The State of Brand
By Bonnie Knutson Professor, The School of Hospitality Business/MSU | December 13, 2015
I had a wonderful professor in my undergraduate days who used to say that communication is shared meaning. Our language – no matter which one we speak – is supposed to clarify meaning so that we are all on the same page. But it doesn't always work that way. Especially over time. Meanings change and different people begin to use the same word to mean completely different things. Take, for example, the word gay, which has morphed from the old English Christmas carol ringing out, "don we now our gay apparel…fa la la, fa la la, la la la" to being "attracted to someone of the same gender." What about the name of the French capital, Paris? It has mutated from a city that was liberated in World War II to a first name that is followed by the last name of Hilton. Have you ever asked kids to clean up their bedrooms? Their definition of cleaning is to push everything in sight either under the bed or shove it in a closet and slam the door shut. I guarantee that isn't what you mean when you sent them marching off for the cleaning task. And, of course, any teenager will tell you that "bad is good." And being "cool," well, that certainly doesn't mean that you need a jacket anymore.
Brand is also a word that has changed over time. So the question becomes, what does brand mean today and what does that mean for your hotel. If that seems overly simplified, think of this: I Googled "definition of brand" the other day and got 168 million hits. Yikes! If we are to understand the relationship between hotels and today's branding strategies, we need to remember the admonishment of my old college professor and make sure we are all on the same page when it comes to defining the term.
The word brand came down from the Ancient Norse word brandr which means "to burn." So while the notion of brands and branding began in ancient times, it was popularized in the American West where ranchers would mark their cattle with fire-heated irons so they could tell which animals were theirs. Fast forward to the 19th century when the rise of the industrial revolution led to mass production of products and a wider shipment of goods. Companies began putting their mark on their products so consumers would know more about them it as well as their source. Over time, a brand evolved into a symbol of a product's quality, rather than just who produced it. Fast forward again to the latter part of the 20th century when marketers began to understand that a brand had come to mean more than just a mark of which products were theirs or even a symbol of quality. They began to appreciate the fact that a brand is really an image and that marketers could "position" a crafted perception of that image in the consumer's mind. The perception of your hotel's brand, then, is the reality of your hotel's brand to its guests, prospective guests, and community. In other words, your hotel's brand exists only in the minds of consumers. It is that old adage of Perception is Reality.
To really grasp the State of Brand today, we have to first understand what a brand is not. A brand isn't a logo, a name, marketing, advertising, or strategy. Nor is it the design of your lounge, the quality of the mattress, or even the number of break out rooms available for a conference. Rather, a brand is "the sum of all perceptions about a product, service, or company, built through experiences and communications…creating a set of expectations between that brand and its customers/consumers." Said another way, a brand is simply how people feel about it. How do your guests feel about your hotel? That's usually a tough question for you or for them to answer because, for most people, it is hard to put feelings into words. When working with hotels to enhance their branding efforts, there are two tools I always use to help me gauge consumers' feelings – i.e. that emotional bond between the guest and the hotel brand.
The first tool is simply a two-part question: "If you could describe this hotel by an animal (or car or cereal), what would that animal be?" This is followed by "Why?" You are not really interested in the actual animal itself, although some of their choices can give you more pause or more chuckles than others, but rather you are interested in the "why." Because it is the "why" that yields insights into the consumers' feelings about your hotel brand.
The second tool involves listening to how guests refer to your hotel. Do they say I'm going to "my" hotel or I'm going to "the" hotel? There is a big difference. And their choice of adjective gives insights into the strength of their brand attachment because the "my" becomes a surrogate nickname for your hotel. Interestingly, marketers see that when customers start referring to a brand by something other than its actual brand name, it is an indicator that the brand relationship is growing stronger. Think about people you know who have been given nicknames by friends and family. They are signs of affection and closeness. Now think about brands that have been given nicknames by consumers. "Micky D's." "B-Dubs." "Tar-je." "Vicky's." They are signs of a strong brand and a strong consumer bond too.