Why brands need the personal touch

Mark ChouekeSometime in the spring of 2006, while I was a reporter at Marketing Week, I met hotelier, Peter Gowers, for breakfast at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in New Bridge Street in the City. The InterContinental Hotel Group Asia Pacific boss was then IHG’s new global chief marketing officer and had invited me to hear about a planned new marketing strategy that he reckoned would turn traditional hotel marketing on its head.

Gowers’ message was that IHG was going to ‘ban the beige’. What did he mean? He meant that IHG, and probably others at the time, had spotted a trend forming – one that suggested it was folly to have a string of branded hotels across the world that all looked the same to the consumer. ‘Beige’ and ‘bland’, he said would be out. The beige dining rooms, beige carbon-copy bedrooms and large spacious lobbies that could form the entrance to any hotel in any world city would soon be history. Even then a plan was already in place, he said, to create unique hotels that operated under global corporate brands but that blended perfectly into their various locations, in terms of everything from the look and feel of each hotel, to the food and drinks served within.

Our cover feature (page 12) on the importance of ‘personalisation’ in the premium luxury hotel market demonstrates just how far IHG’s theory has come. Once travellers, both business and leisure, were only too happy to spend their money on hotel bookings based on their familiarity with a global brand’s hotels and thus ‘knowledge of what to expect’. Now, though, the largest hotel groups in the world are counting on the development of their boutique ranges, which offer unique experiences and ultra-personalised customer marketing communications, to mitigate the brutal effect of global recession on the hotel industry.

A profile of Ross Klein, the man who evolved Starwood’s W boutique brand before being poached by Hilton to head up its global luxury and lifestyle division, reveals his aims for Hilton’s new premium lifestyle brand, Denizen Hotels.

But there is crucial learning here for marketers in other sectors. The hotel industry is not the only one that will rely on personalisation to cut through the gloom and persuade potential spenders to trust again. Tailoring your offer to each and every one of your customers, and managing your data to allow you to do that effectively, will continue to increase in importance, even after the recession lifts.

Brands are already recognising this and reacting. News International has created a new department, Customer Direct. The newspaper group’s former marketing director Katie Vanneck has been appointed managing director of the new department. Responsibility for customer data and customer relationship management will be added to the duties of her previous role as interim managing director of digital and new business.

Elsewhere a coalition of business leaders, politicians and pension groups are hoping to turn the Post Office into a bank, arguing that the move would not only secure the organisation’s future but provide the long forgotten model of ‘relationship banking’ that people are crying out for.

When I met Gowers three years ago, the talk within the IHG group was of bringing an ‘FMCG/retail perspective’ to its marketing. That in itself was hardly surprising as by then Andy Cosslett, a former marketer at Cadbury Schweppes, had got his feet under the table as IHG chief executive.

That ‘retail is detail’ practice will now be applied to other sectors as customers demand personalised service for their money.

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