Owner Invested in Your Stay

By Mike Schmidt
Agency: Gotham
Client: Best Western
Category: 2011

HOW BEST WESTERN’S INDEPENDENT OWNERSHIP HELPED A YOUNG PLANNER TAKE OWNERSHIP: Having worked on the Best Western account since pitching it two years ago, I know as well as anyone at my agency the difficulty in carving out a unique, consistent brand promise for an organization of hotel owners who pride themselves on their independent decision making. And I know the challenge of asserting the importance of this brand promise amid a commoditized category of “waffles and wifi.” But thanks to these obstacles, I also know how rewarding it is to arrive at a strategic and creative way to convey the consumer benefit of staying with Best Western.

After playing a key role in developing a unique brand promise, I also developed a powerful way to bring it to life, to connect with travelers and drive their preference. I guided the development of the work, and am incredibly proud of the results. Here’s my story:

HOW WE GOT WHERE WE WERE: Best Western hadn’t given consumers a reason to appreciate, and prefer the brand.

The Best Western brand began as a referral network between independent hotels, a spirit that has continued to drive the organization as it has grown to over 4,000 hotels worldwide. With so many locations, Best Western began to bill itself as “The World’s Largest Hotel Chain.”

But there was a problem: Best Western isn’t a chain, and it’s obvious. Amid tightly controlled cookie-cutter competitors like Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Courtyard by Marriott, Best Western’s independent structure shows in the diversity of its properties. And since the brand communications had talked about anything but the benefits of independence, consumers were left to think Best Western’s structure was a bad thing, and opt for the “true chains” instead.

BY THE NUMBERS: Awareness 91% Perceptions: “I always know I’ll have a positive experience” 49% “This brand has a unique point of view” 25% Consideration: “I rarely/never look to stay at a Best Western hotel” 41% Proprietary Client & Agency Studies, ‘10 OUR TASK: We needed to transform Best Western’s independent structure from a perceived negative to a clear positive. RESEARCH & PLANNING: To determine the best way to position our independent structure, we spoke with Best Western owners across the continent.

We compared what we heard to competitors’ communications, and what studies like Simmons and Yankelovich indicate our target really desires. The research confirmed that we could appeal to these consumers through our own form of consistency, by explaining how our independent owners are personally invested in their stays. Ultimately, we developed a promise that appealed to them emotionally and also allowed us to respond to our cookie-cutter competitors in a way that’s true and unique to Best Western.

CATEGORY TRUTH: In the midscale category, corporately run, commoditized offerings are spun as consistency.

We needed to give consumers a reason to choose Best Western beyond the traditional rational benefits (“waffles and wifi”) that many of category communications have trained them to look for – while these are necessary table stakes for communications in the category, they are not differentiating.

CONSUMER TRUTH: More than ever, our target would rather patronize companies that repay their business with genuine attention.

With their hard-earned money at stake, our target is holding companies up to greater scrutiny. They want to feel like someone will take responsibility for their satisfaction and act in their best interest. Recently, this has manifested itself in a greater degree of trust for independent small businesses versus large corporate chains.

BRAND TRUTH: As a network of independent hotels, each owner is invested in making sure his/her guests are satisfied with their stays.

Every detail of the hotel deserves (and gets) the owner’s attention because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones who are responsible. And they’re the ones who are proud to put their name on it.

PRODUCT TRUTH: The independent owners of Best Western have the freedom to make changes and add personal touches as they see fit.

Unlike with other cookie cutter hotel chains where an owners hands might be tied with corporate policies and politics, It’s not just that they want their guests to have a great visit – they actually have the power to make it so.

OUR UNIQUE BRAND PROMISE: BEST WESTERN OWNERS TAKE YOUR STAY PERSONALLY.

BRINGING THIS PROMISE TO LIFE: We created a new initiative to drive preference amid a commoditized category focused on amenities.

Although this brand promise informed all our work, promotional offers and other messages diluted its power, and left us wanting a more pure iteration to help travelers more fully understand the unique benefit it represents. So we created a series of short documentary-style online films to do just that.

We focused on driving preference for those who already had Best Western in their consideration set, by targeting the 5 million monthly visitors to BestWestern.com, as well as nearly 500,000 of our active Best Western Rewards members, and the nearly 100,000 consumers who follow the brand on Facebook and Twitter.

THE WORK: Many Best Western owners have amazing “only in America” stories of family, entrepreneurship and business ownership.

We worked with a documentary film crew to record these owners telling their stories in their own words. The films were housed prominently on the BestWestern.com homepage, as well as on the brand’s Facebook page. We drove consumers to the films through e-mail blasts targeted at our Rewards members and regular postings on Facebook and Twitter. And we conducted outreach to small business, entrepreneurial and travel blogs that aligned with our core message of personal investment.

Only in America - video

THE RESULTS: The films succeeded in improving brand preference as well as the business, and even future creative.

Based on results from a third party survey by Harris Interactive, the films contributed to a 14% increase in respondents who agree that Best Western’s independent structure leads to a better hotel stay. And we saw a 19% increase when we asked if independent ownership would make participants more likely to stay with Best Western.

While this was a perception-driving effort, there have been indications that the films can drive revenue as well. The microsite has generated more than enough bookings to pay for the films, and we saw an ROI of $9:1 from an email blast to Rewards members launching the films – neither of which included any promotional offer. The films have also generated significant support online, with 1.55 million PR impressions across blogs and other online publications in the travel and small business space.

Most significantly though, the initiative helped our clients better recognize the importance of driving brand preference in this commoditized category.

In addition to expanding and evolving the project itself, we have used the films as a springboard to creating memorable, resonant work for our target travelers in TV, digital, social, and at-property.

CREATIVE BRIEF - OWNER STORIES ONLINE FILMS

OUR UNIQUE BRAND PROMISE: BEST WESTERN OWNERS TAKE YOUR STAY PERSONALLY.

ASSIGNMENT: Create a set of online films telling some of the owners’ stories that convey our brand promise and the consumer benefit of our independent structure.

SITUATION: Each and every Best Western hotel is independently owned and operated by a small businessperson; most owners have just one property and have followed and/or brought their families into the business. As a ground-up, independent owner-led organization, Best Western’s brand and property decisions are made collectively by the owners, who are more familiar with guests’ needs than a corporate executive might be.

While our competitors aim to reassure travelers through the predictability of generic amenities and cookie-cutter properties, we want to explain the benefit and consistency of our independent owners, and how they take each guest’s stay personally.

TARGET AUDIENCE: Travelers 25-54, traveling for both leisure and business, who have included Best Western in their consideration set.

Key Insight: Middle-class consumers in North America have always preferred brands that demonstrate an understanding of them and an appreciation for their individual needs. After recent economic events, that preference has only strengthened. More than ever, they’d rather put their hard-earned money – and their hotel stay - in the hands of someone who feels personally vested that they come away satisfied.

STRATEGIC PLATFORM: At each Best Western hotel, there’s an independent owner who’s personally invested in your stay.

OBJECTIVES: Build brand preference by transforming independent ownership from a perceived negative to a clear positive. 1. Connect independent ownership to the expectation of a better guest experience. 2. Establish an emotional connection between travelers and Best Western to stand out from our commoditized category.

REASONS TO BELIEVE: Best Western owners are personally invested: 1. Invested Financially: They have “skin in the game”: the success of their hotel directly impacts their ability to provide for their family. 2. Invested Emotionally: It’s a matter of personal pride, and their reputation in the community and within the Best Western organization is mainly driven by the hotel’s success.

Their financial and emotional investment in the hotel’s success drives them to create a better experience for their guests.