Asian brand builder’s book on hotel branding, Part 4

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. Here is the fourth installment:

There seem to be an awful lot of tools in a company’s armory, purportedly to help crystallise what the organization is all about, where it’s headed, how it’s headed there and who should be doing what to get it to where it wants to go. I use a boxing analogy here because there seems considerable angst amongst the owners of these various tools as to which is most fundamental in guiding and shaping the organisation. In the red corner you have the human resources (aka human capital, human relations, people management, people resources or employee support) team championing the vision, mission and values culture-fest. In the blue corner you have the marketing team driving home the brand focus, expressed as a brand promise and set of personality attributes. Then we have Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGS), commercial goals, strategic goals, tactical objectives and operational objectives. Some of these, such as tactical objectives, are clearly not intended as drivers of organisational purpose, but several of the others seem to trip over themselves in an attempt to claim the top spot for determining to what destination, along what path and in what way the organisation will proceed.

I’ve always been perplexed by visions, missions and values (‘VMV’s’ to the HR darlings), because they so rarely seem to inspire, guide and shape organisational purpose and way of life. That’s not to dismiss the potential of VMV’s as guiding beacons, but rather to question the specificity, relevance and inspiring nature of the end results created by many organisations. They seem to come from the Identikit School of Organisational Purpose by utilising the following framework:

“To be the (pre-eminent / leading / dominant*) (creator / provider / producer*) of (innovative / leading edge / cutting edge*) (solutions / products /services*) (locally / regionally / globally*) in order to deliver superior returns to shareholders’: (* delete as appropriate). Not only are such Visions worryingly common, thereby not creating a platform for competitive differentiation, they don’t actually clarify anything without a good deal more sub-text. What precisely do ‘pre-eminent’, ‘leading edge’ and ‘superior returns’ mean? How are they quantified? They sound very grand and grown-up, but don’t really help anyone navigate, because the final destination is so vague.”

The mission statement of Albertson’s, an American food store chain, epitomizes this: To create a shopping experience that pleases our customers; a workplace that creates opportunities and a great working environment for our associates; and a business that achieves financial success.’

Just one specific would have been helpful.

Then there’s a raft of values that are similarly undifferentiating, such as integrity, respect, teamwork, creativity and quality-orientation. I’m not suggesting that the opposite would be more valuable, but surely these are so fundamental to every organization that to list them in any set of organizational values is to state the blindingly obvious. As a result they often get dismissed by an organization’s workforce (although they do tend to get framed and put on the boardroom wall to reassure outsiders how well-behaved the organization is).

Before anyone thinks I might be siding with the marketing = branding crowd, there are as many daft and undecipherable platitudes coming out of the blue corner. This from a paper towel maker: “We care about the same things our customers care about.” And the even dopier “we care” which has been used by several financial service, hospitality and airline brands as a positioning-statement-cum-advertising tag-line. Surely it’s up to the consumer to determine whether a brand cares. And who cares if they care? Does it improve the outcome for me?

As self-appointed referee I’d say the outcome of the boxing contest is a split-decision, with both corners producing their own fair share of hollow rhetoric.

However, what is more problematic than whether VMV’s or brand positioning statements are clear, distinctive and motivating, is that effective organizations should have a singular and integrated set of organizational guides. First, let’s for a moment dismiss the VMV and brand positioning labels. What any successful organization requires is absolute clarity of what it wishes to achieve, how it aims to achieve it and what kinds of people will make this a reality. In order for that focus to be effective it must be grounded in a customer-facing reality. To have any kind of guide to organizational direction and purpose that doesn’t include this renders it both self-centered and potentially irrelevant. Phrases like “pre-eminent,” “leading” and financial success” are simply outcomes of how relationships are established and nurtured between the customer and the brand. So, surely an effective organizational focus must highlight the kind of desired state that will enable you to be “leading,” relative to what you have provided to the customer or guest.

Similarly, why would values not encompass attributes that constitute the desired manner of service delivery to the guest? If they are lived internally then they are more likely to be convincingly expressed externally. Naturally organizations need to emphasise the importance of honesty, trust, respect and other fundamentals, but they alone will never form the basis of a sustainably unique customer offering.

I really think it matters not whether we think of this as bringing the brand into the organisation to shape its purpose and way of life, or as taking VMV’s into the realm of the customer, just as long as what centres the organization clarifies the desired nature of a unique relationship between those who sell and those who buy.

It’s not about labels. It’s about what any piece of terminology represents: brand or otherwise. If it represents the alignment of an organization’s inward and outward facing worlds with something sustainably and authentically unique I’d be happy to call it Goat Rearing.