Guest Point Of View: Brands And Brand Management In The Hotel Industry
Years back, a former Proctor & Gamble brand manager became the old Holiday Inns’ president. He recruited me to create and launch the “Suite Brand” (aka Embassy Suites).
When we spoke, people in the industry looked at the two of us like we had three eyes.
In retrospect, I now understand why. We spoke in a strange tongue. He and I used expressions like “brand positioning” and “consumer end benefit,” “brand character,” “sustainable brand point of difference” and the like.
Those were the pioneer days of hotel industry brand segmentation. Those early pioneers were educated within “pure-play” schools of brand management—the leading consumer packaged goods companies that taught their brand managers how to create, manage and lead a brand.
The hotel industry’s brand pioneers got it pretty right judging by the staying power of the hotel brands they created: Courtyard by Marriott, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inns, Residence Inn, Ramada Renaissance, and Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts. All these brands were pretty much launched within 24 months of each other in the early 1980s.
Today, brand management vocabulary is commonplace, used by most hotel industry marketing types, and now used pretty much by hotel executives up and down the management spectrum. Equity analysts following the lodging industry even lace their reports about what “this Brand is doing or not doing.”
The problem is that most hotel execs using “brand management” language throw it around without a clue as to the meaning and power, for example, of the words Brand Positioning. Positioning is a sacred expression within the walls of Procter, Coca Cola and Unilever.
Nor do many in the hotel industry know what a brand’s “sustainable point of difference” means, let alone how to create it. But that doesn’t stop them. They say their brand stands for something. But do consumers agree?
Who out there can articulate today’s Holiday Inn brand positioning? How about Radisson? Don’t feel dumb if you can’t. (I’m not picking on those two, the list is endless).
I think one brand sponsor gets it better than the others: Starwood’s chief, Steve Heyer, a transplanted Coca Cola brand manager. When he arrived at Starwood he had Starwood’s execs step way back and reflect on the foolish way most of their (and the other) hotel brands were marketed. Heyer then set his team on a path of retooling Starwood’s brands. And I believe the results are showing.
For example, though Westin’s currently-mandated brand initiatives are not proprietary—the botanical additions (lobby flowers in glass vases), the scent machines, new music, mood lighting and candles, and so on—these “brand positioning” initiatives were consumer-research driven and appear to be creating the favorable “brand pull” sought from end-benefit initiatives.
Looking ahead as a continued stakeholder in the lodging industry, I remain skeptical, but hopeful, that others also get it and will truly make their brands stand for something.
If the brand sponsors do get smarter and become more authentic “brand managers” more powerful brands will emerge. And that will be for the better as most of us today are increasingly brand-oriented and brand-dependent in the hotels and resorts we own and manage.
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Tom Engel is founder and President of the Boston-based T.R. ENGEL Group, LLC (TRE), an international hotel real estate asset management and advisory group. Prior to creating TRE, Engel spent seven (7) years as Executive Vice President, Equitable Real Estate Investment Management, where he created and managed its Lodging and Leisure Group. He is also credited with creating/co-creating three (3) lodging brands—Embassy Suites, Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts and Hawthorn Suites hotels. Engel entered the lodging business following an earlier career in brand management with Unilever and Revlon, Inc., New York City. Engel earned an under-graduate degree from the University of St. Thomas and graduate degree from Northwestern University.