Branding Hospitality

It is a common knowledge that hospitality companies can enhance their market share and growth rates by increasing their brand loyality. This, in turn, can be achieved by introducing and continuing with customer-friendly schemes by the hospitality properties.

Brand loyalty of existing guests is crucial for hotels and other hospitality properties because acquiring new customers is expensive than serving current customers. Ashok Malkani takes a look at the current branding scenario and various facets of brand promotion for the hospitality industry, in the Indian context.

Building a brand is  an essential role of any reputed industrial house. Brand involves much more than a catchy slogan and/or a  memorable logo. Branding, according to experts, can increase the intrinstic value of the company concerned, can provide its employees with direction and motivation and can facilitate garnerning new customers.  

Today, it is easy to see why brands are more important than at any other time over the last century. Brands are psychology and science combined together and should reflect promise of a certain quality. Succinctly, it entails or rather should entail assured quality for the products coming under the brand. While products have life cycles, brands often outlive products.

If brand is here, can branding be far behind? The objectives of branding, to put it in a nutshell, are to build brand awareness, to create brand recall with a logo and an identity, to create brand loyalty, and to promote sales. These are very applicable for the hospitality industry too.

Branding in this post-modern age has evolved into a complex but necessary reality in the highly competitive marketing world. As far as the hospitality industry is concerned, an established brand perhaps becomes the most essential tool to communicate its vision, values and mission. In an era when hotel companies are buying each other and the home sharing experience has taken over the online marketplace, the number of brands only seems to be growing. Hospitality properties have begun using brand as a tool to differentiate themselves and make smart business decisions.

Marriott International Inc., which is starting a major integration programme after its acquisition of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, said it would look at bringing more global brands from the combined entity to India to raise its market share in India’s hospitality sector.

It may be recalled that the US-based hotel chain acquired Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide  for 13 billion USD, making it the largest hotel chain in the world with over 5,800 properties within its ambit, across more than 110 countries. Following the acquisition, Marriott, with around 18,500 rooms in India, overtook the Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces to become the country’s largest hotel company.

International hotel chains like Marriott, Carlson Rezidor and InterContinental Hotel Group are scaling up the number of properties in India by 2020, moving faster than their local rivals.

The Role of Branding

With increasing number of hotels in the Indian hospitality industry, brand promotion has become the order of the day.

Pankaj Wadhwa, Director of Sales & Marketing, Sofitel Mumbai BKC, declared, “In the competitive hospitality industry, setting your company apart is crucial for establishing a firm customer base. Branding is a central component and a powerful tool of an effective marketing strategy.”

“The purpose of branding is to help create an identity, which customers are expected to recognise. This identity should encourage them to return again and even recommend your business and services to others. Often hotels promote their brands with products like pillow mints, tea, and travel toiletries,” Pankaj stated.

 “The thing to remember in branding is that it must be consistent over time and across your entire business operations and marketing activities. Second, it is critical that you are aware of your target customers; and taking care of the smallest details to deliver the best of the product and services. Third, highlight the key differentiators of your brand as it attracts new customers and helps you retain them,” Pankaj observed.

“Branding is one of the most essential activities for the hospitality industry. It is the basis on which the entire sales team can lay their foundation on. Branding gives the product an identity; it gives the hospitality property a face!” asserted Alefiya Rashiq, Assistant Manager – Marketing and Communications, Marriott Suites Pune.

“Branding in hospitality should ensure that the value of a brand is created in the guests’ mind. Whenever a guest thinks of a brand name she/he should know what to expect out of it. For example, when someone thinks of Holiday Inn hotel they know that it will be a family-friendly hotel, their kids will have a great time and that it’s where they can do more of what they love. That is what branding does – it ensures that the guest knows what to expect out of a particular brand and creates a value for the brand,” averred Shipra Sumbly Kaul, General Manager, Holiday Inn Chennai OMR IT Expressway.

