Mr. McKee

Sales & Marketing

Sustainable Differentiation

By Steve McKee, President, McKee Wallwork Cleveland

Traveling is hard. Being away from home, eating out, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed-not to mention the nightmares of airports and airlines-make even the most hardened road warrior appreciate small niceties.

It was one of those niceties that brightened my life one day in March, 2003. I was attending the Inc. 500 conference in Palm Springs, California and I rolled out of bed before dawn to get to an early seminar. I shuffled my sleepy feet into the bathroom and turned on the water. Stepping into the shower, I tugged on the curtain. To my surprise (and delight), there was no vortex of air sucking six feet of sticky vinyl into me, the usual behavior of unruly shower curtains. In fact, the curtain wasn't crowding me at all. I had room to move.

I looked up and saw what struck me as one of the most brilliant inventions of all time: The curved shower curtain rod. What a brilliant concept, I thought. How simple. How obvious. How come nobody ever thought of this before? I was happy - and grateful, not only to the brilliant inventor who came up with the concept but also to the hotel that was thoughtful enough to install it.

Now here's the bad news. I don't remember where I was staying. This terrific invention, this fabulous innovation, this morning-making milestone which could have made the difference next time I booked a room didn't have a lasting impact. Other hotels started adopting the feature and I lost track of who was first. The curved shower curtain rod was great news for the frequent traveler but provided no lasting differentiation for any one brand.

That's the problem with product improvements. Shower curtain rods, new beds, special pillows, free breakfast buffets-all are nice features, but none offer sustainable differentiation. Sure, they can offer tactical advantages for a period of time, but like any successful innovations they will be duplicated if they can't be patented. And even if they are patented they can usually be matched by crafty imitations.

So what's a hotel brand to do? How can it achieve differentiation that is real, meaningful and sustainable? The answer lies not in pursuing left-brain benefits but in fostering right-brain connections. Successful differentiation takes place not in the minds of your target, but in their hearts.

Think about other highly-competitive categories. How does a company like Virgin stand out in the mobile telecommunications market? After all, physical phone features can be easily matched by the much bigger competitors like Verizon, Cingular and Sprint. But Virgin Mobile (as with all Virgin brands) took a different approach, winning customer loyalty by relating to their core target market (teenagers) with a hip, irreverent approach. As long as Virgin stays reasonably close to its competitors on features and benefits, the emotional connection it has fostered with its customers will make the difference.

Or consider Mini Cooper. There perhaps is no category more crowded with brand choices than the automotive market. Yet into this cacophony of competition came a small car with a tiny (by comparison) marketing budget that carved out a powerful, differentiated identity. Sure, the car had some impressive features, but features alone don't differentiate. The marketers behind Mini smartly knew that the key was to find an emotional nook for the brand-and to occupy that nook with every marketing dollar.

Perhaps the most notable example of this in the hotel industry is Doubletree. For over twenty years Doubletree has been giving away its trademark chocolate chip cookies. Like any hotel chain Doubletree focuses on many different ways of making its guests comfortable, but over ten million times each year its guests sink their teeth into warm, moist, signature cookies. Talk about positive impressions. Ask the average business traveler what differentiates most hotels and you'll get a host of random answers. Ask them what differentiates Doubletree and you'll get one answer-usually accompanied by a smile.

Boutique chain Heritage Hotels & Resorts is another example. Actually, in Heritage's case "chain" is the wrong word; unlike the global hospitality brands for which uniformity is the watchword, each Heritage hotel is unique. Each property embraces and celebrates the distinctive d'ecor, ambiance, culinary traditions and hospitality of the local culture in which it's situated. In this sense Heritage's brand is reflective not of itself but of its context-the context which attracts visitors to the destination in the first place. By immersing itself in local, organic culture, Heritage differentiates itself from the crowd.

Heritage's strategy reflects an understanding that when it comes to brand identity the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Broadly speaking, there are two elements to differentiation: rational and emotional. Brands that exist in categories with the most parity (soft drinks, cosmetics, fashion) understand that since their rational benefits are so close to what competitors offer, emotional differentiation is truly the key. That's why Coke and Pepsi can justify hiring seven-figure celebrity spokespeople, hoping the emotional connection consumers have with the stars rubs off on their products.

That's not to say your hotel brand should hire a celebrity spokesperson. There are many ways to create an emotional connection without resorting to the danger of tying your brand to a person (after all, you can't control what untoward things the star may do in his or her personal life). But that doesn't mean that creating an emotional connection is easy.

One obstacle you may have to deal with is left-brain types within your organization who simply don't understand how the world of consumer behavior really works. They tend to be the engineers, attorneys and financial people who think a brand's appeal can be boiled down to formulas and spreadsheets. And they make their arguments wearing Hilfiger and sipping Dasani, oblivious to the irony.

Imagine presenting to a roomful of these people the concept behind the Budweiser Frogs. You're likely to hear something like this:

"So we're going to spend millions of dollars supporting 'spokesfrogs' who never drink a beer and never mention any of our product's benefits? All they're going to do is sit on lily pads in the dark and make croaking noises that sound something like our product's nickname? How in the world is that going to make anyone buy a Budweiser?"

You'd be lucky to get out of there with your job. Never mind the fact that the Budweiser Frogs did sell beer-and a lot of it.

People buy products (and book hotels) for a whole host of reasons-some of them rational, some emotional. In categories where a great deal of rational explanation is unnecessary (like hotels) likeability becomes all the more important. To the extent that your emotional differentiation rewards people (the taste of a cookie, the chuckle at a frog) it will build affection in their minds. And that affection will pay off in increased trial and brand loyalty. True, this takes time, but the personality your brand develops will be yours alone. That's the meaning of sustainable differentiation.

No, it's not easy. Industries of all stripes can get so inbred that it's difficult for any one player to break out. Too often brands focus on what others in their category are doing and end up advertising to each other as they fight over the same mental turf. That's why innovation usually comes from outsiders-as it did in the case of upstarts like Virgin Mobile, Mini Cooper and Heritage Hotels & Resorts.

If a competitor of yours has carved out a successful niche, don't attack their strength. Study how they did it, understand the principles behind it, and apply those principles to your unique set of circumstances. Don't try to take a bite out of Doubletree's cookie; find your own little emotional corner of the world and own it. The longer you do so the more differentiated-and sustainable-your brand will be.

Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork & Company, an integrated marketing firm with extensive experience in the travel and tourism industries that specializes in revitalizing stalled, stuck and stale brands. Mr. McKee is also the author of "When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You're Stuck and What To Do About It", an award-winning business book now published in four languages, and "Power Branding: Leveraging the Success of the World's Best Brands". A marketing strategist for nearly thirty years, Mr. McKee has held executive positions at notable agencies including NW Ayer, Della Femina, and a division of McCann-Erickson Worldwide, and he wrote a popular Businessweek.com marketing advice column for more than a decade. Mr. McKee can be contacted at 505-314-7742 or smckee@mwcmail.com Extended Bio...

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