The five years leading up to 2017 were good years for the hotel industry. Consumer confidence, corporate spending, and travel spending increased following the recession. Demand of hotel rooms exceeded supply. Room rates and profitability rose. The industry outperformed the broader economy. Great news!
A mature, yet evolving, industry
But when it comes to business, rising tides do not always raise all boats. And often the case in mature industries such as the hotel industry, competition is unrelenting. Consumers have nearly unlimited options of hotel brands to choose from. And, though the traditional hotel industry is mature, the broader travel and lodging industry is nothing but. Travelers can now ditch hotel brands altogether and choose options like AirBNB for leisure (and now business) travel. This is particularly important when thinking about millennials who have been accused of rejecting big brands for alternatives. Consumers are only one (albeit important) part of the equation – success in this industry requires brands to also deliver value to investors, developers, and the communities where they operate. It’s a steep hill to climb for a hotel company to break from the pack. It’s Tru. Just ask Hilton.
An undifferentiated, midscale segment
Hilton saw an opportunity to climb that steep hill and revolutionize the midscale segment. The iconic hotel company estimated that 40% of guest stays in the U.S. were in economy and midscale hotels. Hilton also estimated a significant percentage of its own loyalty program members used midscale and economy brands. Yet, Hilton did not have a hotel at that price point: Hilton’s Hampton brand had risen upmarket, leaving a gap in its portfolio and room to explore a new opportunity in a very crowded, often uninspired, midscale market. Despite all the brands and “choices,” in reality there were few options for consumers to satisfy what mattered most. Experiences across brands were uncertain, design had been lackluster, and there was nothing special about features or amenities. Together with Hilton, we called this the sea of sameness. And then we set out to help Hilton disrupt the category.
CREATING A BRAND:
Hotel brand positioning from the ground up
We recommend using smart research to gain insights that fuel strategic bets (you can read more in our paper Making Brand Research Work). And that’s what we did with Hilton. We did tons of research. Qualitative. Rigorous quantitative. Internal. External. Focus groups. Ethnography. Of course, quantity isn’t always a driver of true success. But quality is. We used advanced research methods to test brand positioning concepts against KPIs like stay intent, uniqueness and value perception. We studied language likes and dislikes, names and logo concepts, messaging, breakfast preferences, customer segments, and customer experience game changers. Our research was underscored with models and analysis that uncovered true intent and perceptions (hint: people don’t always know their own true drivers). Ultimately, we helped Hilton define and position a unique travel experience with Tru – simplified, spirited, and grounded in value – for the young-at-heart leisure or business traveler.
CRAFTING A BRAND IDENTITY:
Bringing a hotel brand to life
Creating a brand strategy and positioning grounded in research is not a small task. And, bringing a brand to life from the ground up (quite literally) is an even more daunting task. We helped bring Tru to life keeping a few guiding principles in mind: use evidence-based decision making whenever possible, use creativity to drive change and steer clear of the sea of sameness, and use Tru brand pillars to drive each and every decision. Is it simplified? Is it spirited? Is it grounded in value?
Fact. We did not choose the most highly ranked logo, per se. And, we conducted much of our look and feel research further along in
the process. Surprised? We hope not, this was intentional. We recommend research that goes beyond surface level insights, but we also balance art and science to inform recommendations. We conducted collaborative workshops to build logo and visual identity options that were grounded in our early positioning research, carrying through findings and brand positioning strategy – organically. We used research to validate and strengthen a visual direction (appealing to both Millennials and Boomers, part of the business strategy), which is why it was sequenced later in the process. For example, photography was tested to identify images that would resonate best with consumers. For the logo, Tru used data to understand baseline and industry insights. Then, they layered instinct on top of data to choose the right logo solution for them. Science, and Art. It’s not intuitive to build strategically focused and research-informed creative. Some creative is just, well, creative. But, we aim for strategic creative with each and every client, including Tru.
