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Humanizing brand identity

Should hotels only learn from other trendsetters in the hospitality industry? Or can we distill lessons from successful organizations in other industries? What can we possibly learn from other companies like Apple Inc. and Zappos.com, which have nothing to do with hotels?

As it turns out, quite a bit. Apple’s stores are ergonomically designed to maximize human interaction. The Apple “geniuses” all wear bright blue and easily identifiable t-shirts. But that’s nothing compared to the furniture orientation. Dominating the front are large and inviting tables with a sparse arrangement of products and pricing details. The stores are filled with employees all out in the open and ready to talk shop. Last, when it’s time to spill bills, Apple uses mobile cashier platforms as a substitute for bulky registers.

Another example: Zappos.com posts videos on various merchandise pages of passionate employees explaining what they like about a particular product. Since launching the video campaign in 2009, Zappos has reported a fivefold increase in customer conversion rate.

This “spokesperson video” feature is also common practice in the real-estate business. Agents will perform a virtual walkthrough of a house or apartment all while you follow their effervescent smiles and charismatic voices.

Rapport-building, humanizing, enhancing social engagement or giving a personal narrative — call it what you will, but you cannot deny the power of a face and story behind a sale. The central takeaway: a brand is never just a product and a price, whether you are dealing with smartphones, online clothes shopping, property sales or hotels.

Apple and Zappos get it. A brand is an identity, and people want to be socially connected to the brands they support on an ongoing basis. This is a major problem I see with selling hotels through the OTAs. There’s no identity. Each page has the same layout with different text inserts and image thumbnails. When every page feels the same like this, brand identity is distanced from the consumer. The primary motivations then become location and price, and a consumer will naturally seek the most convenient or deepest discount around.

The key to restoring brand identity is by fostering a personal connection. For starters, why not put videos on your website with an affable manager discussing why he or she loves your hotel? Be on the lookout for passionate team members who can talk earnestly and positively about a specific aspect of your operations. For prospective buyers, such genuine stories might be just the ticket to sway their dollars. After all, visual cues are easier on the brain than reading.

A more time-consuming extension of this would be a live web chat. Once logged on, managers could answer questions directly, sharing their passion and the product benefits throughout. Individual concerns could be dispelled, and customers would leave the conversation happier and more likely to make a purchase.

Furthermore, humanizing your brand is not just a cheap trick for first-time buyers. It goes miles towards customer loyalty, but most of the heavy lifting has to occur on property with physical interactions. Take Apple again. Their stores are white-walled with beige furniture. On such a matte canvas, the geniuses’ bright blue t-shirts pop. Plus, their employees are everywhere and unavoidable. Ask yourself: how do your staff uniforms catch the eye?

Think about removing physical barriers that might impede an interaction. Apple did away with the rows of cashiers in place of a mobile solution. And what’s the hotel equivalent of a cash register? The front desk. As customary as it may be, that countertop is an obstacle to customer loyalty. I’m not insisting you drag out the sledgehammer, but what if one of your front-desk clerks or managers were to stand in front of the aforementioned reception kiosk? Maybe try having staff members check guests in via a tablet.

Subtle but effective, placing your team in unobstructed points of contact is vital to humanizing your brand. It’s even more important for directors — those empowered to act swiftly upon individual requests and complaints — to lend their face to the lobby floor. Encourage a social vibe either through polite suggestion or perhaps with something more explicit like a regular manager’s reception.

Social media plays a significant role in this process. When it comes to fostering true B2C relationships, personality matters. Instead of only hosting one branded Twitter account, why not get every one of your directors on the network with their smiling faces as profile pictures? Then, have them tweet, retweet and reply to items posted on the corporate account and to customers directly — literally putting a face behind the brand. This can also be applied to Facebook fan pages and LinkedIn. Get your managers online and sharing their passion with consumers!

These are just a few suggestions for humanizing your brand. There are lessons everywhere, but only if you keep an open mind!

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