The brands are coming! Their arrival has been evident in our supermarkets and on the main streets of our towns and cities for some time now. It started as a trickle, led by the makers and the retailers of consumer goods, but it has more recently become a fast moving torrent that races headlong through almost every business and walk of life. In certain respects, it has come later to the hospitality world than to many others but now that it has arrived it is clearly planning to stay.
Make for the high ground! For many in the industry, it is something to be viewed uneasily as it threatens to burst its banks and overwhelm everything that stands in its way. Others are out constructing canals and reservoirs. For us, branding offers something new and exciting; a fresh flow of ideas that will bring renewed direction and vigour to our business.
So, to brand or not to brand? This is just one of the questions facing Irish business owners in 2003 as we regard the landscape and consider our choices.
Any unease that we may feel in the matter is readily understood. The B-word has been bandied about a great deal during the last few years and has been blamed (most famously in Naomi Klein’s recent book No Logo) for some of the worst excesses of globalisation. It is often presented as invasive, almost colonial, in its intent, something that we are particularly sensitive to on this island. (Ironically perhaps, two of the more prolific brands sweeping hospitality in the UK – Jury’s Inns and O’Brien’s Sandwich Bars - are Irish).
Branding too is often associated with a cookie cutter approach to business and thanks to the efforts of brands such as the global burger chains it can seem to offer only faceless uniformity and hopeless mechanical repetition (albeit whilst helping to deliver huge profits).
Smoke and mirrors! At times, it can seem to be nothing more than a navel- gazing exercise that promises much and delivers little, or at least little of any substance.
Finally, our unease probably owes a great deal to our native resistance to some of the worst excesses of marketing-speak, particularly that which has its origins on Madison Avenue. For some of us, the recent fuss about brand culture seems to provide yet more evidence of US-style marketing gone mad.
Brand As Opportunity
But branding is too valuable a tool to be dismissed out of hand. It is vital to the good management of reputation and relationships. Consider any of the great businesses – including the independents and the family-owned - and you will see a great brand at work. The great business leaders use it intuitively and unselfconsciously. Like all tools, it can be pressed into service in a variety of ways. Used properly, branding offers a business the opportunity to marshal its resources, play to its strengths and gain significant competitive advantage.
It is a tool that can be used to great effect in those areas where it is difficult to offer something truly distinctive and influence choice. We have seen how brands such as Kelly’s of Rosslare and Derry Clarke’s L’Ecrivain can offer their owners the opportunity to own a niche in a fiercely competitive market. For businesses operating in hospitality and tourism branding offers a powerful way forward.
Brand Influencing Choice
As we have seen, during these past ten years, the hospitality and tourism landscape in which hotels and restaurants operate has changed almost beyond recognition. These years have seen huge growth, both in terms of market size and choice, and this growth has been matched by considerable investment at all levels.
As a result, we can truly say that the customer is spoiled for choice. At the same time, recent events internationally and at home have contributed to a falling market (although certain parts of that market, e. g. the leisure break, have typically remained strong). In the current climate, hotels and restaurants in Ireland are now faced both with opportunities for further growth and with significant challenges to that growth.
Where the customer is spoiled for choice, many of the features and benefits that are on offer are no longer influential. In a market where there are few functional differences between products or services, the customer choice is driven largely by emotional factors. What you do has become less important, it merely brings you into play. What increasingly influences choice are the values that drive your business, in other words, who you are, what you stand for and how you deliver.
And yet, for many hotels and restaurants, product features and functional benefits continue to provide the basis for all marketing and communications.
Say something! Anything! Think of the rash of advertisements and directories where hotels and restaurants slavishly list the central location, the number of rooms, the genuine hospitality and the fusion cuisine that fail to distinguish one offer from the next.
Clearly, something extra is required in order to gain competitive advantage. A distinct and well-defined identity gives a business something significant to say to the market whilst providing a clear blueprint for the development of all communications.
Brand Driving Strategy
Branding as an activity is seen principally in marketing and communications but its effect is soon felt throughout the business. In addition to giving a business something to say about itself, the identity of a business provides it with both purpose and direction.
In order to successfully make any business stronger than the sum of its parts, it is vital that the organisation support and direct its business and management strategy through the development of a strong brand identity that enables it to establish a clear, compelling and competitive presence in the marketplace.
In business people buy people and good business management is primarily concerned with the effective management of business reputation and relationships. This is especially true of hotels and restaurants.
At the same time, the business identity enables the team to accurately reflect the long-term goals of the business (particularly in terms of positioning and behaviour) whilst helping to drive the business strategy to achieve those goals.
Central to this role for the brand (and to the strategic and management decisions that this prompts) is the requirement for a robust brand model that enables the business to manage the identity and which is able to withstand the wide range of demands that are being made on it by the various business functions.
Active management of the identity using a brand model or framework enables the business to make a clear statement of intent and focuses all effort on the achievement of business goals in a consistent and credible way. It also delivers economies of money, time and effort as it streamlines decision-making throughout the business.
Brand Delivering Benefits
What then does branding deliver to the hotel or restaurant business?
- It enables the business to build its reputation, manage its relationships (especially its relationships with its customers) and play to its strengths.
- It levels the playing field. One of the beauties of brand development is that the small business is at least as well equipped as the national or global chain to build and maintain reputation and relationships (albeit at a more modest level).
- It provides a guiding principle and organising framework for the business and takes the guesswork out of business decisions relating to relationship management and communications.
- It allows business owners to make a clear statement of intent with regard to their business direction and behaviour. It offers a common language for the business team and a means by which they can readily describe what they do and what makes them different.
- It enables a business to lead through its values and enables business owners to trust to the intuitive leadership that distinguishes many of the great businesses.
- It makes for fresh and compelling communications that engage the customer and provide a basis for long term business relationships.
- Finally, and most importantly, it helps a business to identify its market, carve out a territory for itself that it can own and defend, and enables it to establish genuine and sustainable competitive advantage.
Gerard Tannam is the founding Managing Director of Islandbridge Brand Development. He delivers brand direction, planning and communications across a wide range of sectors including property development, retail, hospitality and tourism.