The role of the CMO has evolved, shifting from a position that was once squarely focused on marketing to one faced with tackling digital challenges on a daily basis.
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Fact: The world’s 10 largest hotel chains have 113 brands in total at various price points, 31 of which didn’t exist 10 years ago. Needless to say, standing out has become more difficult than ever before.
Josh Lesnick joined Wyndham Hotel Group two years ago to help the hotelier do exactly that. Originally a biomedical engineering major at Cornell University, Lesnick first became interested in marketing after taking (and acing) a class in college. His first gig after graduation was at Hyatt Hotels, where he came up with the concept of the first outlet on a desktop lamp. Lesnick also worked for ITT Sheraton and Starwood Hotels before joining Wyndham in 2014 as CMO.
Branding, he said, is among his top strategic priorities because of the plethora of choices consumers now have for business and leisure stay. Efforts around mobile and personalization are intended to help Wyndham stand out.
Additionally, Wyndham is working with branding agency Siegel+Gale to revitalize its 16 hotel brands. The rebrand has meant new technology for marketers, as well as changes in how the company’s brands are presented to consumers and in how Wyndham defines its brands.
In this interview with CMO.com, Lesnick discussed the rebrand, why the role of the CMO isn’t just about marketing anymore, and how fellow CMOs can succeed in the age of digital.
What consumer trends are you paying close attention to?
Lesnick: One of the trends I’m paying close attention to is what we call “fluid living.” It’s part business, part leisure. I think whereas people used to take a trip for business, come home, then take a trip with their family or for a break, those two now are coming together. That means when you actually deliver a product and talk to people about promotions, you have a little bit of a duality in the messaging.
Wingate by Wyndham is a midscale brand, and the position is modern life and balance. That’s really a brand that delivers on both sides of fluid living. If people want to come in and have a business meeting, it’s incredibly consistent, and the product is very well-suited for business. But it also has a very strong leisure base. So if a guest wants to swim and do other types of leisurely things, we’ve had to balance those on the same trip.
Digital pushback is another interesting consumer trend we’re watching closely. Customers are very technically adept and use technology to book us, to get information, and to research travel. But we also find that they actually want to call us and ask questions. They want to interface with the front-desk staff.
The third consumer trend is around snack food. There’s a lot of interesting trends developing around the concept of “grab-and-go” food. We did an initiative with our Travelodge hotels where 60% of our hotels are within a very close proximity to a national park. We’ve found that people want to get out of the hotel and get to the park, so we’ve come up with some food concepts to support that. We’re looking at late-night snacks for Super 8, which is more of our American road-trip original. People are driving, they get in late, they want to grab a quick snack. With our Days Inn brand, we’re coming out with different fun ways to introduce energy-type snacks and so on.
What should be the biggest priorities for CMOs, in general, over the next 12 to 18 months?
Lesnick: There’s a couple of big priorities that CMOs have to look at. Obviously, mobile is an enormous growth area for our business, and the priority around that is how to integrate your everyday operations in a platform that’s very real-time. Other priorities around mobile include customer support, marketing, and other dynamics and expectations of the customers.
Branding is another big one. In our industry, for example, there are over 300 hotel brands right now. So, for me, defining what you stand for and how to stand out within that big of a competitive space is very important. In the hotel business, we work in a world of tremendous variety in distribution channels. Trying to understand how our product is being presented in these distribution channels is really important. The CMO job is no longer just a marketing job. It’s got a very strong digital/technical/data requirement to it, as well. And then you throw in all the privacy laws on top of those things, and I think you have a really interesting, challenging thing to think about a lot.
The last priority for us is personalization, as consumers demand more targeted and personalized experiences. We’ve done a lot of work with Adobe Marketing Cloud [Adobe is CMO.com’s parent company] on the back end of all of our platforms to be able to do targeted marketing as we move forward on mobile platforms. We’ve completely transformed all of our websites.
How are you thinking about mobile customer experience?
Lesnick: We’re seeing an enormous growth in mobile and people researching and booking us through mobile devices. What we often see is people want to toggle devices, so while they’re at home they may be more inclined to use a tablet or a laptop to research, but when they get on the road, they also want to be able to pick up where they were and complete the purchase in a very similar experience on mobile.
To respond to that, we’ve made a big investment in completing our digital transformation and having a responsive site so we can carry that experience from one type of device to the next. What we’ve seen is people really want easy and simple, and they want the mobile experience to have utility. For example, we find folks would like to check in with their mobile phones and maybe make requests for different services.
