Should you refresh your ad campaign or your entire brand?

I was asked recently to rebrand a hotel. But after engaging with the property’s key executives it became apparent that while they had renovated the property and made meaningful changes to their operations, they believed the solution for a new brand was simply taking a different approach to their ad campaign. As both a brand strategist and a creative director who defines brands and creates campaigns, I thought, “Well, that’s a no-brainer, but they’re making a mistake.” I explained to them that refreshing an ad campaign does not rebrand a hotel.

There is a significant risk in doing what this hotel was attempting to do. Trying to rebrand the property by creating only a new direction for its advertising could create a gaping hole between consumer expectations and the hotel’s reality. We know how foolish it is to set expectations that are not met when guests arrive. Conversely, by running key decisions for operations, internal culture and communications through the same brand filter, consistency and synergy is assured and guest satisfaction can be elevated.

What my new client didn’t understand was that they needed a bigger idea — one that could inform more than an ad campaign. They needed to get out of the weeds and rise to about 30,000 feet so they could see not only what the consumer sees in communications but also see objectively what they do within operations and across their day-to-day internal culture.

While it is true that brands may need refreshing over time, the real challenge for an aging brand is to first determine whether the essence of the brand — its reason to exist — has changed. If a hotel’s facilities, services and amenities have been updated but are still providing the same basic experience, then the task at hand is to reinterpret the existing brand — find a fresh way to express the brand’s positioning.

However, if the company has evolved and the property has changed along with the guest experience, then refreshing how the brand is expressed won’t do the job. What’s needed is a much bigger idea than a new creative campaign concept. This would warrant a repositioning of the brand starting with:

  • A careful evaluation of the best possible customer for the improved property.
  • Defining a new proposition for a lasting relationship between the business and that customer.
  • Creation of a new brand platform that not only will inform and inspire the communications but will also do the same for all operations, services and amenities — as well as the internal culture — so employees can live the brand on a day-to-day basis.

For example, operators of a seaside property came to me asking for a new campaign for their renovated hotel. But I discovered when the long-neglected, aging property was completely renovated, the owners were inspired to restore it to its long-ago glory as a shining example of a mid-century beach hotel. After evaluating the potential avenues for brand positioning, instead of creating the new campaign they requested, I showed them the value of repositioning the brand, changing the promise from simply a fun, casual beach destination into an escape to a nostalgic sensory experience that would bring back fond memories and foster new carefree memories as well.

This bigger idea made sense, and it even motivated the architect to make refinements to the facilities’ design to better support activities and services inspired by the new brand platform. The operations team conceived special offerings, amenities and programming throughout the year that provided public relations the necessary content for garnering significant media and social media exposure. And of course a new ad campaign in traditional and digital media was conceived to capture the imagination of a new customer base and to foster expectations of receiving more from the experience and, therefore, a willingness to pay for it.

The lesson learned? Refreshing an ad campaign from year to year is not the same as refreshing a brand. So, when you’re thinking of going in a new direction, first go up: at 30,000 feet you can see everything from internal operations and culture to external communications. Then you’ll know whether it’s time to think small or think big.