“The main objective of any branding is to differentiate your product from that of your competitor’s. This in the context of the hospitality industry, should make your guests feel that you stand out,” stated Shipra.

The standard of service provided should be the same across a given brand, which helps in building the brand image and to develop a brand personality.

“Branding of hotels helps in increasing guests’ loyalty to the hotels when you build a value and come up with benefits for your guests. For example, all the hotels under IHG follow a loyalty program called IHG Rewards Club. This is the first loyalty program introduced in the Indian hospitality industry in 1983, and is running strong even today,” aired Shipra while adding, “We also come up with special packages for our guests.”

“The remarkable growth of hotel branding rests on the concept that brands provide added value to both guests and hotel companies, in large part because they foster brand loyalty. Previously brand was identified of the elements that differentiated the goods and or service from the competition.  Today brand is a bit more complex, but even more important in today’s world of marketing. Brand not only can create loyal customers, but it can create loyal employees. It helps them understand the purpose of the organisation and its business,” affirmed Sujeet Kumar, General Manager, Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway.

“Brand awareness can give your business that ‘edge’ in making your customers aware of the extra value your company offers. Brand helps in differentiating a hotel’s product, which makes customers feel easy to recognise products of genuine producers. It helps in the promotional activities such as advertisement; personal selling, publicity, sales promotion etc. Branding contributes to the increase in prestige, personality and status of producers, distributors, customers, etc.”

According to him, paying attention to maintain quality of products with the given brand name is one of the main objectives of branding, the other being “increasing guest loyalty to brand or branded product.” “Value building of products is the other objective of branding. Branding also should promote the value of the products to the guests,” Sujeet stated.

Developing Brand Image

While a brand can mean several things to different people, how does one build a successful brand? This question assumes significant relevance in the context of Indian hospitality industry.

“These days, to promote a brand, a 360 degree approach has to be adopted, which includes engaging both traditional as well digital media,” stated Alefiya.

 “A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol, design or a combination of these elements intended to identify the products or services of a seller and differentiate them from the products and services of its competitors. A successful brand strategy uses various marketing principles and follows certain steps in order to achieve its objectives,” aired Pankaj.

“Branding by Sofitel Hotels & Resorts across the globe is governed by standards and guidelines issued by the AccorHotels’ head office in France. This ensures that the DNA, values and principles of the brand are consistently showcased through all properties,” he aired.

“The ethos and spirit of a brand, is a long-term creation that does not fade over time, if pursued rightly. Brands should reside in the mind of the consumer, and most brands compete for that space. It is very important to keep a brand consistent, active and alive to ensure its positioning.  At Sofitel Luxury hotels, we are known globally for our sense of the finer things in life, personalised service and our integration of local culture with French attributes. This is what our customers seek and this is what we deliver them,” asserted Pankaj. 

According to Alefiya, “The basic steps for creating a brand image are identification of the key target audience, market research, defining your key goals and key unique selling points, developing a marketing strategy, and working on the brand voice and message.”

 “If you want your enterprise to stand out in the business world, distinguishing itself from its competitors and carving out a niche in the industry, you need to have a cohesive plan for branding your business,” declared Sujeet.

“It requires careful planning and a lot of introspective thought about what makes your business special and what separates it from its rivals. Branding is all about fostering an identity for your company. The brand image consists of various associations in consumers’ mind, which include attributes and benefits. Brand attributes are the functional and mental connections with the brand that the customers have. They can be specific or conceptual. Brand attributes are consumers’ overall assessment of a brand. Benefits are the rationale for the purchase decision. There are three types of benefits: Functional benefits, emotional benefits, and rational benefits,” elaborated Sujeet further.

 “To promote any brand it is important to understand what you are catering to or who your target audience is. It is also important to know what your brand is all about and what do you want to communicate,” disclosed Shipra.

