Last week I had lunch with a friend who works in hospitality branding for a large chain. As she sipped on her raspberry lemonade, she confessed that her job was much easier 10 years ago, when her primary responsibility was ensuring that the brand’s guidelines were meticulously followed by all its properties around the world.
Fast-forward to today. My friend wakes up every morning fearful of the possibility of a brand crisis. The rise of social media has turned every guest into a reviewer, and one negative or even slightly unpleasant experience can turn into a bad, very public mark against the brand, especially on sites like TripAdvisor, which has amassed huge power and influence over hotel brands. My friend’s role has transformed from focusing on logos and guidelines to managing the whole brand experience, including anything and everything that could influence guests’ perceptions of the brand.
Even outside of brand experience, today’s hospitality landscape is complex. Who would have thought even five years ago that Airbnb would become such a massive threat? It has become harder and harder for hotel brands to differentiate—a challenge my friend knows only too well. Customers are overwhelmed with choices and struggle to tell one hotel brand from another.
Guest segmentation becomes another hoop that hospitality brands have to jump through. It wasn’t easy before, but in today’s world many hotels find that focusing on a purely business or leisure segmentation is too simplistic to cover modern customer psychographics. Just consider the requirements of an average business traveler: After work, they’re looking for leisure options such as gym and spa facilities, restaurant recommendations, or room service. Meanwhile, today’s leisure traveler invariably needs to check in at their office and keep up with work—even when on holiday.
With all these nuances, knowing how to extend a hospitality brand across segments and geographies can feel complicated and ambiguous—from both a strategic and tactical perspective. So what’s a brand manager to do?
Strategic Considerations for Hospitality Brands
1. Know your brand
The most important part of tackling today’s challenges is defining and knowing your brand—both what you stand for and what you don’t stand for. If you’ve done your segmentation already, it becomes a matter of finding a motivating promise that is relevant to your core segment, differentiated, and memorable. One of the most important tensions to resolve when defining your brand is the potential trade-off between different strategies. For example, should your brand be predictable or surprising? Should it feel international or local? Personal or detached? If you walk into a Hyatt Regency in Delhi, how much should it feel like a Hyatt anywhere else, and how much should it represent local culture? Especially given the popularity of Airbnb and the increasing desire for global travelers to have local experiences, the tension of local and global is imperative for hospitality brands to resolve.
2. Think customer first
How much do you really know about your customer? Undoubtedly you have reams of data, but do you tap into it fully? Do you know your most profitable customers and their profiles? Are these the same customers who will create demand for your services in the future?
Customer segmentation is key. The savviest hospitality brands have a crystal-clear picture of the guests they want to serve. They are laser-focused on this segment—even if it means moving away from other audiences. To extend across multiple audiences, new subbrands are often created so that focus can be maintained. For example, Hilton looks at geographic, demographic, psychographic, and benefits segmentation to establish its targets. It then reaches these segments across brands like Waldorf Astoria, Canopy, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, and DoubleTree, to name a few.
3. Define a strong brand architecture
Analyzing your customers and creating profitable segments isn’t just beneficial for targeting purposes—it’s also a helpful step toward thinking about your brand architecture. While there are many potential frameworks for hospitality brands, the Four Seasons model is one of the best. It uses one clear brand to serve many closely linked segments, ensuring that core elements like quality, customer service, and luxury hold true across all properties.
Another model is the Starwood approach, which uses discrete brands to communicate distinct promises to each consumer segment.
The takeaway for brand managers: See whether your consumer segments are clearly separated or can be unified by a central idea. You’ll likely face a trade-off between better efficiency or tighter focus. Decide which option makes the most sense for your business and brand.
4. Map your customer journey
While online reviews are prevalent and will highlight the many different strengths and challenges of your brand, it’s important to remember that you can’t possibly be perfect on every touchpoint. You have to be strategic about mapping your customer journey. Choose a few peak moments throughout the experience that can provide maximum impact, and then design and execute those moments perfectly. Think about the warm chocolate chip cookie you receive at check-in at a DoubleTree Hotel. Or consider Magic Castle Hotel’s cherry-red phones that are mounted on the walls near its pools. When you pick up the phone an employee answers “Hello, popsicle hotline” and a few moments later a waiter wearing white gloves delivers your flavored popsicle on a silver tray.
By designing memorable, unique moments throughout your customer journey, you not only create differentiation, but you build goodwill. That way your guests are more willing to forget any touchpoints that may fall short of expectations while still recognizing the benefits of what your brand does well.
5. Establish brand communities
Once your guests leave, it’s easy to forget them—but this is a major pitfall in today’s competitive hospitality landscape. To further support your brand, it’s imperative to cultivate your fans and customers as a passionate external brand community.
How? Make an effort to keep in touch regularly by inviting your fans and guests to special events. Share news with them so your brand is top of mind and provide incentives like discounts or special benefits to keep them involved. For example, The Park Hotels produces Living magazine, which keeps the design hotel’s loyal guests connected to all things chic and cultural.
A roadmap for hospitality brands
When I consider my conversation with my friend and her concerns about her job, I agree with her perspective that the challenges of hospitality branding today go far beyond logo management. Brand strategy and business strategy are now the same thing—and a successful hospitality brand understands that. By studying the market, homing in on consumer segments, being clear about the brand promise, and determining the most effective brand architecture for the business, brand managers can ensure that the business side of their brand remains strong. Creating intentional, memorable moments throughout the customer journey and fostering engaged brand communities help round out a holistic brand experience, sustaining your brand and business for years to come.
This piece was first published in Brand Berries (25 August 2018). Republished with permission.