(Originally appeared in Inc Magazine as told to Bryan Elliott)
How does a massive brand like Marriott compete in the very competitive hospitality space with 30+ hospitality brands and disruptors like Airbnb? I asked Global Brand & Marketing Officer, Tina Edmundson and her video interview (below) is like a masterclass on brand marketing and segmentation. (YouTube interview below)
Born in Mumbai, Edmundson wasn't sure what sort of career she wanted to have. She studied finance and thought that would be her path but says she sort of fell into hospitality by accident. Her parents met working for an airline, so she says she always hoped to work in the travel space.
Nowadays, Edmundson oversees Marriott's international and experiential hotel brands. She also works in brand loyalty and marketing. She has worked hard to set a new industry standard for innovation and creativity in the luxury and lifestyle travel space and she makes it her goal to be sure that the brand resonates with the diverse population of travelers that visit each year. Edmundson is someone who literally works behind the brand for a company that is an absolute household name, so I wanted to hear her unique take on what makes a brand successful.
"Brands help consumers make decisions," she says. "And brands make a promise. The successful brands are the ones that deliver on that promise consistently. With my team, I say if you walk in, and you didn't look at the logo could you tell from your sensory elements what brand you're in. That really tells you whether you have a strong brand or not."
Case in point: Marriott Bonvoy is a branded umbrella over numerous hotel names you may be familiar with: Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, W Hotel, Edition, Sheraton, JW Marriott, Le Meridien, Westin, Renaissance, Marriott, Marriott Courtyard... the list goes on and on. According to Edmundson, "Bonvoy encompasses Marriott International's portfolio - including the largest collection of luxury properties, award-winning loyalty program, Homes & Villas by Marriott International, online retail shop with 13 branded boutiques, and access to endless experiences."
I've heard my mentor Seth Godin say that if you walk into any of the well-known hotel chains like Hyatt, Marriott, or Hilton, and you look at the surroundings and you don't know what hotel you're in then you have a logo not a brand. I ask Edmundson about how she feels about this, and her response is nuanced and intriguing.
"The role that the brand plays in the portfolio sort of defines what that experience is going to be. We do have brands that are much more appealing to a wider swath of the audience. When you have that--and this is true not just of Marriott but across many of the large-scale brands--it is much harder to produce a design that is very specific and that still has mass appeal, and that's where you get a little bit of the blur where you're like wait, where am I?"
Her argument is that the appeal of a hotel like Marriott is that it's appealing to all. It's pleasant, it's clean, the staff is friendly, the amenities are helpful... There may not be anything drastically unique about the experience but that's kind of what makes it a staple. It appeals and pleases the masses.
"Each brand plays a different role in the portfolio," she says. "There are brands that bring prestige to Marriott Bonvoy, primarily our luxury brands. I would argue that you could walk into an Edition [hotel] or W [hotel] today, not look at the logo and you would know where you are."
These hotels have more of a distinct vibe, she says, and I agree. I've walked into a W hotel and it's very different than walking into a standard Marriott. There is a distinct aesthetic, a soundscape, a scentscape, a definitive vibe. And when you're looking for that sort of luxury experience and the distinct, experiential quality of a place like the St. Regis, or the Ritz-Carlton is appreciated. It allows the traveler to choose the specific experience and luxurious amenities they're looking for.
On the other end of the spectrum, I tell Edmundson that when road tripping, if I have to make a last-minute stop, I always feel confident that if I can track down a Courtyard by Marriott, I know I'll have a quality night sleep in a clean, safe environment. It's not the extravagant experience you might get at the Ritz, but if you're in the middle of nowhere and you know you can find comfort, that's a luxury in and of itself.
"The promise is that you're going to have an excellent sleep," she says, of brands like Courtyard. "Because the mattresses are fantastic, the linens... everything that you want to make your trip successful. The people are going to be friendly and you're going to earn your Bonvoy points."
When it comes to the aesthetics of the different brands in the Marriott Bonvoy portfolio, I'm naturally curious about how it's done. During my time at the Renaissance in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, I'm struck by how the vibe of the hotel absolutely matches the vibe of the neighborhood. The hotel was accentuated by artistic pieces made of leather belts, and peacock feathers. I ask Edmundson about if her team designs this and she tells me about the process by which those peacock feathers found their way into my hotel.
