The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

Mark Natale
Mark Natale

Building authentic luxury hotel brands.

In today's noisy world, properties and brands constantly seek more attention. Brands seek quality attention that will bring more people, sales, and money. We often hear people discuss trends and how best to utilize them for maximum return to accomplish this. Merriam Webster defines "trend" as "a current style of preference." Upon closer examination, the definition uses the term "current" within it, meaning it will not be current at some point. So, knowing that, why would someone follow a trend?

One reason to follow a trend may be because you’re trying to fit in. It’s the primary reason clients often ask for something “trendy." Does that necessarily mean that you must follow suit? Let's look at four questions you should ask yourself to build brands that will stand the test of time and minimize the inherent risk of following trends.

1. Are you building a world-class brand from the start?

You should first ask yourself, how remarkable is your brand? Did it start with a unique idea that you then developed throughout your property? Or is your brand an afterthought represented by the summation of your property's components? You would be surprised how often we experience this when working with clients. Before you embark on brand development, I want to share a story that advertising legend George Lois tells in his book "Damn Good Advice." In this story, he describes one of his first meetings with the innovative restaurateur, Joe Baum, responsible for creating the country's first themed restaurants. The story goes something like this:

As the two executives sat down at the restaurant they wanted to promote, Mr. Baum was served a Bloody Mary.

Before taking a sip, he asked the bartender, “Is this the best Bloody Mary you can make?”

To which the bartender answered, "Yes, Mr. Baum."

Mr. Baum then asked the bartender to try the drink himself. He acknowledged it was delicious.

“Can you make a better one?” asked Mr. Baum.

The bartender then got busy making another drink.

Mr. Baum then asked the bartender to try that new drink, to which he replied, “This is very good, Mr. Baum. It’s perfect!”

“Then why didn’t you make it like that in the first place?” asked Mr. Baum.

The point of this story is if you are going to develop anything, think it through, take your time, and during the process, ask yourself, "Is this the absolute best I can do?" If you cannot answer yes, keep working on it.

A successful brand integrates images, words, products, services, people, and places to create an experience for the customer. It's the consistent ability to tell a compelling story. No matter how small or insignificant something seems, an opportunity exists to create an unforgettable experience. Everything down to the price list for laundry services that you place inside guestrooms is an opportunity to showcase your brand. We believe that everything communicates.

It’s not enough to build a great product. The market is filled with great products; ask your competitors. To truly be a world-class brand, Smarthinking Inc. insists that the client's product be remarkable!  

2. Are you being yourself? Are you being original?

Brands are meant to differentiate at their core—nothing more, nothing less. The concept is thought to have started in ancient Egypt, with people branding their livestock's skin with a hot iron to show the animal's origin. This identification process carries into other goods and services as marks of distinction and identity. Knowing this, as you start to build a brand, you have to ask, "Is this who we are? Are we being original?" In other words, do you have a unique selling proposition? The foundation of the most successful brands is a clear vision of how things should be.

Look at Apple, Tesla, or The Rolling Stones (yes, the band.) These are all brands built on a unique vision of what their product should be and how it can transform the user's experience. There are plenty of computer products, but Steve Jobs's idea of what that experience could and should be changed the game. BMW, Chevy, Audi, and other car manufacturers make electric vehicles, but what makes Tesla special? A grand vision that transcends just cars. And the wave of the British Invasion era of the mid-1960s gave us The Beatles (arguably the most influential band of all time), The Kinks, and The Yardbirds, to name just a few, so how is it that The Rolling Stones are still selling out stadiums in their late seventies? It is a definitive point of view that you never confuse their counterparts/competitors.

You, too, need to see how you build a brand for your property that is authentically positioned. Do you have specific insights? Do you have a unique perspective? A definitive viewpoint? Hopefully, you can answer "yes" to all of these questions. If not, it’s imperative to develop these for your property. Your product should be fully infused with all of these viewpoints. Within our industry, you can look to legendary hoteliers Ian Schrager and Alan Faena, among others, to see how they are imparting their points of view into their products. Whatever you do, don’t mimic someone else’s brand. Have a vision, or call it a day, which leads us to the next question.

3. Are you being a follower?

Remember when being a “follower” was a bad thing? It still is. Yes – social media has appropriated the term, but at its core, the term is still defined as “one that imitates another.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary) As you build your brand, original concepts and viewpoints are paramount. One way to begin is to define and study your competitive set. Can you clearly state the essence of what they offer? Do you know their brand narrative and how it is expressed within their property? Have you thought through your guest experience? Is your hotel a branded house, where the hotel brand is the overarching brand identity for all outlets? Or is it a house of brands, where your outlets are all branded separately, allowing your guests to have multiple unique experiences during their stay? These are just some of the points you need to think about and strategize for when building world-class brands.

An added benefit of this work is the efficiencies that it will create. Not only when selecting and training staff but also when building your brand. For example, we recently met with a prospective client about updating their brand, and to break the ice in the conversation, we asked, "so what don't you like about your brand? Is it the logo or…?" Before listing the other aspects to consider, the client interrupted, "let's not discuss the logo. We spent $75,000 to create it, and we all unanimously hate it, but we spent the money, so we are sticking with it." We thought, what a terrible way for everyone to start such a promising project—hating the product, spending the money, and having to grin and bear it all along. A properly developed brand will ensure creative excellence and market position, but it will also help you define the purpose, increase your efficiencies, and eliminate waste.

4. Are you acting desperate?

As previously stated, brands are meant to differentiate. If executed properly, though, brands allow you to make more money. People are willing to pay more for well-executed brands with the promise of better experiences, so be confident in your brand and its promise. Confident brands embody the following actions:

  1. Build the best possible product
  2. Consistently promote the product
  3. Maniacally focus on the proper execution of brand standards throughout the entire operation.

Conversely, desperate brands:

  1. Offer discounts and deals
  2. Piggyback on competitors’ brands
  3. Cross their fingers and hope for the best

Don't be desperate! Put the work into building a brand that is trend agnostic.

To chase trends or not chase trends, that is the question. In our opinion, we would focus more on authentically building remarkable brands: deep insights, unique perspectives, and definitive viewpoints. This approach may unconsciously create marketing trends, but you will not be chasing the trend. Remember that people who pursue trends ultimately will come in at the end of one, and where does that leave you?

Hammer pants, mullets, pet rocks, and shoes with toes. Need we say more?

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