ITB 2024 Special Reporting
Brand Building Made More Difficult.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Sunday, 28th June 2009
With the power shifting to the consumers, how do companies balance the courage of their own conviction with the wisdom of the crowd? Yeoh Siew Hoon gets stuck into the branding debate.

It's never been harder to build a brand these days, I reckon.

In the days of "Mad Men", the television series, men in suits sat in a room, smoking cigarettes, made sexist remarks, "brainstormed" and voila, out came THE big idea. Today, everyone has ideas and they are free to express them, whenever, wherever and however.

A brand loyalist? Do what business traveler Rob Safuto did he set up a blog called The Red Room Chronicles to dissect "Marriott hotels one at a time" in July 2005. "My goal here is to provide people with information about the various Marriott hotels that I encounter during my travels, be it for business or leisure purposes," he says on the website.

So good or bad, his postings came in regularly until last November. Safuto, like most business travelers, got grounded. He said, "Times have changed and now I rarely travel. So I really don't have anything to write about. I will be off the road for the foreseeable future. That's a good thing since I get to spend more time with my family."

There is a site called Fanpop ( www.fanpop.com ), a network for fans of almost everything where fans express anything on everything.

Truth is, a brand story now belongs to everybody. As Morris Sim, CEO of Circos.com, which provides the Brand Karma service to hotels, brand storytelling has become increasingly fragmented. "The number of channels, the new distribution channels it's become harder and harder for a brand to effectively communicate all its messages."

Brand Karma tracks and analyses social media for hotel clients and tries to help hotels close the gap between their brand aspiration and what customers are really saying about them online.

Sim's data tells him there is a divide between aspiration and what customers are saying. "Sometimes hotels miss the obvious. They may aspire to be something grand makes for beautiful advertisements but all their customers keep raving about is their location."

So just as hotels have struggled for years to achieve rate parity or rate integrity, whichever it may be, across all channels, they are now struggling for brand parity telling the same story with credibility and relevance across all channels.

Both agreed that branding today has to blend the old ways with the new wave. Essentially, the idea behind brand building is the same find a good story and stick to it; it's the how that's changed with the new tools and channels that are available how to tell the story consistently and creatively across the many platforms.

The challenge though is balancing the courage of your own convictions with the wisdom of the crowd.

Karthik Siva, chairman of the Global Brand Forum and who ran strategy for Ogilvy & Mather for several years, is someone who veers on the side of conviction. He believes a brand has to stand for something, otherwise it stands for nothing.

That means having your own vision and setting your own direction and, yes, it does involve customer feedback but up to a point. "If you listen to everybody, you get confused. It is hard to pick up nuances in the mass chatter that's going on. Truth is more powerful than fact and one should qualify before one quantifies," said Karthik.

To Karthik, a brand has two aspects one which is immutable and the other which is fad. "The immutable can change maybe twice in 100 years. Coca-cola is about celebration. Apple is about the individual. A brand has to stay rooted to its immutable values but it has to be extremely aware of the fads and fit the fads into the values, and not the other way round."

You could argue the current fad is about price discounting given the proliferation of price cuts that's going on in the travel industry.

Karthik argues that you will not be forced to compete like that if you know what your brand stands for. "When you do something that is against the brand, you send the message that you are not confident. Hermes wouldn't have a sale, it sends shivers among your loyalists."

Sim disagrees, saying brands have to be realistic about competing in the current marketplace. "They have set pricing relative to the market. In a way, it's also a sign of confidence in the brand. To maintain pricing when everyone else is cutting can be seen as arrogant."

Karthik said it was harder for hotel companies, luxury or otherwise, to stick to their positioning because there's no differentiation between brands. "When you don't stand out as a brand or know what you stand for, there is no choice but to compete on price."

He cited Singapore's Hotel 81, a budget brand, as a company that knows what it stands for, and Club Med as another.

Both however agree that companies who invest in their brand experience will come out strongest post-recession than those who have cut costs and service and by so doing, cut their own throats.

Continuing their thread of discussion on which brands stood out most, Sim cited Coca-Cola and The Jeep as two brands that personified Americana. Karthik singled out Singapore Airlines, Raffles Hotel and Temasek as Singapore stand-out brands.

As for China, he said, "China is a market of big companies but small brands."

Note: Morris Sim and Karthik Siva were speaking at a panel discussion on branding at the Asia Luxury Travel Market in Shanghai in June.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com

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