Like any major brand, it started with humble beginnings. In this case, it was a one-day rail excursion from Leicester to Loughborough.

Fast-forward 170 years, and the company that still bears its founders name has evolved into an industry giant. Thomas Cook has over 30 tour-operating brands, 2,000 travel agencies, 60 aircraft and 30,000 staff. However, big doesn’t necessarily mean best. It might be large, but it’s in trouble.

Thomas Cook’s share price is in free fall. And its debt pile is threatening to bankrupt the company.

Enter Harriet Green.

Moving from survive to thrive

Green wouldn’t necessarily be the first choice for running the world’s oldest travel institution. After all, she’s never even worked in the industry.

But what she lacks in domain experience, she certainly makes up for in gutsy determination. In fact, she secured the post by cold-calling the chairman and boldly stating, “you need me”.

And need her they did. Since taking over a year ago, she’s managed to raise a much-needed £1.6bn in finance – based on a market-capitalisation of just £142m. Not to mention helping to boost its share price by a factor of ten.

How? One word: belief.

It starts from within

In a fascinating Radio 4 interview broadcast on 4th October, Green shares how her number one job was to instil a sense of belief; to reconnect Thomas Cook’s people, customers and lenders with the fact that they are “all part of a brilliant business, with a not-so-brilliant balance sheet”.

Doing completely the opposite of a typical rebrand project, Green opted not to spend millions of much-needed capital with an agency, but instead focussed on where it really mattered; reuniting Thomas Cook’s 30,000 strong workforce with the brand.

I could actually high-five her.

Green is one of the few leaders that understands true brand building is fundamentally about belief.

And no matter what a marketing agency might tell you, it always starts from within. Because if your people don’t believe, your customers won’t believe – and if your customers don’t believe, your shareholders won’t believe.

I find the number of “rebrands” that overlook the people that matter most simply astounding. You can create the smartest strategy in the world, but if nobody gets behind it, all you have is colours and words.

Take a look at any enduring brand, such as Harley Davidson, Coca-Cola or Southwest Airlines – and you’ll notice they’ve never changed what they believe. Products and services will always evolve, but beliefs are unshakeable. They remain static no matter what.

A race to the bottom

In our endless quest for profit we often overlook the importance of staying true to what we believe. As a result, our narratives become fragmented, employees and customers question who we are, and eventually we start to lose market-share.

We attempt to keep the ship afloat by slashing prices – resulting in us becoming a commodity, not a brand. We branch out into more offerings – which push us further away from who we truly are. It’s a sure-fire race to the bottom, yet so many of us do it.

You might even recognise yourself in this position. Sales aren’t what they were, top talent is starting to jump ship – the fact is, nobody really gets who you are anymore.

The good news is it is repairable. Take Apple – now one of the worlds most powerful brands. Yet just 16 years ago it was a different story. Apple was weeks away from shutting its doors until the newly reappointed Steve Jobs stated they needed to “re-introduce Apple to those who have forgotten what we stand for, and introduce Apple to everyone else”.

Great brands aren’t built outside in. They are built inside out.

Stop digging

If you’re a leader that feels things could be a little better, don’t start by flooding the market with more products, slashing prices, or introducing more services. You are in a hole, so stop digging.

Instead, take a moment to stand back, reflect and reassess. Realise that order to build your future you have to connect with your past. It’s your past that holds the key to your future.

Ask yourself:

  • Where did we come from?
  • What do we believe?
  • What do we value? And equally, what don’t we value?
  • What would we never compromise on?

Great brands understand who they authentically are. They understand that values and beliefs aren’t throwaway words, but uncompromisable foundations that ultimately shape behaviours. Beliefs might not have a place on the balance sheet, but they certainly have an impact on the things that are.

Personally, I’ll be watching Harriet Green’s progress with avid interest. In a sector that has become renowned for no-frills, cost cutting and duty free I’m hoping that she’ll inspire a movement around the forgotten romance of travel. Just like her predecessor:

“To travel is to feed the mind, humanize the soul, and rub off the rust of circumstance – to travel is to read the last new book, enjoy to its full the blessings of invention – to travel is to have Nature’s plan and her high works simplified, and her broad features of hill and dale, mountain and flood, spread like a map at one’s feet – to travel is to dispel the mists of fable and clear the mind of prejudice taught from babyhood, and facilitate perfectness of seeing eye to eye”.

Thomas Cook, July 1854.


  • markdisomma

    Mark – what a great post. I’ve just interviewed Tom Asacker about beliefs, and he made an observation that seems to ring true for what Green has done at Thomas Cook. “Brands,” he says, “are in the business of generating meaning.” Here’s a summary of our chat:

    Thanks again.
    Mark Di Somma

    • Mark Sampson

      Hey Mark, really appreciated, thanks! I’ve not heard of Tom before – but thanks for sharing your interview with him – really great stuff. So much so, I’ve just ordered his book! :-) Have a good day.

      • markdisomma

        You’ll enjoy it. As I said in my intro to the article, he’s one of my favourite thinkers. All the best, Mark.