"We provide what we call our design foundations," she says. "We've translated the positioning into what is a design strategy or design foundation. And we've given guidance to designers in a document of sorts, including mood boards and inspiration images to say this is what [the hotel] should be. And that includes functional things like how we think about lighting, how we think about color, but importantly, it includes emotional things about how we want guests to feel when they're there."
The importance of the feeling of staying in a nice room is an element of the branding that cannot be overlooked. There is something absolutely unique and special about staying in a hotel. It might be the clean white linens, or the friendly people who greet you when you arrive... Maybe even the convenience of ordering room service (I still don't understand why I have to pay $8 for a bottle of water from the mini fridge or an extra premium charge for decent Internet connection), but the feeling of staying in a hotel is a quintessential part of the guest experience.
The most successful hotel brands, or service brands are very particular about how they want their guests to feel. They know that anyone can put white sheets on their bed or eat a box of M&M's in their robe, that's not what makes a hotel stay unique. It's the vibe. The feeling of discovery around the local neighborhood and other amenities.
For some frequent travelers it's the convenience of a hotel stay itself. If you travel a lot for work and find yourself living out of a suitcase more often than you're living out of your dresser, it's a huge help to have access to a gym, or a conference room where meetings can take place, coffee shop, a store, even spa services or clothing stores. As Edmundson points out, these are not things you can get with the same ease while staying in an Airbnb.
So how does a brand like Marriott Bonvoy achieve this? How do they know how to appeal to each member of their audience? When you have 30 brands worldwide, and a clientele of millions, how do you know who you're branding for? And how do you do it?
"We look at the traveling audience," she says. "We look at demographics but more important we look at psychographics, and we say, if this is the universe of the traveling public and this is how we break down demographically and psychographically, then how do we stack our brand against those? So, an example is there could be an indulgent [demographic.] People that like to indulge, and you may have a brand in the... I'll use Moxy [as an example.] We design to psychographic, so I'll say [Moxy is for] the young at heart. So, the young at heart person who is indulgent and wants to sort of experience all of that stuff when they travel, we're designing for them. We design to a target consumer and if you're true to that, there are other consumers that are on the edges that will be attracted to it. But if you try to design for everyone you get a whole bunch of nothing. It doesn't mean anything to anyone."
It's an interesting idea when you think about it. It seems almost counter-intuitive to only brand yourself for a niche market. Aren't you losing out on clients and consumers if you can't appeal to everyone? But the niche-ness of branding is also what makes something feel special. It's what makes the consumer feel like it was tailor-made just for them. While a hotel like Moxy might not be the place for everyone, its target audience will feel like the experience is completely curated to their interests and desires.
When you think about these kinds of strategies and all of the brands that live under the Marriott Bonvoy umbrella it's incredible that someone like Edmundson and her team can manage what they're doing. On the high end of the spectrum with the luxury brands, they're branding for specific niche markets, so their clients feel special, on the lower end, they're branding to everyone. The more expensive commodity feels special to the target consumer and the less expensive commodity feels less special but also appeals to a wider audience.
I'm not paying $150 a night at a Courtyard Marriott to feel special or like the experience is curated. I'm paying it because it's a reasonable price to pay for a solid night sleep while on the road. By the same token, if I'm paying $400 a night to stay at the St. Regis, I want to feel like that experience is made for me and only me.
I ask Edmundson what advice she would give to anyone who is building a brand or working with branding and the very first piece of advice she offers is to be a good listener.
"Listening is a really important piece of [branding]," she says. "Really getting a three-sixty-degree understanding of the marketplace and the role of your product in the marketplace I think is really important. Study the competition. Where are they? What is the white space? What can you do better because you have some intrinsic advantage that nobody else has? Or something that is hard for others to replicate, because you have this sort of in-build advantage. And then really lean in on that. I think those things really sort of set you up to be differentiated and to protect your space a little bit. Build a moat around you."