We’re bombarded with advertising everywhere we look, from banner ads online and sponsored posts on Facebook to television commercials and billboards along highways. With so many brands fighting for a space in consumers’ brains, it’s a wonder anything sticks. And most of it doesn’t, according to the Havas Meaningful Brands survey.
The biennial study of 300,000 people in 33 international markets found that the public wouldn’t care if 74% of brands didn’t exist. Ultimately, this means that the vast majority of brands could be replaced without consumers caring, as long as they can still get the products or services they require.
But what use does branding have in hotels? It’s essential, according to consultant Hannah Frances of Hotel Palette. “Without those eye-catching visuals and that compelling story behind it, I don’t think a hotel can stand out from the crowd at all.”
The numbers speak for themselves, too. The Havas study claims that meaningful brands increase their KPIs by up to 137%. But this begs the question: what is a meaningful brand?
How to build a meaningful brand
“For something to be meaningful,” James Trezona, Managing Director of storytelling agency Rooster Punk, explains, “it has to be more than just someone understanding the service you provide. What I mean by meaning is that the brand actually has a higher level of importance in a person’s life than just the utility it provides. It's not the specific product but the actual mission and purpose behind it, and the experience I derive from engaging with that brand.”
Marriott was a new entry — number 14 — in the top 30 Meaningful Brands list, and the Havas report says: “By focusing on telling great stories and providing entertaining content, Marriott understands that consumers today have outgrown the ploys of traditional 30-second spot advertising and want to engage with content that brings personal benefits to our everyday lives.”
Storytelling, Trezona says, is the key to building that relationship with consumers: “You’ve got to go emotional, and stories are the most powerful formula and delivery mechanism.”
Psychology behind brand affiliation
A strong affiliation with a brand and its storytelling is what drives people to choose one company over another, to spend more on a product even when there are more economical options available, and the psychology behind it all is fascinating.
UCL Consumer Psychologist Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos defines branding as, “simply a quick shortcut to help consumers make up their mind between choosing A, B and C”. In our phone call, we talked about the ‘cola wars’ of the 1980s, in which PepsiCo and Coca-Cola went head-to-head with a series of advertising campaigns trying to win over the consumer.
The most interesting aspect of this was the blind taste tests conducted by PepsiCo, which showed that despite consumers preferring the flavour of Pepsi when they didn’t know what they were drinking, they would still choose the Coca-Cola brand at the end of the taste test.
“Pepsi may have been the beverage of choice,” explains Dr Tsivrikos, “but as consumers we tend to conform to high status values. As a teenager, you don’t want to drink something that is not appreciated or acknowledged within your group of friends, so at times our rationality — our way of actually making a rational decision — can be overruled by the overall status a brand may have.”
Ultimately, it’s not just a cost versus benefit decision — our ‘sense of self’ and our ‘tribe’, as Trezona calls it, is just as important a factor. Add to this the impact of social media as a tool for consumers to create their own ‘personal brand’ and the effects are only amplified.
Big chains are catching on
In recent years we’ve seen large, global hotel chains such as Marriott, Hilton and Choice Hotels all launch a series of soft brands — franchises or mini-chains with a different identity but under the larger brand umbrella.
“The rise of the boutique hotel has forced their hand,” says Hannah Frances. “They are having to change for the changing market, and they’re really trying to replicate those experiences of boutique independents.”
Under these soft brands, the big chains can tell different, more focused stories and appeal to a specific kind of guest, but still rely on the reputation, familiarity and loyalty benefits of the umbrella company. Take Marriott’s Autograph Collection, for example, whose tagline reads, “Exactly like nothing else”, or Hilton’s Curio, whose website landing page asks, “Are you curious?”.
It’s a clever way of keeping a brand and its values fresh, without having to jump through the corporate hoops of a total brand overhaul for a multinational company, and a sign that the heavyweights are paying attention to the importance of branding and personality.
Putting branding into practice
While the likes of Airbnb have made success through their emotive communications, branding in hotels goes beyond a logo, tagline and a few advertising campaigns. Your brand has to be present and consistent throughout the entire property itself, from the design of the hotel through to the way staff are trained to interact with guests.
Whether it’s a brand new property looking to define itself within the market, or an existing hotel that needs a fresh face, all the experts I interviewed agreed that the first and most important thing to consider is purpose. Why do you exist? Why do people want to come to you over another hotel? What story are you telling?
“Once a hotel has their purpose it makes it harder to copy what someone else is doing,” says Hannah Frances. Her consulting company Hotel Palette is currently working with Lock & Key, a new boutique hotel in Liverpool, England, opening in autumn 2018. Once a row of dilapidated merchant’s townhouses, they have used the history of the neighbourhood, which has always been a bustling area with independent businesses and traders, to define their brand and story.
This is now reflected in everything from the cocktail trolleys in the rooms, which feature locally-made spirits and beers, to the interior design, which has an element of elegance as well as ‘Scouse playfulness’. “It all helps to tell the story of the city and the hotel in a more subtle way than sticking a photo of the docks on the wall,” says Frances.
Know your purpose and your people
When Swiss agency MA People were tasked with branding a new hotel — Kandima — in the Maldives, they looked to the hotel parent company, Pulse, for its core values: smart, playful, rooted, responsible and human.
“Branding is the translation of the values,” says Co-Founder of MA People, Manuela Schwingshackl. “[Once you have the values], you go into each and every section of the hotel and outline, for example, what smart means in terms of accommodation or what rooted means in terms of excursions.”
In Kandima’s case, smart means clever in-room tech that customises the room environment, from lighting to timed air conditioning is translated through authentic, local Maldivian excursions.
But beyond values, they also examined in great depth the values of the guests they were targeting. In a destination synonymous with honeymoons and couples looking for romance, they had to find a way to be different in a saturated market.
Guest profiling played a huge part in this Schwingshackl told me. The agency looked beyond the honeymooners and baby boomer couples making up much of the buying market and found that families and millennial couples were also travelling to the Maldives, but were under-served when it came to options relevant to their needs.
After examining the demographics and their needs, as well as overall travel and lifestyle trends such as sustainability and technology, they defined the different buyer personas and paired this with the core values of the parent company to drive their brand vision forward.
As a result, Kandima sells itself as a different kind of Maldivian resort: a place where families can holiday — they have the largest kids club in the Maldives — and young couples can find a peaceful retreat or a great night out.
At the core branding is ultimately about getting customers to stay with you for the long haul. Being able to differentiate your property from competitors is a sure fire way to help build that deep, meaningful relationship that will keep travellers coming back for more.
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Hero image: credit to Blake Guidry
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Finding your purpose and story is the key to building a solid, successful brand