Lifestyle hotel brands. Is there such a thing?

Posted on May 30, 2010

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First of all, I want to stress that the term “Lifestyle brand” is coming dangerously close to becoming the most overly used and abused term in the English marketing language. Any product line, service provider or even a person which leads the consumer to feel that he or she belongs to a group or culture can be considered a lifestyle brand. It is overused and will soon lose its marketing substance.

It is known that hotel brands always have the strong desire to become lifestyle brands. That’s the ultimate goal. Marketers ultimate ideal. But saying it is not enough. Most of the time, the industry is using this terminology mostly as a PR tool to define a new product that combines the design sensibility and character of a boutique hotel with the marketing and operational advantages of a brand. Is that really what lifestyle is all about?

“Do you live an InterContinental life?”, “Are you Pan Pacific?”. Is there really a traveller who associates himself (or wish to be associated) to the InterContinental brand? What is that supposed to mean? What social statement am I making by staying in an InterContinental hotel? Obviously IHG is trying to make its main brand aspirational, but shouldn’t they start by making its product experience aspirational?

What Wikipedia has to say:

A lifestyle brand embodies the values and aspirations of a group or culture.
A successful lifestyle brand speaks to the core identity of its customers. Individuals each have their own sense of self, based on their background (e.g. ethnicity, social class, subculture, nationality, etc.).

Are you Pan Pacific?

Despite enormous marketing budgets spent on glossy magazines and fancy websites it is now very rare that guests will associate themselves to a hotel brand. Simply because nothing tangible, and unique to that brand, is proposed. And that is the core of the problem. While a lifestyle brand is supposed to talk to a well-defined group of people, hotel marketers will always try to talk to everyone possible by creating endless target segments that are not meant to co-exist. Just in case they can grab a few additional room nights…
There’s an old marketing saying that goes like this “Target everyone and you reach no one“. With a handful of exceptions, hotel concepts today are developed and marketed to make sure as little people as possible are excluded from the potential consumer base. That is precisely how a brand and a product become soulless. I have used InterContinental and Pan Pacific as examples but they are endless. The concept of focusing on a certain group of clients to create a clear product positioning and purposefully ignoring all the rest is simply not part of the hotel industry school of thought.

To my knowledge, only one brand really became a true lifestyle brand at one stage : Club Mediterranee (not called Club Med). In the 70’s Club Mediterranee was a way of life. During a period of profound societal change, one in which a large politically minded group of individuals, who on the whole were young and educated, sought to influence the status quo. The urge to ‘find oneself’ and the quest for autonomy were characterised by the changes towards sexual attitudes at the time. Club Mediterranee encapsulated all the beliefs and symbols that generation fought for. It is seen by many as having started the all-inclusive resort concept; sea, sex and sun. The idea was that the guests were taking part in a permanent festivity with no social barriers, in which all the burdens of life and fun were carried by the multiskilled Gentils Organisateurs (“nice organisers”). Sumptuous meals were taken at tables of eight to break down family groups, sport and evening entertainments were organised and usage of (physical) money was forbidden. Even when tents gave way to huts, and then hotels, the doors were never locked (adding to the Club’s early reputation as a happy hunting-ground for the sexually adventurous). Holidays were re-invented.

The now called Club Med has unfortunately lost his ability to create. To re-invent. To be at the forefront of the game. To be a leader. It is not a flaw that is specific to that brand but a illness that has spread over most of the industry.

And it is now precisely this inability to create unique branded concept and desirable experiences that consumers can associate themselves to, that creates an obvious opportunity for established brands to jump into the game. Brands that are already established and have the credibility to be a natural leader. And sought to influence the status quo.

Hard Rock Hotels around the world, Bulgari hotels in Milan and Bali, Swatch Art hotel in Beijing or the Armani hotel in Dubai.
All these brands are so familiar to anyone that we can almost picture how the hotel would look like and what kind of unique experience we will get before actually seeing it. It is totally opportunistic but almost a guaranteed success when thought through. And a big bowl of fresh air in an industry that is still trying to re-invent itself.
Established brands know who they are, what lifestyle they sell and who they talk to. They have all a very precise knowledge of their consumer base, it segmentation, what it aspires to, the necessary tone-of-voice and its decision making process.

National Geographic Resorts, Hotels R’ us, Oprah Hotels (for the modern ladies travellers), Hermes Retreats, Vogue hotels. Don’t jump off your sofa, I just made them up. But these “virtual brands” automatically speak to anyone before they even exist. Much more than Pan Pacific.

Successful lifestyle brands going after the hospitality industry is not motivated by a structured or integrated business strategy but more as an easy way to create additional revenue streams (royalties) and further expose their brands through modern or traditional PR. It creates value and creates an additional dimension to their lifestyle positioning.

Just think for few minutes about National Geographic Resorts. Knowledge, quality, credibility, respect of the environment, discovery, professionalism, exclusivity, off-the-beaten track, truth. Precisely what a savvy and well-travelled consumer base is looking for. The National Geographic brand has enough credibility across the globe to re-invent eco-friendly holidays. Creating such a brand from scratch would take decades.

I mentioned Club Mediterranee earlier, but the W hotels brand is another one that has been very well masterminded and carefully managed by Starwood over the past 10 years and should, if all goes well, make a long term mark. It has now grown to become associated with worldly and cosmopolitan lifestyle. In addition to overnight accommodation, W now offers a line of home furnishings, music collections, and custom-designed condominiums. They always stayed very loyal to their original DNA in everything they did. The next 3 years will be crucial though. A lot of management contracts have been signed by Starwood and we will soon know whether they are able to keep the brand under tight control and evolve it further or lose their soul.

Fabrice Burtin – May 2010

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