Asian brand builder’s book on hotel branding, Part 2

Asian hospitality brand management consultancy, The Brand Company, has launched a hospitality brand management book: a compilation of 24 ‘Living Brands’ articles that were written by Managing Partner James Stuart, creator of many of Asia’s top hotel brands.

Blending challenging assertions and humorous anecdotes about his experiences in 15 years of hotel brand development in Asia, the book contains observations about why the hospitality industry and other service businesses are often failing to create sustainably successful brands, and what needs to be done to turn the tide. Hotel Brand Bites is available in paperback on

HOTELS has obtained multiple chapter excerpts and presented the first on December 31. Here is the second installment:

My maxim goes something like this: successful service brands are established by consistently relevant, distinctive and authentic customer experiences, which, in turn, are founded on an organisational way of life that itself is derived from the desired brand focus. Heavy stuff, maybe, but go and take a peek at some of the best service brands in the world and you’ll see a direct link between organisational culture and external delivery, especially in terms of the way things are created internally and delivered externally.

But there’s another crucial element in the sustained delivery of outperforming brands: the little details that, if not carefully thought through by a human with a modicum of common sense, can send guests scampering, never to return.

Let’s start with one of my favourites: ‘shower attack’. Hands up all those who have had to play the ‘I’ve-got-to-jump-out-of-the-way-before-the-ice-cold-water-from-the-shower-head-attacks-me-while-I’m-not-fully-awake’ game? What kind of sadist puts the handle the other side of the shower head in a cubicle the size of a telephone kiosk, allowing you no space to retreat while the ice cold water instantly transforms you from unconscious to tortured.

There’s a good deal more of this absurdity. The clock fixed to the bed-side table, with the clock-face pointing parallel to the bed, forcing you to crane your neck in the middle of the night to experience the delights of checking the time, risking a slipped-disk or concussion as you land head-first on the unforgiving tiled floor. Then there’s those blasted door ‘smart cards’: what in heaven is smart about having to go down to reception three times to get the card re-booted? The light switches: don’t get me started on these. In fact the more a hotel describes something as ‘smart’ the more stupid it often is. The ‘smart-lights’ system I encountered in one of the region’s more dim (excuse the pun) lodging establishments required me to behave like a lighting technician at a rock concert. It seemed that the whole thing needed to be sequenced to achieve the astounding feat of getting all the lights to go off at the same time. Oh, and there was the hotel in Manila that forced me to drag the entire desk across the room to ensure it was close enough to the internet cable to allow me to work. No electricity plugs next to the bed usually gets me a bit wound up, although a friend who works in ‘wellness’ told me this would fry my brain (the plug near my head that is, not me getting wound up). OK, but I’d still like to be able to watch more than half the movie before I start to consider how the brain-fry might end my life. And don’t you hate that ‘hospital-corner’ style of tucking in the bed sheets? You just can’t move your feet, which, I’ve just checked in The New England Journal of Medicine, is important to maintain life-preserving circulation. And I have a grave aversion to those ridiculous glass covers they put over the breakfast goodies to keep them hot (I’m talking about the ones without the hinges). What do you do with the blasted things when you’re trying to spoon out your congee or baked beans? Put them on your head? Use them as cymbals?

Before I get too carried away with reminiscences of the ridiculous there is a solemn lesson to be learned here. However much time you spend crafting a brand-led (and therefore unique) organisational way of life and whatever effort goes into creating distinctive and authentic guest-facing brand experiences, none of it will matter if the basics are not ‘done right’. You won’t give a hoot what the uniqueness of the brand is all about if you’re constantly being baffled and bamboozled. This basic requirement to ‘be sensible’ seems to be missing in many hotels and maybe it’s because the operators only consider the potential impact of a system or facility relative to when it works. Sure, if door cards, alarm clocks and lighting systems work well they are used unthinkingly, leaving no impression on the perception of the hotel brand in the guest’s mind. But, when you consider the impact when they don’t work, particularly when they’re just the result of a lack of thoughtfulness, then they’re everything to do with the brand, because frustration is what remains with the guest: it’s their overriding perception of the brand.

Maybe we should have a new rating system based on how sensible a hotel is, regardless of its brand. As a starter I would like to nominate The Plaza Hotel, Seoul with a ‘Sensible-ometer’ rating of 1 (where 1 stands for ‘impossible to be less sensible’). This is the hotel that put me on the club floor and then interrupted my breakfast in the club lounge to say that even though I was residing on that floor I wasn’t entitled to a ‘club breakfast’ and despite the fact that I was in a mid-scrambled-egg moment and was half-way through a cup of coffee I was required to leave immediately. This in front of all the other breakfast diners in a country where ‘face’ is all. As I was exiting in a state of some embarrassed confusion I was chased to the elevator by the waitress who bizarrely exclaimed ‘I didn’t mean it!’, but who then made absolutely sure I left the lounge to continue my morning munchies elsewhere. And to cap it all, the Resident Manager later asked me to meet him to chat about the incident and enjoy a beverage in… The Club Lounge!

So keep a look out during your hotel stays for the next ‘it’s-just-not-sensible’ moment, as they are liable to creep up and bewilder you when you’re least suspecting them. And keep a particular eye open for the humans, as they have a habit of being even more illogical than some of the systems they create.