Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Can hotels become super-brands?

Throughout the past year, Apple has been rolling-out a make-over of their stores. I visited the 5th Avenue flagship store when it re-opened and at first glance it seemed to be more of an upgrade of the company’s successful retail operating system rather than a re-invention of the i-device’s sanctuary. But as we so often have experienced with Apple products, god is truly in the subtlety of details:

  • The cube is more transparent, with a new lightweight structure that is ever more inviting to discover what is underneath.
  • The lighting is crisper, creating greater visual comfort in the daylight-starved space.
  • Store staff seem to be more efficient, and I am sure that the back-office has had as many upgrades as the front-of-house to ensure an increasingly seamless experience.

These stores are a fascinating part of the Apple story. Not just because they were a visionary aspect of the strategy that turned it into the most prosperous business on earth, but because they have so successfully addressed key challenges of modern retail. They expose the importance of the human layer in brand-building: they apply a seduction strategy, they provide the vehicle to consummate the relationship, and they offer prospects of life-long happiness.

I once read that the conceptual research behind Apple stores had included extensive analysis of hotel spaces, particularly those that create positive dynamic interaction with guests. I later heard a hotel executive express how important Apple stores had been in his own research to re-conceptualize hotel public spaces and to build their hotels awareness as user-friendly destinations. 

Whether we focus on the notion of brands as platforms, or whether we focus in understanding the levels of engagement and interaction that are required to create an appealing product, the reality is that successful branding strategies are the result of a multidimensional layering of experiences that, metaphorically, seek to make every interaction feel like an ever-lasting first kiss.

Creating a desirable product or service in today's dynamic market requires an understanding of how this layering applies to each business and to each industry. High-performance will increasingly come from selling "deeper" services or "stickier" products, or a combination of both. I like to think of the companies that achieve this as "super-brands". It a promise delivered even before payment is made. More than being desirable, these are products and services that are forever tempting.

Apple is an obvious super-brand, but in my dealings with the hospitality industry I have seen companies that are building similarly layered experiences. There are many lessons to learn from the way they are packaging their experiences, so I'll focus on two examples that I find intriguing. One is a hotel brand that seeks to offer broad yet authentic travel destinations, and the other is a retailer that aspires to harness the unique product attributes that hotels possess.

Under its current leadership, Starwood has successfully transitioned the hotel company from a property-centered business to a brand-centered business. With a wide range of experiences offered in its portfolio, which includes Sheraton, Westin, Aloft, Le Meriden, W Hotels, Luxury Collection and St Regis, the company has at its disposal a multi-generational, economically, geographically and aesthetically diverse product offering that provides the opportunity for long-term relationships with its customers, both at a corporate level as well as at a personal level.

It is also a brand that relies strongly on the value of contextual elements in a hotel stay, ensuring that even the shortest stay can be memorable. Starwood strives to provide each property with a story that starts before the arrival and continues after the departure. As an operator that relies on real estate developers in disparate settings, ensuring the fluidity of the experience is a problem that presents a particular set of challenges, but through a disciplined approach to the definition of standards for aesthetics and operations, the brand has been strengthening its delivery well beyond a basic awareness of an experience–centric product.

A manufacturing powerhouse, IKEA has impacted urban living environments in a very significant way. The layering of experiences in its product range includes the sense of economy, the commitment to being ecologically and socially minded, the appeal of a modern simplicity, the possibility of buying “living solutions”, and a sense of independence. A product that found its original competitive advantage in the efficiency of packaging has grown to become itself an efficient way of living, and in the process it deploys the basis for a consumer community: IKEA sells an ideal of Scandinavian culture and design at affordable prices, and provides enough opportunities for customization to keep open the opportunity for something unique.

Bigger Storage Ideas - Advertising Agency: Ogilvy Frankfurt, Germany

IKEA has recently announced its intention to move into the hospitality space. Interestingly, they do not have plans to furnish the hotels with their own furniture, but rather to apply the tenet of “good quality at a reasonable price.” Rather than offering the expected room-sets, Ikea is applying a new layer to the brand experience: to unify the philosophy behind the brand and expand the product base through sound company values. By expanding the brand within the same constellation and applying effective strategies of social media consolidation, IKEA activates the feedback loop that continues to enhance the super-brand.

1 comment:

  1. Unique and futuristic invention. Wonder if that thermostat is available for retail.