Hotel Branding: Aim For Intelligence

Molly Sunderdick

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The concept behind the Holiday Inn Express brand certainly should be “smart. ” Customers are supposed to feel an increased sense of intelligence after staying at Holiday Inn Express because they have recognized and capitalized upon good quality for a great price. With the reputation of Holiday Inn’s quality for reasonable prices backing the brand, Holiday Inn Express should have a win-win status in the mindset of the consumer and should also boost the efficacy of the Holiday Inn parent brand. Does the current messaging for Holiday Inn Express accomplish this status? We think not.

Many brands use messaging that makes the customer feel smart and as though he has made the right choice. Wal*Mart and Target are examples of brands that ensure the customer that if he shops at their stores; he is avoiding the embarrassment of overpaying and not finding what he wants/needs. Customers not only like to know that their purchases matter; they like to know that their choices matter. Brands that give customers real affirmation that they have “done the smartest thing” will succeed. This affirmation must be evident through effective brand execution, which also includes marketing and advertising. The message must be both clear to the customer and clearly shown by the brand.

Does Holiday Inn Express have a sure-fire brand message? Yes. Does Holiday Inn Express convey and execute this message properly? According to our brand model at Stealing Share, it comes up a short. In fact, if you read how the “Stay Smart” campaign began, the brand is more superficial than it even appears. According to customer questionnaires conducted before the campaign, the two reasons why customers felt more savvy for staying at an HIE were free breakfast and free local calls. Perhaps these two elements created a little more of an advantage for HIE over other limited-service establishments, but these kind of table stakes are not what fuels real brand. Clearly the right questions were not asked. The customer’s connection to the brand should go deeper than cinnamon rolls.

Furthermore, the commercials for the “Stay Smart” campaign contribute to the shallow continuum of brand execution for HIE. For example, one commercial opens on a group of scientists hovering around a microscope, observing a strain of the Ebola virus. The man standing in front of the microscope explains the characteristics of the virus and proceeds to knock the sample off of the table, assuring the group that it was not airborne. When his colleague asks him how long he has been studying the virus, the man responds, “Well, I’m not actually a scientist. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. ”

Several other commercials followed in a similar pattern. One commercial showed a man who had not graduated past the seventh grade winning Jeopardy because he stayed in a HIE the night before. While the commercials are humorous and borderline ridiculous, they demonstrate a rather narrow interpretation of the brand. Although the commercials are effective for short-term brand awareness and recognition, this brand execution is overall unsatisfactory because the customer will not consider the brand a serious option. If anything, the brand has become more of a joke among consumers because of the blatantly ignorant people portrayed as customers in the commercials. The brandface, or the customer’s perception of himself when he uses the brand, is not one of intelligence. In fact this brandface mocks intelligence rather than reinforcing it. This failure to execute is more at the fault of brand management than advertising creation. Unfortunately, in all industries, one directly influences the other.

Humorous commercials are memorable and entertaining, but does the brand directly reflect the customer and benefit from this type of execution? In the case of Holiday Inn Express, we argue against this method. The brand execution began with category benefits rather than the belief systems of the customers. The advertising had to rely upon a general campaign focus of “Stay Smart” without knowing what being smart really meant to the target audience. In order to correct this problem, Holiday Inn Express would need to take a few steps back, observe what their customers want/need from their brand and challenge their brand to accommodate these expectations. They would need to get a full outside-in perspective from the market.

The “Stay Smart” campaign was effective in getting HIE’s name out in the market, but that is where the effectiveness remains. Real brand success goes beyond the reiteration of a funny punch line. The “Stay Smart” messaging does not reinforce the brand as a tangible option for the customer. The humor, in this case, actually creates distance between the brand and the customer.

Overall, Holiday Inn is all about quality for a sensible price, and Holiday Inn Express can make that message work as well. Holiday Inn Express needs to convey this message with a little more honesty and customer perspective in order to own real estate in the mind of the customer looking for reasonable hotel accommodations. In short, “smart” needs to be more about intelligence of the customer than the cleverness of the business and its agency.

Molly Sunderdick
Brand Strategist
Stealing Share, Inc


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