Hotels use a branding model that is, for the most part, broken. That reality leaves a gap for savvy marketers to exploit. Here's a refresher on tactics to use according to the professor who literally wrote the book on hospitality branding.
Editor’s Note: Skift Senior Hospitality Editor Sean O’Neill brings readers exclusive reporting and insights into hotel deals and development, and how those trends are making an impact across the travel industry.
- He’s a distinguished professor at Cornell University’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration in the SC Johnson College of Business.
- Our conversation covered some of the key ingredients behind a successful brand strategy.
- It also touched on some things to watch out for, such as “brand cheating” by franchisees.
Conceptually, branding is easy. It’s about giving travelers shorthand reasons for picking your property over others. Dev said an effective brand is:
- Bold. “Brands should take a stand and have a strong point of view,” Dev said.
- Relevant. “Brands should be really tuned into the needs and problems of their target market and evolve with their core customers.”
- Authentic. “Be true to, and stay connected with, your origin story.”
- Novel. “People like the new and innovative. Have something meaningful to say when a returning guest asks: ‘What’s new?'”
- Distinct. “Promotional efforts must articulate not only what the brand offers but also how its offerings are distinct from those of other brands,” Dev said. “Carefully pick some points of parity, but highlight some points where you differ or excel.”
- If you didn’t notice, the above items spell the acronym B.R.A.N.D.
Branding may sound easy to talk about. But brand management is very easy to do very poorly, Dev said. He’s “not quite satisfied” with how many hotel companies are approaching this responsibility.
- “Many brands haven’t been relevant enough or authentic enough,” Dev said. “That’s why boutiques and independents and Airbnb get traction.”
- “R&D [research and development] is at an all-time low,” Dev said. “There needs to be more innovation. Most brands are muddled in a sea of sameness.”
Operators need to be vigilant. Here are some tactics to fine-tune:
- Find a viable position and stick to it.
- Beware of trying to appeal to too many audience segments. That can dilute your brand’s power.
- Make branding a tangible goal for all stakeholders to get buy-in. Branding isn’t a siloed activity involving only advertising or the signs on the front of a building.
- Measure your brand-level revenue-per-available-room, satisfaction scores (such as customers’ surveyed intent to return), and related metrics. Then frame a property’s performance vis-a-vis its competitor set within the framework of brand equity.
- A good brand is more than memorable. It boosts the “share of wallet.” Low general awareness is okay if you have high awareness and loyalty among your target guest segment.
- “The ultimate test of a great brand is the amount of premium a guest is willing to pay for your brand compared to your closest competitor brand,” Dev said.
Dev can list several brands that generally do a good job with branding. Here are a few.
- “Before the pandemic, you had these ‘Aman Junkies’,” Dev noted. “They didn’t say they were going on a vacation. They said they were going to an Aman.”
- Oberoi, ranked World’s Best Hotel Brand by Travel & Leisure magazine this year, is successful by its fanatical attention to detail and total customer-centricity, Dev said. (The professor started his hotel career at Oberoi 40-plus years ago.)
- “Disney is exceptional about being intentional about its brand at every touchpoint,” Dev said, noting that even janitors are trained in how to interact with guests if they happen to encounter them.
- Dev recently stayed at a hotel in Positano on the Almafi Coast, and he gave its managers top marks for understanding how operational decisions tie into branding. He learned that every year it spends a couple of million euros on renovations, even though it makes only about, say, 10 million euros a year in revenue. It spends the money to keep surprising and impressing repeat visitors.
The pandemic may have prompted more “brand cheating.” Some franchisees have failed to maintain brand standards and capital expenditures.
- Dev has contributed to pre-pandemic research work on this topic.
- Parent brands can often more effectively reduce cheating through non-coercive positive appeals and incentives rather than punishments.
- “It’s usually better to start the conversation by making logical appeals, such as showing how a property is falling short in comparison to peer properties,” Dev said, noting that these efforts often are more effective than sending inspectors or threatening lawsuits.
- A parent brand shouldn’t fear kicking poor performers out of the network when necessary. Such a move can boost the long-term renewal rate of high-quality franchise partners, making up for the short-term loss.
- Paradoxically, research that Dev contributed to found that hotels owned and operated by parent hotel companies had worse compliance with brand standards, on average, than franchised properties. The researchers surmised that compliance with brand-standard policies was taken for granted at hotels operated by a parent brand.
Of course, this is a journalistic gloss on some of Dev’s latest views.
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