Do your guests think of you as a hospitality brand or as a hospitality business? Find out, because the overall response to that question is likely to determine how your company will survive the next five years.

You only need to look at the Instagram accounts of Soho House or Ace Hotels to see two great examples of hotel brands that have become extremely successful at cultivating a strong sense of belonging, significance and meaning among their guests and their followers. If we’re part of the demographic of young(-ish) urbanite esthetic seekers, then our association with these brands elevates our own social status within our tribe.

If you think this all sounds a little shallow then we don’t blame you. It’s the world we live in and you either roll with it or get left behind. Besides, being shallow can be fun, so bear with us.


Business versus brand

Most hotels, restaurants and bars actually offer a pretty similar service compared to their immediate competitors. As businesses this leaves them vulnerable in a world where online booking and price comparison sites have become the norm for most travellers and guests. For those businesses unable (or unwilling) to compete on price, the only option left is to compete on brand.

Marty Neumeier, author of the bestselling ‘Zag’, believes that people build their identities around the products they choose. In other words, people no longer simply buy brands. Today people join brands by asking themselves ‘if I buy this product, what does that make me?’.

In Neumeier’s view, it’s no longer enough to provide your guests with a great experience once they step into your building. Instead, they’re looking at you to provide them with a meaningful experience. How meaningful depends on the value proposition you then put forward as a brand.


Differentiation and Unique Value Propositions

If you want to beat your competition, then at a very minimum you need to provide your guests with quality offerings and service. This has to be a given, regardless of what your brand personality looks like.

Assuming you’re able to get that bit right, it’s the designer’s job to help you reflect your values and brand personality through the buildings we design.

We’ve written in the past about User Centred Design (UCD) and the importance of truly understanding who your guests are and the tribes they belong to. This isn’t a back of a napkin exercise though. It requires a very thorough look at your most typical guests; what their world at home looks like; which tribes they belong to - and most importantly, what they’re looking for when they visit your business.

Once you know your guests, you can then develop a service offer which is based around solving their needs in a way that’s entirely unique to you. This is your Unique Value Proposition (UVP).

When deciding your UVP, Neumeier recommends a process of radical differentiation by creating what he calls an ‘onliness statement’ about your business which says: ‘my brand is the only brand that …’. The dotted line then includes the What, How, Who, Where, Why and When of your brand, and how that makes it different from the other brands you’re competing with.

According to Neumeier, there are two important strategies for radically differentiating yourself from your competition - doing things better (or cheaper, or bigger) versus doing things differently.


Doing things better

Businesses usually choose to operate in the budget, mid- or luxury segments of the hospitality market as a way to maximise revenue. Within those segments competition can be extremely rocky.   

Take the mid-level hotel segment for example. It’s always had a tendency towards very formulaic design choices, but we’re seeing a trend towards more innovative design as a way to demonstrate uniqueness and personality. Boutique and bijou have now become badges of honour for some hotel brands proudly taking a stance against bland environments and against pleasing everyone.

From a design perspective, personality doesn’t even have to cost that much. Brave choices of colours and installations often go a long way in creating a strong identity. The same with humour, nostalgia and other emotional associations, which are effective ways of creating a bond with your guest very quickly.

Technology can a be key driver of your brand personality too. Take Yotel for example, mostly operating from airports, each of its branches has an electronic check-in system, convertible double beds and occupation sensor controlled lighting. Its New York branch is also home to the YOBOT, a robotic luggage concierge that has become an attraction in itself. By making technological innovation central to its brand, Yotel has become an absolute leader among budget hotel chains.

On the other side of the spectrum, we can think of W hotels. Describing his idea to create W at the 2011 NYU Schack conference, Barry Sternlicht said: “We know that ten percent of the population likes cooler things. They want to aspire to be something else. It says something about you if you’re staying at the W. It wouldn’t say something about you if you were staying at the Marriott.”

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 Doing it differently

In their 2005 book Blue Ocean Strategy, Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne look at how companies create successful ‘blue oceans’ of uncontested market space. They pitch this against the ‘red oceans’ where competitors fight so viciously for dominance that the waters have turned red with blood.

A great example can be found in the recent explosion of so-called third wave speciality coffee in Southeast Asia. Heavily influenced by Australian coffee culture and the growing number of expats and tourists in places like Singapore and Jakarta, brands such as Tiong Bahru Bakery and 40 Hands Coffee were suddenly able to thrive alongside the likes of Starbucks, despite charging premium prices. They were able to do so because they started offering something radically different from anyone else in the coffee shop market - at least to start with.

Because it caters to a relatively niche demographic, it wasn’t so hard to understand the needs and wants of the guests of the typical third wave coffee shop. According to Harry Grover who founded 40 Hands and Common Man Coffee, everything that surrounds it needs to be top quality when you present an unfamiliar offering to customers. “Food, service, design, ambience are all vital to get opinion leaders and expats to patronise you. Then the next wave of customers will follow.”, Grover says.

When designing 40 Hands space, he used local coffee shops and the likes of Starbucks as reference points for what his market was decidedly not looking for in terms of ambiance. He wanted it to look nothing like any other coffee shop in Singapore or Australia, while nonetheless keeping some of the style and familiarity of a coffee place.

For Common Man Coffee he used materials such as green marble, white tiles mixed with wooden floors, combined with an overall slightly art deco feel, were all aimed at creating a sense that the space - just like its offering - was something entirely unique. By doing so, Grover also cleverly reflected the taste and values of the tribe of young, trendy and urban professionals who identify themselves with his brand.


To thy own guests be true

To thrive as a hospitality business in an era of instant comparison you need to radically differentiate yourself from your competitors. The best way to do that is to create a brand that’s strong enough for people to want to be associated with you, built around your Unique Value Proposition.

In other words, the choice is yours. You can position yourself as a brand, making sure your values and design are an accurate reflection of who your guests are and what they’re looking for. This then allows you to be nimble and responsive when the demands of your guests change.

Or you can continue to work the market like you’re a business, and take the risk of designing your buildings around a beautiful round hole which one day your lovely square peg customers may no longer be able to see themselves fit in.