Choice Hotels is launching a year-long U.S. marketing campaign to raise awareness for its 22 brands. Here's why it decided to leverage digital platforms like Spotify and to hire Emmy winner Keegan-Michael Key as a brand ambassador.
Choice Hotels is about to begin a year-long U.S. marketing campaign to raise awareness for its brands. Ads will air on linear and streaming TV and platforms like Spotify as part of a multi-million dollar effort.
Choice Hotels, founded in 1939, has for decades used traditional broadcast and outdoor billboard advertising to raise brand awareness.
But the company’s chief marketing officer, Noha Abdalla, has been refining the company’s operational model to more efficiently raise brand awareness with new digital tools and platforms. Besides TV, the group is experimenting with digital-video ads and podcast placements, which are cheaper than traditional TV spots and aim to be more efficient at targeting relevant demographic groups.
Choice Hotels faces a challenge as it seeks to pitch four major brands — Radisson, Cambria Hotels, Comfort, and Quality Inn — while also alluding to 18 other brands. That’s a lot of information to convey concisely.
The hotel franchisor in 2019 hired McKinney as its lead creative agency. McKinney faced a decision of telling a story about the brands or about the hotel guests.
It chose to spotlight the guests with an “Our Business Is You” campaign that showed ordinary people picking Choice brands for various needs, such as business trips and family vacations.
“We want to help change people’s perceptions of the Choice group brand that has historically been mostly known for economy and midscale brands,” Abdalla said.
“In the last five years or so, we’ve really expanded into both extended stay and upscale, especially with the acquisition of Radisson,” Abdalla said. “So what we’re looking to do with this multi-channel campaign is to help change people’s perceptions and really show them that we have a really wide range of hotel brands that can fit anybody’s needs, no matter what their travel occasion.”
In 2024, Choice Hotels has taken a different approach by essentially hiring a brand ambassador. It will feature Keegan-Michael Key — who won an Emmy for his work in a Comedy Central series — in a set of six spots.
“The use of a celebrity like Key will help us break through in emerging channels like TikTok,” Abdalla said. “With a 30-second TV ad, you can tell a pretty thorough story, but on TikTok, you may have 7 seconds at most, so the objective is to get someone’s attention to help echo and amplify messaging elsewhere.”
“Key is a really funny guy who is instantly recognizable and that helps break through the noise of a social platform,” Abdalla said. “Say you’re on TikTok and you see Kee sitting in a hotel and you’re wondering what’s going on. The creative may be either just highlighting one value proposition of a brand, like the free breakfast, or it may just be something over the top to catch people’s attention, like pouring too much syrup on the free waffles.”
Choice Hotels said it’s rigorous about testing its ads, or “creative.” They tested Key’s likability with samples of the audiences they’re trying to reach as well as the scripts and rough cuts of the ads.
Choice Hotels has three goals for the campaign. The first is driving more awareness of its 22 brands. A large share of travelers choose roadside hotels at the last minute, so brand awareness can help boost the share of walk-in bookings.
The next goal is driving increased traffic to the Choice Hotels website and app, which can save franchisees from having to pay commissions to online travel agencies to acquire customers.
The third goal is to boost hotel bookings. To put raw numbers into context, Abdalla’s team uses something called a commercial mix model, which is an econometric model that tries to account for the impact on bookings of external factors, such as how many properties are available in a given market, if competitors happen to be running a promotion at that time, and shifts in the broader economy.
Tapping Ad Tech
The promise of placing ads on platforms where customers are logged in, such as streaming TV and audio services and social media platforms, is that it improves the chance for Choice Hotels and other advertisers to reach targeted audiences.
Choice Hotels has at least 63 million customers who have provided personal information, such as their email addresses, when signing up for the group’s loyalty program. The company can use third-party tools to cross-match that database to find those customers when they’ve logged into other services or to find “lookalike audiences,” meaning people with similar demographics.
In the case of a platform like Spotify or Amazon, users who match the audiences the hotel franchisor is hunting for will either hear Key’s audio spots during podcasts they’re known to listen to or will see ads in the app if they match the demographic or personally identifiable information, such as an email address.
To streamline things, Choice Hotels uses Havas as a single ad agency to provide a consolidated picture of its multi-channel campaign.
Knowing Your Customer
Abdalla believes in a relentless test-and-learn philosophy she’s developed working for previous companies, such as Hilton.
She said the opportunity at Choice Hotels is much easier given that customers already engage with its products regularly. This year’s task is essentially about amplifying existing interest and momentum. Her team would face a harder task if the business was somehow underperforming.
“I worked for a while at Discovery, and I was responsible for a big rebrand of the Animal Planet channel,” Abdalla said. “Surveys told us that consumers loved the Animal Planet brand but the ratings showed they weren’t actually watching.”
“We gathered consumer insight about what it is about the Animal Planet brand that they thought they loved to both make our marketing more relevant and to adjust the programming,” Abdalla said. “Many people like comparing the drama that happens in animal life with human society. So we launched “Surprisingly Human” as a tag line, we adjusted the programming to have more dramatic storytelling, and we changed the channel’s logo to look more dramatic. All of that led to gains.”
Choice Hotels didn’t say how much it was spending on the campaign other than it was a “multi-million dollar” effort. Franchisees pay Choice a half-billion a year to cover expenses on marketing, the loyalty program, and the tech behind the company’s reservation system. Some analysts have estimated the Choice ad account is worth about $40 million a year — including all national efforts and not just this particular campaign.
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Photo credit: A still image from Choice Hotels' latest marketing blitz. This example shows actor and writer Keegan-Michael Key pitching the Comfort Inns & Suites brand. Source: Choice Hotels.