Soft Branding: The Answer to Everything?
By Laurence Bernstein Managing Partner, Protean Strategies | October 11, 2015
The new big thing in our industry is "soft branding" – a term that was invented, and is pretty much used exclusively by hotel companies. Facetiously we could say it was inevitable that after every possible brand idea had been executed (brands, sub brands, line extensions, full service brands, limited service brands, extended stay, resorts, clubs, timeshares, suites, lifestyle, boutique, lifestyle-boutique, boutique-lifestyle, and on and on), what could hotel marketers do next? The obvious answer: no brand brands!
As we said, this is facetious, but it does serve to make a point: to some extent the proliferation of hotels brands and types of hotel brands highlighted the need for unbranded, independent hotels. The better at branding the hotel companies became, the more "sophisticated" travelers started rejecting these brands: when there were only few Marriots outside the US, Marriott was a status brand; same for Holiday Inn, Hilton and Westin. But as they became more ubiquitous they lost the prestige (but not the reputation for quality and consistency, which is fundamental to brands for many travelers) and sophisticated brand rejecters from around the world became more and more interested in independent, unique hotels that reflected the destination.
There have always been affiliation groups such as Leading hotels, Preferred Hotels and others that provided services to independent (and small chain) owners that franchisees of major brands might have enjoyed: reservation systems, quality endorsement; positioning (…like the other hotels) and over time a certain (limited) amount of marketing help, online presence, etc. The critical point here is to understand that the genesis of these organizations was as a service to the hotel owners…not as a consumer focused branding business.
There were also always "Groups of Hotels", where a single owner centralized some management functions for a portfolio of unique hotels, and presented these hotels as (for instance) The Langham Edward Group of Hotels, or the Dorchester Collection. This is probably the prevalent model in Europe where smaller hotels have been banding together as a survival mechanism – to compete in an increasingly chain dominated environment.
But the idea of building non-chain chains based on a consumer centric proposition is fairly recent. An argument could be made that Starwood showed the way with the Luxury Collection. Certainly, the Luxury Collection demonstrated that it could be done – that great hotels could be marketed under a "soft" banner – but it is not a consumer driven brand as are the more recent entrants such as Autograph (by Marriott), Curio (by Hilton), BW Premier and a few others.
The key difference is The Luxury Collection is a rather jumbled collection of hotels around the world with nothing in common other than they are expensive and (in most cases) seem like hotels that are unlikely to have joined a Starwood brand! Later entries to the market have taken the concept of consumer centric branding and developed relevant, differentiated brands that serve the public well.