In most industries, brands are important, widely recognized, often dominant, and sometimes even supplant the old names for the products they represent. Hoover, Band-Aid, and Coke have all reached the pinnacle of brand-recognition, but no traveller is about to say she’s looking for a Hilton when she actually means she wants a hotel. That kind of branding power may be a bridge too far, and one reason is because the underlying product offered by hotels – a room for the night – isn’t really going to differ that much across the various brands, and nobody can justifiably lay claim to having invented the original either.

A second issue concerns distribution channels. In other industries, if you want to buy a Volvo you go to a Volvo dealer. The dealer can then reinforce the brand message. In the hotel industry, sales are often made through third parties, resulting in the carefully constructed brand image becoming rather diluted. If differentiation is hard, and the brand has little control of the sales channel, brand improvements need to take a different approach.

One way to liven up a brand identity and inspire customers to become more actively engaged, is to use story-telling techniques to give your brand greater depth. This may represent a shift away from traditional marketing where the aim is to directly promote the brand and the hotel. With story-telling, you use high quality content to generate interest – but not necessarily by talking about yourself. If the imagine your brand as having a personality, you wouldn’t want to engage with that personality if it was forever bragging about how great it was, or trying to sell you something.

With story-telling, the brand must establish its individual charm, the reasons it came into existence, and the things it hopes to achieve – but above all it must provide value for customers, creating the impression that it is a caring brand, prepared to listen to customers, and to make their lives better. This can often be done through the use of destinations. People tend to make their travel plans first and foremost on the basis of where they want to go, and not which hotel brand they prefer. One way to establish your brand is therefore to provide informative support about the destination. People will then find your content online and take a favourable view of your brand.

One great example of this approach is provided by Nozawa Holidays in Japan. The company has a number of small hotels in a traditional ski village. The hotels may be nothing special – they don’t stand out from others in the village – but the company promotes the destination by blogging about the village and its attractions, and by providing daily updates about snow conditions and social events. In the summer, they reach out to mountain bikers. Anyone thinking of visiting Nozawa will find their content, and because the company appears so helpful in responding to queries online, their hotels become the first choice.

Remember that even in this example the overt aim is not to promote the hotels. The emphasis is always on the village, the skiing, and the local community. That’s because most people don’t trust advertising anyway. What’s much better is peer feedback and reviews. Authentic content provided by guests is invaluable, to the extent that when a guest in Nozawa writes a positive review on a restaurant he visited in the village, those positive feelings reflect back upon Nozawa Holidays who provided the platform for the report, who probably advised him to visit the restaurant in the first place, and who clearly care enough about the experiences of future guests to present the review for others to follow.

This is brand story-telling in action. It can be a wonderful way to build a brand and get your customers to become passionate about your company. Go the extra mile to provide content your guests will value, and it’s your brand name that people will ultimately trust and associate with their destination of choice.

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