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  • Andrew Thacker


Branding & the Guest : Hospitality in Japan series no.2

In this article, we look at what branding really means, for your guest, for your business, its purpose, and why it’s more important now, in an over saturated market with more choice for travellers, than ever before.


More than just your logo, your “brand” is how your guests perceive your business, product or service, how they experience it, how they connect with it, emotionally and rationally, and how it inspires their loyalty and advocacy.


We also look at the case for developing and defining a clear brand strategy. If your brand is the set of intangible (emotional) qualities that combine with the physical (rational) product to elevate your business’ desirability, affecting its reputation and its rates, then your brand strategy is its blueprint.


A surprising number of hospitality brands launch and operate on little more than a loosely defined concept, as opposed to working to a clear and coherent brand strategy that gives a brand its unique identity.


We can cite a recent example of this in Japan in fact. When recently asked to develop an international marketing and communications strategy for a new 500 key luxury and lifestyle hotel opening in 2023, we found there was no branding, no strategy driving it, no detail of any substance beyond the architecture, and an incomplete list of amenities. The logo was being created but without the “blueprint” behind it.

Of course, this makes it rather hard to develop a meaningful plan, particularly in competitive western markets where the first question you will be asked by any potential business partner is, “Okay, what’s the brand?”


Hotel brands may have gotten away with this in the past – more on that later – but they are the outliers, the exception to the rule, and the few that succeeded were often blessed with an undefinable x factor, such as the singular and well executed vision of an extraordinary individual, at a time when there was much less competition, and stable, growth markets. In times of flux and uncertainty like today, in over saturated markets, defining and articulating a clear brand strategy gives all stakeholders certainty and confidence, and can mean the difference between sustained success, or not.


What does ‘branding’ really mean?


It’s a good question, and the answers have evolved over time.


The Cambridge Dictionary defines branding as:

the act of giving a company a particular design or symbol in order to advertise its products and services.

OK, but no. If this was a fair description in the past, and reflected consensus then, this view was also responsible for its fundamental misunderstanding; by reducing branding to its simple aesthetic component, its visual identity – the logo, the design, the look-and-feel.

Even if the understanding of the wider set of tangible and intangible mechanisms that combine to create a memorable brand have since improved, its reductive origins are still often mistakenly presented as the critical component today.


So, if your logo is your badge, then your brand is the whole experience you offer – it’s how you deliver it, the promises you make, and if you keep them or not; it’s how you communicate, internally within your organisation and externally to the public; it’s your employees and how they represent your business; it’s your personality, your values, and how they chime with your audience.

Your brand therefore is your whole experience ecosystem:

Diagram 1. The Brand Ecosystem. Your logo is just your badge and while it represents your brand, your brand is the combination of all the aspects of your business your guest interacts with, online and offline, tangible and intangible, rational and emotional. The branding process defines this, and gives you the tools to manage it.

So, why is branding important?


Branding is important, not only because it’s what makes a lasting impression on your customer but also, crucially, because it’s what tells your customer what to expect from your business. It is what distinguishes you from your competition and gives you the tools to clarify why your offer is the better choice.


We can even go so far as to say branding is critical because of the overall impact it can have – when practised effectively it changes how your customer perceives your brand, and helps drive new business, or increase the value of it. And more so for hotel brands, where the guest experience and a brand’s reputation are so deeply intertwined with its desirability and value.


For example, why do international luxury hotel brands command so much higher rates than the equivalent class of Japanese hotels? Is the service at Japanese luxury hotels so much worse than their international counterparts? Clearly not! Is the quality of the ‘hardware’ that much worse? Again, no, and certainly not twice as bad. And the rates they achieve sometimes are. So, what’s the difference?


In a word, branding, even if it’s not the whole story.


International brands have mastered the art of branding, and at least better than their Japanese counterparts. At the very least, international brands are more comfortable with branding as a holistic concept and work harder to build their brands in key markets around the world. As a result, their reputation precedes them to new markets like Japan or China, for example, and they arrive with a distinct advantage, which is reflected in their relative ADRs, particularly when compared to local incumbents.


Here are some good examples of relatively new luxury hospitality brands that have made a significant impact on the industry. They are each highly sophisticated branding operations in their individual ways, distinct, underpinned by clear brand strategies, combined coherently and expertly with their guest experience and brand communications, which is reflected in their global success:

Belmond – formerly Orient Express, rebranded, built a new brand ecosystem; acquired and

polished by LVMH, and now one of the world’s most desirable luxury hotel brands.

Rosewood – acquired, rebranded and relaunched from the ashes of a languishing mid-west US brand; now one of the world’s most talked about, and watched, luxury hotel brands

House Collective – an original brand, redefining contemporary luxury boutique hotels in great Asian cities; a clear sense of identity, located in popular urban leisure and retail destinations.

One&Only - an original hotel brand, famous for its unstuffy but ultra-luxury offer; created by one of the industry's exceptional individuals, but always working on and evolving their brand.

In Japan Hoshino Resorts demonstrates the deeper understanding of the holistic concept of branding we discuss here, but only apply it rigorously to their flagship Hoshinoya brand


There is no good reason why Japanese hotel brands should lag behind their competitors in this respect, and indeed some (of the newer entrants to the market are doing a great job in developing their brands, but it still feels as if they are suffering from the lesser reputation of their local peers in the global market despite their more sophisticated branding. And while there are many disciplines and practices that can be employed to develop your brand – advertising, communications, customer service, guest experience, reputation management, social responsibility, visual design – the first step is to accept that it’s needed.


Once the ambition is there, then understanding how to develop all these elements, and combine them to create a unique and desirable proposition is a relatively straightforward process, Yes, it is a time consuming process that requires commitment and resources, but it’s also one that can be integrated alongside an operational business.

There is no need to "throw the baby out with the bathwater” as we say over here, which is to say there is no need to discard valuable assets alongside those that might need to be changed. But, the need for change, evolution, is as inevitable as time marching on, particularly if you need intend to thrive long into the future.


Branding & the Guest : Hotels Japan pt.2 follows next month...


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