We’ve created things like Booking Magic, which, when you’re driving, for example, you can hit a button on your phone and it looks at your geocoordinates. Someone will call you back when you want them to and identify the hotels nearest you to help you book your room. That’s really the key for us in mobile–making that whole process easy and simpler for people on the go, in various scenarios.
What sparked this whole rebrand effort?
Lesnick: Wyndham is an enormous company. We have 16 brands with 8,000 hotels, and we’re opening two hotels a day, so the growth and the global footprint is enormous. We run the gamut, from economy hotels to upper-upscale hotel brands.
We have been doing a lot of research around trends in our industry. We’ve found that Millennials, who are overtaking Baby Boomers in terms of their travel consumption, and the rapidly growing middle class have a commonality as it relates to travel. We found that the amount of disposable income between those two groups can be somewhat limited. Yet our research showed very clearly that these people love to travel and that they want great value even if something is less expensive.
We call the combination of these groups the “everyday traveler.” The trend we are seeing is the democratization of travel, and that’s really what we’re focused on here. We want to provide interesting experiences to everyday people. I think the travel industry as a whole has done a very good job at the upper-upscale end of brands in creating unique experiences. But if you look at the demographics, you know it’s much more suited to an economy midscale product. Very little work has been done around the economy midscale product in terms of just making it interesting and different.
We looked at our iconic brands. Some of them have 98% aided awareness, and we saw this as huge opportunity to clearly define the brand and do some interesting things with them that inject a lifestyle element into the economy midscale space.
What else, in addition to a redesigned Web presence, will the rebrand entail? Will you be talking to people differently than you have in the past from a marketing perspective?
Lesnick: This rebrand is going to touch every aspect of our business. Obviously, we’ve redesigned our site. We worked with Siegel+Gale on an enormous consumer study on a global basis, targeted thousands of customers, and we took each one of our brands in a head-to-head comparison with over 50 different competitive brands. We looked at the things that our brand does well, what people love about our brands relative to these other brands, and what drives their decision-making process.
From that we came up with 16 unique positionings or brand promises, and we are working on bringing them to life through experiences. The work you’ll see over the next couple of months will reflect that.
Amy Sedaris hosts a Super 8 pop-up art gallery in NYC.
For example, with Super 8 we’ve changed out all the room décor and artwork and brought in modern, signature black-and-white headboards. Our comms team did a really fun job in rolling this out via an “out with the old and in with the new” pop-up art gallery in New York City.
With Travelodge, we plan to partner with the National Conservation Parks Association, where we feature their artwork in our hotels to bring to life the proximity of the hotels to the national parks. With our Wyndham Rewards program, we formed a partnership with Six Flags that gives our members benefits at Six Flags, but also gives us a lot of exposure in the Six Flags parks on all their TVs and through merchandising where millions of our customers go for vacation.
We’re going to be rolling out substantial advertising campaigns–print, television, depending by brand. Each brand, based on its target market, will have a different marketing plan. But it’s touching everything, from the guest experience and the products and the innovations and technology we have in the hotels to the advertising. Every brand is getting a fresh advertising campaign, [along with] the channels that we push it out and the media we use to promote it.
What is your marketing philosophy?
Lesnick: It always comes back to having a very clearly defined brand promise or brand positioning, and I got reminded of that 16 times with the work we just did with Siegel+Gale. Sometimes when you form a positioning, over time you move away from it, and it gets harder and harder to figure out how to do marketing. What should be advertised in campaigns? What messaging should we do? What types of promotion should we have?
This whole exercise that we’ve just gone through makes it so much easier to deliver and create really great campaigns and digital experiences. There’s nothing more important than having clear, relevant positioning. Everything communicates, and you have to be committed to that positioning.
If you could give marketers one piece of advice on how to succeed in digital, what would it be?
Lesnick: Test and learn. I think when you look at how quickly stuff’s evolving, you don’t have the luxury anymore of stepping back, trying to figure everything out, and making sure everything will work. Don’t be afraid to test, and if you fail, fail quick and fail cheap.
This interview originally appeared on CMO.com and was conducted by CMO.com editor.
For more insights on the digital trends shaping the future of travel, visit the Digital Transformation Brief, a sponsored series created collaboratively by Adobe, Epsilon, and SkiftX.