Bradford Hudson


January 2, 2019

The ‘British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’ was founded by Samuel Cunard in 1839 and would eventually be known simply as the Cunard Line. It subsequently became the most famous and prestigious operator of ocean liners between the United States and Europe. Within the early Cunard fleet was the elegant and popular ship Queen Mary, which was launched in 1934. Queen Mary was widely admired for its classic exterior design and art deco interiors, and over the years it hosted countless passengers from European royalty and the Hollywood celebrity set.


A New Era


Cunard was acquired by the Carnival Corporation in 1998. Carnival was the world’s largest cruise line with a portfolio of subsidiary companies in every significant cruise segment and region, including the upscale brand Holland America and the luxury brand Seabourn. Micky Arison, the chief executive of Carnival, stated that the deal would give his company control of the “strongest brand name in the luxury segment of the cruise market.”


Almost from the moment of acquisition, it was evident that Carnival would not only maintain the luxury standards of Cunard, but also emphasize the historical character of the brand. Arison remembered his own voyage aboard a Cunard liner as a child, and believed that “if we could bring back that feeling of the great transatlantic voyages of the past, then we would have something special.”


Shortly thereafter, Cunard announced plans to build a new flagship for its fleet, to be named Queen Mary 2. The new vessel was consciously styled after the original Queen Mary, to deliver a retrospective experience that would meet the expectations of Cunard enthusiasts. One American journalist observed that “in a world-at-sea dominated by increasingly glitzy cruise ships, the designers of this liner have mostly gone for a traditional, art deco look” and added that “this ship is designed to appeal to Anglophiles.” Another journalist suggested that Queen Mary 2 was “a marriage of corporate branding, modern technology, and good old-fashioned nostalgia.”


Historical references aboard Queen Mary 2 included the Maritime Quest exhibit, which comprised panels mounted throughout the ship describing the biography of Samuel Cunard and the history of the Cunard Line. These displayed historical narratives and reproductions of images from vintage photographs, advertisements, and brochures in a manner reminiscent of a museum. The exhibit was complemented by a display case featuring the original silver trophy presented to Samuel Cunard by the people of Boston, to commemorate the arrival of his first ship in 1840.


The historical positioning for the new Cunard Line also extended to marketing communications and corporate identity. The website suggested that Cunard evokes “a more civilized era” of “sophistication and privilege” when “glorious ocean liners were floating palaces of art deco splendor and Edwardian excess.” A subsequent brochure suggested that Cunard ships “offer the opportunity for a new generation to experience the classic romance and refined British heritage” of “the golden age of ocean travel.”


It should be noted that Carnival now has two luxury brands in its portfolio, which each “serve different emotional needs.” Seabourn is positioned at the top of the luxury segment, with small yacht-like vessels that offer an indulgent but contemporary experience. In contrast, Cunard is positioned in the middle of the luxury segment, with vessels that are enormous reinterpretations of classic ocean liners, representing the grandeur and elegance of yesteryear. Thus the distinctive value proposition for Cunard is not luxury per se, but rather its history. Indeed subsequent brochures challenged readers to “sail into history” and suggested that “you will become part of history”.


Old and New


Since the acquisition, Cunard has been careful to emphasize that its brand is historic, not obsolete. Indeed maintaining the appropriate balance between past and present has been challenging. A company executive observed that “we are not operating a museum of cruising and we are not just talking about the past. We try very carefully to moderate against that notion and ensure that each new vessel is not a caricature.” The goal is to “recapture” and preserve “the classic ocean-going traditions” of the past, while remaining “contemporary and relevant.”


Perhaps the most important element of this balancing effort has been the significant investment in new vessels, with Queen Mary 2 reportedly costing more than $800 million. This represents modern “hardware” to complement the historic brand software. A related balancing element may be found in Cunard marketing communications. Historical references, are often followed by qualifying statements, which emphasize state-of-the-art technology, or performance. Queen Mary 2 is described as combining “over 160 years of tradition with modern innovations hardly dreamed of only a few years ago” and Cunard ships offer a “glorious taste of grand ocean liner travel from days gone by, along with every modern convenience.”


Cunard passengers find themselves simultaneously in past, present, and future. While they may be admiring history, they are not observing it passively or exclusively, but rather participating in an historical experience with modern relevance. They are also creating new traditions that will be honored in the future. This asynchronicity, which is indicative of an approach that reinterprets the past for contemporary needs, is one of the principles that distinguish heritage brands from the mere longevity of older companies.



Brand heritage is an emerging concept within the marketing discipline, which suggests that the historical status of older companies is often explicitly linked to their brand identity and consumer appeal. Although brand heritage is activated in the present as a contemporary marketing strategy, it refers inherently to the past. The history of a company and the history of its engagement with consumers are important elements in understanding the appeal of older brands. As such, history is not only embedded in brand heritage as a value proposition, but also constitutes an important research methodology for identifying and analyzing brand heritage. The case of Cunard provides a perfect example of this concept.


Prior to its acquisition, Cunard was a historic and celebrated company, with narratives and images that had become embedded in our cultural memory. However, it had been underperforming financially and its assets were limited to a few aging vessels. The executives of Carnival not only improved operational quality and material condition through superior management and significant reinvestment, but they also made an explicit choice to emphasize historical themes. The new Cunard is more than merely a recognized and trustworthy provider of luxury cruise services. It offers consumers an opportunity to connect with a common legacy and re-live their imagined past. The historical experience aboard Cunard ships is the value proposition.


The retrospective positioning of the new Cunard brand is more than cosmetic. The comprehensive and integrated use of historical themes indicates that the company has adopted a brand heritage approach in the most profound sense. In terms of competitive strategy, the brand heritage concept provides a compelling and defensible point of differentiation. One Cunard executive observed that “our history has a unique appeal. None of our competitors can claim it and [our passengers] believe that it belongs to us.”

About the Author

Bradford Hudson is Associate Professor of the Practice of Marketing in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.


Professor Hudson earned a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in Business History from Boston University, a master’s degree in services marketing from Cornell University, an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, and a certificate in strategy from Harvard Business School. He is a former Fulbright Scholar to Canada, where held the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the University of Guelph.


Prior to his academic career, Professor Hudson served in a variety of executive and consulting positions. His clients with historic brands included AT&T, Bank of Boston, Cadbury Schweppes, Cunard, Harley-Davidson, and Nestlé.


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Hudson, B. (2019) The Renaissance of Cunard. Brand Heritage Review, Volume 1, Number 1.

Portions excerpted with permission from Hudson, B. (2011) Brand Heritage and the Renaissance of Cunard. European Journal of Marketing, Volume 45, Issue 9/10.

Published by the Brand Heritage Institute
© Copyright by Brand Heritage Institute, Inc.