“Hotels use various methods to develop and maintain a brand’s image in the industry and research is a vital factor amongst the strategies. Any guest chooses a hotel or any other experiential service for variety of reasons – be it location, facilities, offers, loyalty programs and so on. Hotels have to first be sure that they are providing their target guests what they are looking for and this requires extensive research and understanding of guests’ needs,” analysed Shipra.

“Hotels also have to ensure that their product and offers are known in the market. If potential guests do not know about a service, they can’t make use of it. We make sure that the information of our hotel is easy to find and updated,” she pointed out further.

“Other than research and awareness, good relationship with guests is important to foster brand image. A guest is looking for a place where they feel comfortable. Not only does this create a word-of-mouth branding but also create a good base of loyal guests,” Shipra opined. 

One Group, Many Brands

There has been a crowding of hospitality brands in the country over the last decade, creating a proliferation of options for the travellers. While the number of brand names in the Indian hospitality industry has increased, the number of holding companies has decreased. The question that arises in an individual’s mind is why does one company has so many brands?

Pankaj claims that the reason for one holding company having several brands is to capture the breadth of the market. He stressed that reputed hospitality chains expand in each category to attract target customers for different price points. “The branding process in this case becomes all the more important as it is critical for customers to receive and understand pivotal insights on a brand and thereafter take a decision to choose their stay,” added Pankaj.

“Though several brands maybe part of the same hospitality group, each brand should have its own identity within the larger umbrella company,” observed Sujeet.

 “Hospitality groups have come to understand that there are different types of guests and every guest has different sets of needs. Hence, they came up with different brands to fulfill the needs of different sections or profiles of guests,” explained Shipra.

“For example, IHG has different brands under its roof such as InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, and Holiday Inn Express (amongst the brands present in India). The guest needs for all these brands are different. InterContinental caters to luxury segment, Crowne Plaza caters to business needs, Holiday Inn caters to family-friendly environment, and Holiday Inn Express is for smart travellers where they get everything they want and nothing they don’t,” she inferred.

“In terms of branding of these different brands of the same hospitality group, there are different standards and guidelines to be followed. Also, the messaging is different as the target group differs,” pointed out Shipra.

 “Several brands belong under one hospitality group for a simple reason. It enables the hospitality group to cater to a wide variety of guests, be it an upscale business traveller, or a family looking for an affordable leisure getaway. It increases the number of options available to a traveller, and he (or she) can make an informed decision as per his/her preferences,” asserted Alefiya.

“I may add that the number of hospitality brands in the Indian market will continue to increase; however, it doesn’t mean that the importance of an older brand will diminish. At the end of the day, the brand which understands the needs of its target audience and has cracked the right messaging will survive,” aired Alefiya. 

Brand Loyalty

With so much attention being paid to brands by the hospitality groups, one wonders whether the traveller goes out of his/her way to find accommodation in a hospitality property of a particular brand? How far is the concept of brand loyalty valid?

 “Guests prefer a hotel where they feel comfortable and at ease. They repeatedly visit the same hotel only because they have had made a connection with the product and the team. Any hotel’s team is the core reason why any guest prefers to visit the hotel more than once. If a guest is not treated well, he/she is not likely to return,” asserted Shipra.

“At Holiday Inn Chennai, we have had many occasions where we made connections with a guest and whenever they travel to Chennai, they prefer staying with us. This is especially true for long stay guests. We have become the preferred hotel in Chennai for many of our guests. They feel at home with us and they want to come back every time they are in Chennai as they appreciate the team’s efforts to make things comfortable for them,” she elaborated further.

 “Many of today’s travellers are ‘smart travellers’. They know exactly what they want while travelling. They also know their choices better and will ensure that they are met. These smart travellers will thus go out of their way to find accommodation in a brand that they prefer,” claimed Alefiya.

