Understanding and Profiting from Emotional Factors Behind Hotel Brand Loyalty
By Laurence Bernstein Managing Partner, Protean Strategies | July 07, 2013
In the past 5 or 10 years we have, thanks to the work of neuro-scientists, neuro-marketers and behavioral economists, learned a lot about why people demonstrate "loyalty" to a brand or a specific product, and it's complicated. I will not even attempt to explain it, but suggest, if you are really interested, you read Douglas van Praet's brilliant book, "Unconscious Branding"(1).
Van Praet highlights the fact that brand attachment, which results in customer loyalty, is based on deeply ingrained needs controlled by primal needs for survival, operating from the deepest, darkest parts of our brains. "Brands are learned behaviors: unconscious automatic intelligence acquired through experience", and brand simplify our lives "by generating choices and action without requiring us to think."
In a way the idea that our hotel brand is successful because it enables customers to avoid thinking, might be anathema to many hoteliers. After all, with all the time, money and energy we devote to building brands, the least we can expect is our customers have to think about us. But the fact is, the stronger the brand, the less they think about it.
The most loyal customers to the strongest brands simply don't think about it: buying the brand (or, in our case, staying in our hotel) is simply what they do. I can recall a number of years ago, doing extensive brand work for General Motors: at that time, there was a sizable part of the population that bought GM cars because...well, because they bought GM cars. Always had. Their parents always had. There was no reason to think about this. It just was (of course, the behavior of that brand subsequently broke that deeply engrained bond and we all know what happened to them).
We see this happening in our industry, but not very often. There was a time when Americans travelling in Europe would say: "If there's a Hilton in the city, that's where I'll stay," without questioning the decision. But, as with General Motors, that deep relationship changed as more hotels came into the market and the primal safety and security that Hilton once uniquely promised, became the norm. The primal allegiance moved from the specific brand (Hilton) to a broader category ("American Style Hotels"). Other broader categories have emerged (such as lifestyle hotels that emerged from W). Perhaps the only hotel brand that has maintained the "without thinking about" position is Four Seasons, which has a large customer base that will stay at the Four Seasons if there is one in the market.
Neither Hilton in the 50s and 60s, nor Four Seasons today, had or have loyalty programs. By focusing on a functional benefit (points, rewards, etc.) loyalty programs take people out of their deep, inner reverie and make them think about the choice. They are forced to evaluate options; and the very act of thinking about the choice, negates the depth of brand engagement (not thinking about it).