In the end, the circular Tru logo was chosen in part because it was unique in the category (and also unique within the Hilton portfolio itself, building differentiation into its DNA), it defined a shape Tru could own and use to make an immediate impact across the visual system, and it mirrored a key architectural element of Tru: the circular hub inside the lobby for check-in, food, information, and more.
The visual design ditched the ubiquitous slice of life imagery typical in the category. And, since no hotels were built, we used that constraint as an opportunity – and built a simple, bold and graphic style that was up close, personal, and truly differentiating in the segment. Something Happy. Fun. And, Energetic.
Messaging and Brand Voice
Say. Wut? In our quest to disrupt the midscale segment, we needed to consider a brand voice and messaging that was differentiating and embraced Tru’s brand pillars (hint: we recommend using brand pillars to guide everything you say and everything you do about your brand). To achieve this, we helped Tru create a brand voice and messaging hierarchy that would define its revolutionary-ness. Something really game changing. But really simple too. We said that other brands talked, so Tru would sing. Working from this idea, we defined a voice that is minimal yet meaningful, inspires a smile, and is conversational. We further defined Tru’s voice by creating adaptions to resonate with different segments in precisely the right way, based on our research findings about their needs and preferences. Then, we created a language comprising three letter “pop dots.” (some examples include Hey. You., Hot. Air., and Tru. Dif. for Tru’s CSR program). Tru’s unique voice is the foundation of the brand’s messaging and communications that breaks through the clutter, resonates with the desired audience, and solidifies the brand’s reputation as a distinctively Tru game changer.
BUILDING A BRAND EXPERIENCE:
Designing the guest stay
Blank white canvas. That’s what Tru started with when considering every aspect of the guest experience. Tru set out to create a simplified and spirited experience that would stand out in the midscale hotel market. Each hotel offering, program and feature was considered using that lens. That includes a huge, modern lobby with four zones to lounge, eat, work and play and a build-your-own breakfast toppings bar unlike anything in the midscale space. Another example: sound-insulated cubbies so guests can work and still be social in the work space. To bring programs and features to life and deliver a guest experience, Tru also built in a culture that is full of life. All purposefully value-engineered using customer insights and predictive modeling to ensure Tru would be a more than just a place to go through, but a Tru travel experience.
Ensuring delivery on the promise
We recommend including employees and stakeholders early in a branding project, big or small. We do this so we have the greatest chance of gaining their buy-in, and we engage them emotionally and intellectually while having fun and making the brand a magnet they are drawn to, vested in, and excited to bring to life (read our blog post about Brand Internalization and Operationalization for more). We see success with this across clients, and we did with Tru. After determining how to communicate to team members using existing and new channels (without overwhelming them), we engaged them with pre-launch teasers, a brand launch, and planned ongoing tactics to keep the brand front and center as a filter for decision-making moving forward. For Tru it was even more important to start early so team members were ready for the brand’s launch. Fun fact. Our invitation to team members to submit two-word combinations for “Pop. Dots.” to be used in hotel branding received thousands of submissions. This was a remarkable promotion that engaged team members, garnered excitement, provided content to use in Tru’s branding, and was extremely cost effective. Building excitement and awareness for the brand launch was a first step in engaging Tru’s Team Members. We further defined brand behaviors that they would use as guides to bring the brand to life and deliver Tru’s brand promise to guests through their hospitality and daily interactions.
Hilton’s journey in developing Tru was fast and furious. Bringing a brand to life should be. The speed did not stop with the concept and brand, however. Thanks to a remarkable brand team, Tru’s first grand opening happened only 16 months after the brand concept was finalized and launched. Tru continues to break records: it is the fastest growing brand in Hilton’s history (based on planned openings) and it has achieved record development deals since it launched. At time of writing, Tru has deals to open in nearly all 48 states in the continental U.S.
The best has yet to come, and we’re excited to see Tru’s brand come to life as hotels begin to open and provide truly unique travel experiences for the young-at-heart business and leisure travelers.