“As far as our hotel is concerned, I may mention that Marriott Suites Pune is an all-suite hotel, which offers all the luxuries of a personalised five-star stay experience through furnished and serviced suites.  Some of our guests who visit Pune for longer durations only prefer to stay with us owing to the ‘home away from home’ feeling and due to the variety of recreational and dining options that the hotel has to offer,” she disclosed.

“While we strive to build brand loyalty by offering various loyalty benefits, it is difficult to say whether a particular guest will or will not choose only our hotel chain,” observed Sujeet pragmatically.

Branding Strategies

So, what are the branding strategies that are adopted by hotels to get guest loyalty? “Branding strategies are different from hotel to hotel. It is however, based upon research, awareness and guest loyalty. All hospitality brands should come up with a particular offer or promotion post research and then ensure that awareness is created for the particular offer,” expressed Shipra.

“For rooms at Holiday Inn Chennai, our main focus is on corporate houses as the hotel is strategically located on the IT corridor of the city in Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) and it is easily accessible from most of the offices,” she added. 

“Even for food and beverage the hotel is conveniently situated for guests from city as well as for those who are headed to the tourist spots like Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. Hence, we came up with an offer for bikers called ‘Riders Breakfast.’ We have a healthy spread of breakfast for all and the interesting part is that guests can actually choose to weigh what they are eating and check the nutritional facts of each dish on the buffet. The Enfield, Harley Davidson and cycle riders get the buffet at a special price and also a parking spot at our porch for their vehicle,” Shipra informed.

“Similarly all hotels should come up with strategies as per their guest profile, location, etc.” aired Shipra.

 “In a situation where you are selling to multiple personalities, it is best to first connect everyone on a common ground then articulate clearly what is in it for each of them. The goal here is to stimulate an engaging conversation that allows us to change perceptions, diagnose expectations and bring clarity to the dialogue. It is only by defining your brand strategy that allows you to utilise marketing, advertising, public relations and social media to consistently and accurately reinforce your character,” remarked Sujeet.

“Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway defines its brand with its authenticity, the core purpose, vision, mission, position, values and character. Consistency in your message is the key to differentiate. Another factor is connecting on an emotional level. We need to provide our guests something that satisfies not only their physical needs but also their emotional needs and their need to identify themselves to a brand,” he affirmed.

“A well-managed brand always makes adjustments. Successful brands don’t cling to the old ways just because they have worked in the past; instead, they try to re-invent themselves by being flexible which frees them to be more savvy and creative. The market is always big enough for new players to improve on what you deliver,” Sujeet surmised.

Hotel Branding has Promise

The future of branded hotels also seems to be promising in India.  Not only there is a plethora of hotel brands floating in the Indian hospitality market, but many stand-alone independent hospitality properties in the country are coming under the ambit of branding.

“Many hotel brands are coming up recently and we expect many more to come. For example, IHG is also focusing on more Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express hotels as those are the preferred brands by most of our guests,” voiced Shipra.

“Social media is the way that people let others know how they feel about you. With guest reviews becoming a huge reality, you can also use them to promote your brand, keeping it foremost in the public’s consciousness through a constant presence on Facebook, Twitter, and all of the other popular social media sites. With advanced software comes better communication between managers, employees, and guests. Faster service means greater guest satisfaction. Using the technology intelligently can mean reduced lines at the reception desk, increased associate productivity, the ability to track guest preferences through their reviews, and less human error. However, no matter how efficient the technology, at the end of the day the guests want the human experience. And this experience, when handled wisely, marks the true spirit of hospitality,” Sujeet analysed.

 “Research data suggests that around 25 percent of the Indian hotel industry falls under the branded category unlike 40 percent in major developed economies. Owing to higher disposable incomes, deeper penetration of technology, greater awareness and reach, there has been a flight of customers from the unbranded hotel segment to the branded hotel segment, globally. Most major hotel chains like AccorHotels and other international hospitality chains have been aiming to capture this branded  segment and will continue to do so,” summed up Pankaj.

 

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