging response. That set the stage for developing a richer brand story.

“We focused initially on the luxury real-estate alternative aspect,” Lee says. “Our customers will have access to a lot of lifestyle amenities not available to the cruising public. A private helicopter, for example, and a yacht accompanying the ship that can be booked for excursions or private parties. But working with Tenet, we concluded that a ‘super luxury’ image might not send the right message. We’re looking to make a life of comfort accessible. A premium lifestyle, yes, but it’s not about champagne and caviar every day.”

Board advisor Jon Bond set the tone by crafting core principles for the brand that firmly established it as something new and different: a community of like-minded world citizens on a shared journey, discovering and taking part.

Bond also came up with the Storylines name. “Storylines really struck a chord,” says Tenet Editorial Director Andrew Douglas. “It’s such a resonant and evocative idea around which to build a brand’s narrative. Life is a story we all write, day by day. Living at sea, traveling the world aboard an ocean liner, experiencing new cultures… what a terrific opportunity for people to create that story for themselves.”

Balancing the visual with the verbal

“This was a delicate balancing act performed at high speed,” says Andrew Bogucki, Tenet Senior Partner for Design. “Because we were moving very fast and developing the visual identity in parallel with everything else, we had to do a lot of iteration and internal collaboration to make sure everything worked well together.”

With the brand strategy, tone of voice and even naming in flux, the direction was shifting quickly. “Our first deliverables were developed around the My Home At Sea name, using images of places like Monte Carlo,” says Tenet Partner for Design Courtney Grier. “As changes came along, we had to think and adapt fast. We were rapid prototyping, throwing out ideas to see what would stick with the team. It was a process of continuous improvement.”

As development proceeded, work fell into a collaborative rhythm with new content helping guide image selection and system design, and vice versa.

Tone of voice shapes the brand experience

A critical shift came about with the shift in brand narrative from centering on a luxury real estate investment alternative to an enriching lifestyle. “My Home At Sea worked very well to validate the affordable cabin-condo concept but it didn’t quite align with the brand story that was being developed,” says engagement specialist Larry Oakner. “It was very much about a real estate transaction. Storylines is a larger and more powerful story about how people live their lives.”

To retain the concept of ownership the team elected to create a lifestyle narrative around Storylines, but within that framework talk about My Home At Sea as a branded experience that includes cabin-condo ownership in addition to the services provided. “This addressed some issues for us,” says Storylines’ Shannon Lee. “Since our initial successful outreach was branded My Home At Sea, we wanted to maintain continuity. We might have lost that, and also diluted the ownership idea, if we abandoned it. By positioning it as an experience that Storylines offers, we could clearly position it within the broader Storylines narrative.”

A critical shift came about with the shift in brand narrative from centering on a luxury real estate investment alternative to an enriching lifestyle.

Service design proves its worth in the digital realm

Because Storylines was defining a new category, a lot of education had to happen, which could have been problematic. “It was essential to make engagement simple so as not to confuse potential customers and investors,” says Larry Roth, Tenet’s Senior Partner for Digital. “But we also needed to support a sales process that could be complex, without making it feel difficult.”

That meant creating a website that made discovery easy, with a resilient information architecture to accommodate the rapid pace of change. “The digital team came at this from a process and outcome standpoint, using our established service design principles. We mapped out customer journeys and tailored our strategy accordingly, while always recognizing that the business strategy might be changing. That proved to be the right approach, because we didn’t have to alter our original design much to accommodate new directions. And because of our flexibility, we were able to readily make needed changes.”

Reaching the finish line, with results beyond expectation

The entire process of creating and launching the brand took less than four months, and in that time Storylines had built a database of thousands of leads. “Given that when we started, absolutely everything – even the business model – was not yet developed, that’s extraordinary,” says Tenet CEO Hampton Bridwell. “And things like cabin layouts were changing right up to the last minute. The team did fantastic work, showing how powerful a shared collaborative mindset can be when innovating. I really think the results speak for themselves.”

Storylines co-founder Shannon Lee says, “In just a few weeks we have created a global brand that will engage hearts and minds and powerfully tell our story. Storylines has come alive and we are all very pleased with what we have created in the last few weeks. We are now in a stronger position to get our first citizens of the sea on board!”

Within just two weeks that began to happen, with strong initial sales including deals for not just one, but two premier level ($1M plus) cabin-condos aboard the first Storylines ship. Storylines also made a splash in earned media coverage, with the novel concept grabbing the attention of a number of major news and specialty media outlets.

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