By Gary Sain
In mid-2005, the travel industry looks exceptionally bright and robust. Certainly, a much more positive shift from where the industry was a couple of years ago. Although we still face major challenges and unforeseen threats, 2005 has the potential to go down as the most successful year in the history of travel. A bold statement! However, no one can argue with the current and projected travel success we are experiencing as an industry.
If you truly believe 2005 will be a benchmark year, you will have an excellent opportunity to refortify your brand capital. Brand capital is the overall value of your brand. It is more than bricks and mortar. It is the value your brand has in the minds of your targeted audience/customers. It is more than dollars and sense. It is not a logo or an ad campaign. It’s a relationship you have built with your customer. Brand capital is about loyalty to your brand. Assess your brand capital by asking these simple questions…how personally appropriate is my brand? How distinctively is my brand perceived? Is my brand easily understood? How well regarded is my brand?
Since 9/11, as an industry, many of us have greatly depleted our brand capital with our targeted audiences. Granted, we needed to offer promotional pricing/discounting to stimulate revenue during a very dark period of our history. Branding was put on hold for more favorable tactical executions. It was a proven approach which would generate immediate returns vs. longer strategic investments. We think it was the right thinking based on the issues and threats we faced at the time. However, what should we be doing now to ensure we are increasing our brand capital?
Although the business, political, economic and social environments have changed, consumers are still more price loyal than brand loyal. A recent study states just 4% of consumers would be willing to stick with a brand if its competition offered a better value for the same price. Very concerning! However, it illustrates the “sameness” which many consumers feel exist with products/services in the marketplace. Has effective story telling been told? What strategic moves should travel marketers be doing now to ensure they are maximizing their brand capital for the future? What can we do now to weather the next threat or challenge which may face our industry? How can we create brand loyalty with a price loyal audience? Do we offer a sustainable, discernible difference with our brand? Good questions we all should be asking.
I would like to offer three proven suggestions…
Be a Compelling Storyteller
Stories are memorable; promotions are not. Your brand capital is based on how well you communicate your brand story to your targeted audience…external as well as internal. Sounds easy. However, it is where most travel companies fall short. If you don’t believe me, do this. Ask 15 different people who work for your company (at various levels within your enterprise) what your company does, what service you provide, why you are in business, and how you are different from your competitors. I think you will find many of the answers to be inconsistent, misinformed, outdated and noncompelling. If these are your fellow employees telling/delivering your brand story and they are not all on the same page, what will your customers think? What is being communicated to them? What is their perceived story regarding your brand? How different is it?
Employee enculturation is one of the most important marketing weapons to ensure brand clarity and build brand capital. It starts with the senior management team, lead by the CMO, who first must agree to a brand story. Story will then drive all brand communications, product development, employee hiring and training, and guest interactions. Delivering the brand promise across all customer touch points can only be successfully implemented and executed based upon compelling brand story.
We believe brand differentiation is one of the most important marketing issues facing travel companies today. A proliferation of travel brands worldwide is leading to commoditization and non distinguishable travel experiences. In fact, this issue was ranked third in the 7th annual ISHC (International Society of Hospitality Consultants) Survey of the top industry concerns for 2005. Being effective in communicating a compelling story of your brand to your targeted audience is the only way to build brand clarity and build brand capital. Discounting worked in the past where supply clearly outstripped demand. As demand continues to set new records, consumers will place more importance on their personal relationships with brands than how much it costs. It will be about value. Telling a compelling story is where it begins.
At YPB&R, we believe story precedes branding. You can’t brand something if you don’t have a story. We have developed a proprietary process called Story Jam which helps companies become great storytellers, which in turn, dramatically increases their brand capital.
Delivering the Brand Promise
Building brand capital can be achieved only by delivering the brand promise to each and every customer. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Do you realize that almost 70% of customers who don’t return to a certain store or service provider do so because of an attitude of indifference by the staff! We all see this in our everyday lives. We patronize brands we have a relationship with. Those brands that deliver consistently against our expectations; and they do it with a smile! Starbucks comes to mind as one of the best in delivering exceptional customer service/customer attitude.
Delivering great customer service/customer attitude certainly starts with the right hiring practices. Consistent training is critical. Do your employees know their company’s story? The company’s mission? Why the company is in business? What separates their company from all others? To ensure you are delivering on your brand promise, you need to inspect what you expect. Just because it is in the employee handbook or presented by senior management does not mean it is embedded in the employee’s mind. The first line of interaction/communication with your customer is not at the CEO’s office. It is with front line employees; the front desk clerk, the doorman, the housekeeper, the 800 number, the Web site, security, etc. How well these individuals interact with your customer determines if brand capital is being wisely invested. Why do customers return to a specific brand? Yes, it may be the product, the technology, the array of services, etc. However, the reason they come back is service…how they were treated and the attitude of the employees. It’s the relationship they have with the brand.
Positive word of mouth is the best marketing tool in your arsenal. According to the YPB&R/Yankelovich National Leisure Travel MONITOR, leisure travelers rate recommendations by family and friends as their #1 information sources when choosing vacation options. The best way for you to ensure positive word of mouth is to consistently deliver the brand promise to each and every customer; each and every time. Your employees are your discernible difference and for the most part…they are your brand!
Developing measurable ways for you to inspect what you expect is paramount in building your brand capital. YPB&R has developed proprietary programs for travel companies to help them deliver their brand promise.
The Brand Champions
Traditionally, the CMO is the Brand Champion. Typically, this person has had responsibility for brand management. However, if you believe (as we do) that the brand is the most important asset to manage, I would like to make the recommendation that it is more than just one person. Brand Champions should include the CEO, COO, CFO, CMO and the Director of HR. We call it the brand executive team.
The brand executive team is responsible for building brand capital. The great companies that process brand charisma have the ability to inspire and attract consumers with such passion that they aggressively seek the brand out. A brand with charisma has the following qualities that speak to consumers’ need for “something more” from the marketplace…
- Embody a compelling sense of leadership through integrity, authenticity, and a tangible vision of the future
- Display momentum, imagination and self-assurance
- Are lightning rods for a positive experience
- Care about consumers more than they care about themselves
- Recognize when the consumer’s mindset or lifestyle changes and immediately lets the consumer know it knows
Only a few brands in the travel industry have achieved brand charisma. This is why it is so important to have a brand executive team who can integrate, share, promote, measure and “champion” the brand. It is a total team effort. Every employee is involved. One unified brand voice.
Travel companies that recognize the importance of effective and integrated brand management will be able to distance themselves from their competition and increase their brand capital. If 2005 turns out as positive as we think; this will be the year to maximize your brand capital for the future. A strong brand can fortress your company against volatility.
We wish you much success in 2005. It should be a great year for all of us!
Gary Sain is Chief Marketing Officer and Partner of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell a marketing communication firm that specializes in travel and the art of branding. He is also the Chairman of the Association of Travel Marketing Executives, Inc. (ATME)
YPB&R has a comprehensive branding practice which helps travel companies create new brands and reinvigorate existing ones. The company offers proprietary brand identity process, coupled with exceptional talent and experience. For information contact Gary at email@example.com.