Premier Inn’s brand boss on the ‘less comedic’ tone of its latest Lenny Henry ad

Premier Inn launched its latest TV ad campaign starring actor and comedian Lenny Henry at the end of August, demonstrating a tonal shift that reflects the brand’s move from awareness to emotional engagament, according brand marketing director Russell Braterman.

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It will surprise many to learn that Whitbread-owned hotel brand Premier Inn has only existed under that name for eight years, but in that time it has built recognition on the basis of its advertising starring actor Lenny Henry and a positioning that focuses unerringly on the benefits of a good nights sleep.

Those attributes are still present in its latest TV campaign, though Henry’s rubber duck sadly no longer accompanies him on his hotel stays as the brand seeks to move to a less comedic tone and emphasise the emotional rather than the rational reasons for using Premier Inn. Brand marketing director Russell Braterman explains the latest evolution in its message.

What was the strategy behind your latest TV ad campaign?

Premier Inn has for a long time been focused on communicating around sleep. If you look at the history of that communication, it looked at the core of what backed that up – the room, the experience, the location.

In the most recent TV campaign, the emotion is dialled up. The ultimate benefit of a good night’s sleep, which is the line ‘Wake up wonderful’, is the encapsulation of what we think our promise to our customers is about. All those rational reasons you might stay with us, we think, are now understood. Anyone can give you a bed and a location but not everyone can leave you feeling good at the end of it.

Is the ‘sleep’ positioning intended to allay people’s fears about the experience they will have staying at a budget hotel?

It’s not about allaying concern, it’s about ‘what are we ultimately here to do?’. It’s true that budget hotels in general fulfil a more functional trip experience compared to a luxury indulgence experience; we’re not here to do that. We have appeal right across the board – there are very few people who reject Premier Inn and we have very broad brand acceptance – but all of them ultimately need a good sleep experience, otherwise we’re not fulfilling our purpose as a hotel.

We don’t pick up concerns at all. It is much more about what people want, what we’ve got to offer and how you put those two together. That’s how we got to that positioning.

Do you think Premier Inn achieves loyalty through its brand marketing?

There are some marketing academics who would say that loyalty doesn’t actually exist. I personally don’t believe that but I think there’s some truth to it. Customers will always have a consideration set and what you really hope for is preference within that consideration set. If you fail the customer by having the wrong location or the wrong price point, they might have a preference for you but not stay with you, so I think it’s unrealistic that people will only choose you, although we do look at measures around being first choice and preferred choice. Our loyalty scores look high compared to other brands, from what I can see.

At the same time we have to be clear with ourselves and not be complacent, as there is no such thing as pure loyalty, especially with loyalty. And of course people are in and out of the market. With people who might be travelling once a year less often, their knowledge of the options is going to be less strong and therefore having good awareness and good understanding of what we offer is really important. That’s why we advertise.

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Premier Inn brand marketing director Russell Braterman says customers will be loyal if the price and location are right

What are the measures you look at to evaluate your marketing, particularly around the most recent TV campaign?

We look at short-term measures like bookings, ad awareness and buzz and those are all good, but I don’t think they are the most meaningful metrics. To me, they are the underlying associations people have towards the brand. Do people feel more warmly towards the brand, are your building brand love, are people associating us with the things we want to communicate, for example around sleep? Those are longer-term measures that tend to shift over time.

People tend to forget the brand is quite young – it’s only eight years old in its current guise – but the brand is maturing. The early days were about pure awareness. Moving towards something which is more benefits-oriented, there’s a natural move towards something more emotional. The ‘Wake up wonderful’ positioning in particular is geared around a feeling of optimism and positivity. That lends itself to a certain creative style. The message and the insight comes first and then the creative mechanics follow that.

Brand ambassador Lenny Henry has taken more serious acting roles such as Othello recently, having been known as a comedian. Would you still be using him in your advertising if he hadn’t evolved in the same way as the brand is evolving?

I wouldn’t describe us as more serious, but [the advertising] is less comedic; that’s how it has changed. Lenny is a very talented actor, he is very values-driven and very passionate. I think the inverse is actually true, which is that if we weren’t offering a good product, I don’t think Lenny would be happy to be associated with us.

It is true that Lenny has changed the things he gets involved in, but it’s not that one has followed the other. If he was still doing more comedy it’s hard to speculate, but we haven’t had any conversations around what Lenny is doing this year and therefore what we should be doing.

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Lenny Henry stars again in Premier Inn’s latest ad, though it has a less comedic tone than previous spots (Photo: Mark Stenning)

What is the corporate structure like at Whitbread, and is their any overall strategy uniting Premier Inn with its other brands, such as Costa?

The brands are very different brands; obviously they are in different sectors, have different positionings and do different things. One thing that is common across the whole of Whitbread is a cultural dimension. I’ve only worked here for two years, but I think it is a fantastic company; it is high-performance and has really nice people. There is a drive to continually be better, do better and do the right thing by the customer.

At the centre it is not such a large business so there is a real sense that you can understand, impact on and have a voice across a lot of areas of the business. All the people that need to be involved in decision-making are involved. It’s quite a light team in the sense that everyone has full and demanding roles and it’s quite streamlined. That means we’re quite output-oriented, the right people can talk, it’s quite delivery-focused and there’s an absence of corporate politics. It’s a very constructive environment.

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