To Build Your Brand, Cut Your Marketing Budget

By Diane Merlino

This is the third of three articles based on a dialogue between marketing expert and international brand guru Martin Lindstrom and Travel Weekly PLUS Editor-in-Chief Diane Merlino.  

No doubt about it. Some of Martin Lindstrom’s ideas and marketing strategies sound counterintuitive and a little outlandish. If you really want to build your brand, cut your marketing budget in half. Forget the customization wave; limit the choices you offer customers. And, your customers — not you — own your brand.

But the internationally respected marketing and brand guru has been identifying business-shifting consumer trends for decades and has written six major books covering variations on those themes. He has some very specific recommendations about what travel companies need to do.

Lindstrom says the first step to enhance your brand in the marketplace is to cut your traditional marketing budget in half, then direct some creative brainpower to the task of repurposing the other half to develop alternative methods of generating traffic. “Companies become so dependent on that pipeline of traffic generated by the pipeline of money they are funneling into conventional media. That’s fine, but everyone else is doing the same,” he says.

The travel industry can take a lesson from the resurgence of the global tobacco industry that occurred after it was forced to rethink its marketing in the face of a near-global ban on advertising. “Once that would have meant the death of tobacco, yet people are smoking 7% more cigarettes now than they did just three years ago,” Lindstrom says. “The tobacco industry was forced to approach the market in the different way, to literally ask: ‘Well, if we can’t use advertising, what do we do then?’”

Lindstrom recommends that travel companies take a similar tack — but by proactive design rather than under coercion from external forces. You’re pushing your organization into coming up with a different approach to marketing, he says, “rather than being forced by need or forced by a battle where the competition is beating you. It’s a bit like creating your own fake competition ahead of the competition. You prepare your battle before it’s even started in such a way that you are winning before the battle has begun.”

Figure out how to build nimbleness into your organization, Lindstrom advises — especially if you’re a bigger travel company. “As soon as you become a very big player, you become incredibly inflexible, and you are not very prepared to listen about potential change, because it hurts too much,” he says.

A starting point to nimbleness-building is to brainstorm all the different characteristics of an entrepreneurial startup company, then figure out how to infuse them back into your organization. “Maybe it’s that they are flexible, or they are working day and night, or they have crazy ideas, or have courage and are not afraid of offending people,” Lindstrom says.

A little soul searching should accompany that task. “Ask yourselves: ‘What is wrong now? Why have we become so inflexible, so slow, so afraid of offending people?’ Then take those characteristics you identified in startups and, one by one, focus on fine-tuning back to acting like an entrepreneurial company.”

But isn’t size a sign of success? Perhaps. But, Lindstrom notes, “There is a reason why a company like Instagram was sold for $1 billion [earlier this year] and managed to beat Kodak, which spent about five years building exactly the same concepts. That’s because these small startups have the guts and the flexibility and the nimbleness that the big players don’t have.”

“It’s very clear to me as a branding guy that brands are not developed by companies anymore; they’re developed by the consumers,” Lindstrom says. “The brand is owned by the consumers, and that means you need to get them on your side — they are your investors. There is no way you can get around it without engaging the consumer in a systematic way.”

Noting that “very few travel companies” are engaging consumers in brand development to the degree of other industries, Lindstrom advises that they figure out ways to turn customers into “evangelists for your brand, so they recruit other people. Travel has so much to do with experiences and so much to do with word of mouth, with people conveying emotions to each other. The travel industry needs to understand the psychology of that to an extreme degree. Of any industry, they need to be No. 1 in that area, and today I don’t see that.”

Lindstrom says he has never seen a hotel program that uses the 24-hour “very deep emotional contact” with guests to create “some sort of ambassador program where my passion and emotional engagement becomes the No. 1 recruitment method for the hotel.”

Here’s one idea for how to do that: “Instead of a questionnaire, maybe you put a deck of 20 different photos on the pillow, and you ask the guest to pick the two that best reflect their experience at the hotel,” Lindstrom says. These aren’t just any old photos: they have been developed so the guest can express deep, unspoken and unconscious feelings about their stay. By evaluating the implications of the images selected, rather than relying on the cookie cutter responses in standard guest questionnaires, “the hotel can build a whole new map of how people are truly experiencing their stay.”

Step two could be to use that new map to determine how to recruit those guests to become ambassadors for the /uploadedImages/TW_Plus/xTW_Plus_Images_ONLY/LindstromTimelandingET.jpghotel, then build a community around people who might have the same interests. “I guess my message here is that there needs to be some motivation for people,” Lindstrom says. “To sell a hotel room with a bed and a toilet is not new, it’s been in in the industry for hundreds of years. There needs to be more out-of-the-box thinking.”

“What I’ve realized with all my research is that too many choices leads to no choice at all,” Lindstrom says. “That’s the reason why Top 10 lists of this and that are so popular — because we are fundamentally insecure and we want people to guide us.”

Lindstrom uses a chocolate study to illustrate this point: “People were given a box of chocolate with 26 pieces in the box, and only 7% of the people decided to buy one of those pieces. But when you gave them a box with only four pieces of chocolate in it, 29% decided to pick one of those four pieces.”

The takeaway from that study is that “the fewer options we have the more we are willing to buy,” Lindstrom says. “The travel industry is going the total opposite way. They are saying the more options we give to people — the more freedom, the more flexibility, the more customization they have — the more they will buy. But that’s wrong. It’s actually the opposite, because people become confused. It’s so difficult to compare apples and bananas that they just give up.”

Much like Apple Inc.’s approach, simplicity rather than customization is the wave of the future, according to Lindstrom. “And maybe that means you only have three packages in total and that’s it — take it or leave it. But people will like it because someone has made a decision on their behalf. The busier we are, the more insecure we are and the more choices we have, the more we prefer that someone is making the choice rather than having to do it ourselves.”

For more of Martin Lindstrom’s exclusive insights for Travel Weekly PLUS readers see:
Forget Surveys. Move in With Your Customers
Don’t Just Sit There — Incubate


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