Mr. Ely

Sales & Marketing

Managing the Brand Message During Change

By John Ely, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Signature Worldwide

Mergers. Acquisitions. Employee attrition. These terms are becoming more and more commonplace in the hospitality industry, and they all translate to big changes. As change sets in, management shifts hands, renovations begin and new marketing efforts take seed, hotel leaders have an important role. Amidst change, they must ensure one constant - a consistent brand message.

The brand message your customers receive sets the tone for your property's ongoing success, and dictates not only whether or not they will come back, but what they'll say about your property to others. One bad experience or one encounter that fails to deliver what was promised or expected means they'll potentially attach a negative perception to your property and, most likely, share that perception. Unfortunately, you can't blame the hiccup on your period of change. Once that impression is made, there is little you can do to change the customer's opinion.

So how do you prepare when it comes to managing your brand during times of change?

First, realize the importance of your brand message. It's far more than a logo or a tagline. A brand encompasses all your company stands for in the mind of your customers. That idea is formed by the succession of their experiences, not by a flashy logo or thought-provoking tagline. After all, do you really buy Nike clothes because of their wing-like Swoosh, or is it because the clothes are stylish and hold up over time? Is it the golden arches or the flavor of the fries that gets you to McDonald's?

Second, understand that creating brand messages isn't a quick process. Your properties weren't built or joined in a day, a week or even a month, and your brand won't be either. Branding efforts should not only follow research and planning, but should involve all employees through a training program that teaches new brand-focused behaviors, builds employee buy-in for the change, and reinforces those new behaviors over time.

With these guidelines in mind, I'd like to walk you through a birds-eye view of how to best build and convey the brand message during a few specific periods of change.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Mergers and acquisitions bring together two sets of employees, two corporate cultures, and often, two completely different ways of doing business. In creating a new, merged brand, it's important to consider each brand independently, and then identify overlaps and gaps.

First, look at the brand message each company is currently delivering - not the rose-colored version, but the real version customers are experiencing today. What does the brand say? What's the brand promise? Is the message unified? Is it consistent? Does it exist at all? In addition to gathering feedback on these topics from your employees, walk through your customer's experience. Mystery shop your properties to identify and examine what a customer is likely to encounter at every touchpoint.

Next, create a mini marketing analysis around each company's place in the market. Address the following:

  • What is the company's history, mission and vision?
  • Who is the company currently servicing?
  • How does the company compare to the competition?
  • What are the company's strengths and weaknesses?
  • Where are there opportunities? Where are there threats? In addition to field research, the team leading the branding efforts should identify key executives to sit in on brand strategy sessions. As part of these sessions, management needs to discuss research gathered from the exercises above, and identify what they want to retain and change from each property. They need to look at similarities and differences, and identify a unified brand message that sums up not who they were or what they hope to be in the future, but who they are now, why the change is positive for the customer, and what they promise to deliver from new day one.

Once a brand message is created, executives must build an internal and external messaging campaign. Many properties Signature has worked with during times of change were eager to share their news with the outside public, but I can't stress enough the importance of educating your own team first. No amount of advertising can make the statement your own team can make just by delivering on your brand promise, exceeding expectations and creating a legendary customer experience.

Change for the brand also means change for your employees, but don't start by training them to adopt new practices and procedures. Take a step back. Take time to answer employees' questions about the merger or acquisition, educate them on its benefits, tell them you'll be building new brand messaging and delivering it with their help. Talk to them about what the change means for them, as well as the customer, and make them feel a valued part of both the transition process and the customer's experience. You'll be amazed at their motivation, and the quality of communications and service they'll deliver in return.

Once you have your internal ducks in a row, and your staff is motivated and engaged, it's time to start thinking about external branding. This is where the logo and graphic elements come into play. Discuss how to sum up your brand in consistent messaging shared with the public through advertising, public relations or a combination of both. Make sure what is conveyed externally is consistent with what was trained internally. Share your ads and public relations activities, at least in summary, with your team to ensure they know and understand what is circulating about your company. Listen and read what people are saying about your brand. You can seed the market with ads and articles, but it's the response to these vehicles that's important. Embrace criticism as a way to identify weakness and opportunity, and train employees to improve in those areas.

Remember, don't focus on the negative. When you hear something positive about your brand, share the accolades, and recognize your employees for a job well done. Measure and reinforce changed and positive behaviors over time.

Employee Attrition

Though mergers and acquisitions bring change on a large scale, employee attrition, even on a small scale, also has implications for your brand. Employees build relationships with guests over time, which enhances the customer experience. After all, wouldn't you miss Tom, the employee at your favorite vacation spot who calls you by name, has briefed the dining staff on your food allergies and books your favorite tee times prior to your arrival? An encounter with a new employee who doesn't know your preferences might yield a completely different brand experience as he or she works to build a new relationship.

The best way to ensure a consistent brand message is to reduce employee attrition. To do so, invest in training to help employees take pride in their work. This training shouldn't be limited to the ins and outs of their job function. It should also focus on building customer service, sales and relationship skills. Next, create clear paths for career advancement. Let employees know there are places for them to grow and thrive in your organization.

Also, recognize the power of employee feedback. Survey employees on their job satisfaction and correct areas of concern.

Despite your best efforts, a small amount of attrition is unavoidable. In the face of attrition, remember your remaining employees are the keys to maintaining your brand promise. Consult with your employees when others leave, especially when the person leaving is a long-time employee, manager or a direct supervisor. Remind them that the person leaving is not a traitor, but an alumnus. Communicate that opportunities exist when others leave the company by means of promotions, increased responsibilities or widening job scopes, and don't wait until employees leave to focus on attrition. Be proactive by rewarding and embracing loyalty.

When you hire a new employee, train them not only on the technical aspects of their job, but on corporate culture and internal brand awareness. Help them understand their important role in customer experience and building the brand. Measure and reinforce both behaviors and the importance of their branding role continually.

Delivering on the brand promise should be the cornerstone of your day-to-day business activities, especially during times of change. In periods of transition, it's common for employees, the ambassadors of your brand, to be distracted and anxious. This translates to employees who are less concerned with the customer and your brand, and more concerned with their own future.

Before you begin penning that new tagline and designing a stylish logo, look to your employees to deliver on your brand. Reinforce their position within the company, look to them for suggestions, train them to embrace new behaviors and do your homework. Strategic brand planning is the result of careful research and reflection. Are you armed for change?

John Ely is senior VP of marketing for Signature Worldwide. He is responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating strategic marketing and corporate growth plans, and has industrial and consumer marketing experience. He has an associate degree in electrical engineering, a bachelor's in technical management and a master's in marketing and communications. He is a member of the American Marketing Association and Product Development Management Association. Mr. Ely has served as a professor at Franklin University and is certified as a "Teaching at a Distance" (TAD) online educator. Mr. Ely can be contacted at 614-766-5101 or johnely@signatureworldwide.com Extended Bio...

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