At the beginning of last year, Hotels.com was growing strongly in multiple markets around the world, yet it lacked a cohesive global brand identity. While in its home market, the US, the company logo was solid, bold and red, in the rest of the world it was a soft, handwritten font on a yellow background.
Chief marketing officer Nigel Pocklington decided these dual identities were undermining the company’s global positioning and that the brand had to consolidate under a single identity. It was this which heralded his decision to oversee what he calls a “branding kit relaunch” last spring – a template for how an international company can bring brand consistency to diverse global operations.
Although Hotels.com has tailored websites for more than 80 countries and territories across the world, the brand’s core identity has always played on its American heritage. The company began life in 1991 as the Hotel Reservations Network, a telephone reservation service based in Dallas. Its move online came in the mid-90s when the company’s founders realised the potential of the worldwide web and had the foresight to splash out $9m on the URL Hotels.com.
As the company grew across the US, it developed an all-American brand identity based on a blocky red logo and cartoon hotel porter called Benny. Yet by 2006, the company’s international presence was still relatively small. It was then that Hotels.com decided to separate its North American and overseas businesses in order to help the latter flourish.
Pocklington explains: “Every time we wanted to change something on the French website it had to join a queue in Dallas, and it was at the back because it was a much smaller business.
“So we took the decision to separate the consumer-facing websites for the North American and international businesses, and once we’d made the decision we could also separate our brand and identity, to achieve something with a bit more resonance for European consumers.”
Wake Up Happy
The company hired branding agency Lambie-Nairn to produce the new international brand identity. The aim was to create a softer, more approachable identity for other countries. The result was an informal, calligraphic logo against a yellow background and the new strapline Wake Up Happy, replacing the Benny character.
“The idea was that in a very functional, rather cold world of online booking agents where most people use the colour blue, we could stand out by positioning ourselves as a warmer, friendlier brand,” says Pocklington.
This international relaunch, combined with the growing popularity of price comparison sites, resulted in a major expansion of Hotels.com’s presence overseas. Pocklington says the business has been one of the fastest growing parts of its parent group Expedia in recent years, due in large part to its growth outside the US.
By 2011, though, the brand strategy had come full circle. Having facilitated growth around the world, it was no longer suitable for the international identity to stand separate from the branding of Hotels.com’s US operations.
Pocklington points out that when a company becomes a major global player by expanding outside its home market, there can be a danger that inconsistencies in its identity could undermine consumers’ confidence in its credibility as a brand. An international company seeking brand consistency therefore needs to work out its priorities and basic values, he says.
“As a largely virtual business, one of the key things our marketing or design should do is create confidence in the consumer’s mind that we’re a big, stable, trustworthy entity. With two identities there was the risk of someone in the US seeing us in red and then getting confused by the fact we were yellow somewhere else.”
Pocklington also recalls that in the company’s haste to grow the business abroad, it had struggled to keep a grip on the brand’s identity in individual markets. “As we’ve grown, we’ve emphasised that the local marketing team needs to make decisions that are right for the local market,” he says.
“The problem was that our previous brand guidelines were not clear enough and so when we audited what people were doing everywhere from Japan to Argentina, we realised we were at risk of looking a bit incoherent.”
To overcome these problems and solidify the company’s global status, Hotels.com once again enlisted Lambie-Nairn to return the brand to a single identity. Faced with a choice between the red American brand or the yellow international identity, Pocklington’s team and the agency plumped for the US vision.
“There were two arguments that made us go back to the red scheme,” he says. “One was that the US is by far our biggest market, so if you’re going to risk a bit of disruption don’t risk it there.
“Secondly we did some research which showed that, while consumers saw our yellow brand and handwritten font as emphasising our warmth and friendliness, when you actually push them on what’s most important to them, they want a trustworthy, fast, efficient service that gives them great deals and great rates.”
However, rather than assuming the old US identity in its entirety, Lambie-Nairn made several additions and refinements to the overall ‘branding kit’. This included doing away with character images in the logo. The Wake Up Happy strapline has been retained, although the meanings change slightly depending on the country-specific website.
The agency also created a new icon for the brand for use on mobile and social media, as well as new brand guidelines to consolidate the global identity. Armed with this new branding kit, Hotels.com trialled the global redesign on a proportion of its customers last spring and monitored its impact on conversion rates.
Pocklington warns that any company making such fundamental changes to its branding should expect some nervous moments initially as customers adjust. He says that in the US, where Hotels.com stuck with its existing red colour scheme, there was hardly any impact on sales. Internationally, though, the change brought about a notable slowdown.
“Some of that is just technical,” he suggests. “People generally don’t book a trip on their first visit to the website: they see a hotel they like, they talk to someone else about it, search online, look at Tripadvisor and finally come back to us. If you’ve changed colour in the middle of that process you’re going to put some people off.”
However, Pocklington insists that after a couple of weeks, the trend righted itself and the business is now reaping the benefits of the brand consolidation.
“There’s very little evidence that there’s been anything other than a positive impact on the business,” he says. “We are now able to share our main TV advertising creative across a number of markets, which is both efficient and more effective because it has enabled [the international arm] to tap into the more expensively produced advertising of a more mature market – the US.”
Pocklington says one of the biggest benefits of the brand consolidation has been to allow global consumers to find Hotels.com on social media and mobile with greater ease. The company’s presence on mobile in particular has grown dramatically, with app downloads recently passing the 10 million mark.
“I was very proud when [Apple chief executive] Tim Cook launched the iPad Mini with our logo behind him among companies such as Facebook,” says Pocklington. “That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to achieve, and so far we’re getting there.”
Nigel Pocklington’s lessons on…
Brand consistency on mobile and social media
If you’re marketing to get app downloads you can only market one brand identity. We have over 10 million app downloads and everyone downloading the same single brand makes that much easier. It’s the same on Facebook: yes, you can have different language implementations of a social strategy, but at some point your brand has got to live on Facebook and it’s harder to make it live in different colours or identities.
Promoting a brand relaunch
Ours was not a major rebrand with a big supporting campaign to tell everyone about it. That’s partly because we’re incredibly focused on return on investment and it was too much of a risk to my precious brand budget. We emailed our loyal customers to tell them what was going on but also delayed our TV campaigns while we were making the changes. Then we went back on TV with the new logo and the only notice we had on the site said something like ‘It’s the same Hotels.com you knew before’. That’s all gone now too because people have got used to it.
Remaining consistent overseas
Whereas in the UK or US, we might be telling consumers about our great loyalty programme and how you qualify for a free night, in Thailand people just want to know that you’re a big, reputable online travel agent that’s been in the business for 20 years. So your messages and how you deliver them will be very different. But at the same time all messages should recognisably come from us and the brand should always stand for the same thing. That was the idea behind our redesign.
Nigel Pocklington CV
January 2012-present Chief marketing officer, Hotels.com
March 2011-January 2012 Senior vice president, global marketing, Hotels.com
September 2007-March 2011 Managing director, Hotels.com EMEA
January 2007-September 2007 Chief executive, Horsesmouth Foundation
2003-2006 Director of online publishing, Financial Times
2000-2003 Director of strategy, Pearson