Some CEOs appear to sleep with business books under their pillows, and when they rise, every marketing buzzword from the text has seeped into their vocabulary. Starwood Hotels CEO Steve Heyer opened a media summit in New York recently by presenting the companys strategic overview. This, in part, is what I heard:

Virtuous circles ... six pillars ... corporate footprint opportunities ... uniqueness over ubiquity ... build brands, not trademarks ... Six Sigma principles ... development will be bugless ... experience engineers must become the brand they represent ... to loyalize the customer.

Or something like that.

The net-net? Starwood would join the ranks of Starbucks, Apple, Harley-Davidson, Virgin and Oprah. Theyre our standard, he said.

The companys executives said they were searching for a truly radical concept that would not only differentiate Starwood among hotels but would bring them into the ranks of the visionary companies mentioned above. In this spirit, they and their agency, BBDO, decided on a positioning that focuses on experiences, to the exclusion of even showing the hotel products in ads.

Throughout the day, the brand managers of each of the hotels showed how this philosophy would apply to their flags, and media were presented with a glossary of keywords that encapsulate the new positioning.

I really like Starwood, and I think the new emphasis is good -- it will help strengthen the brands, some of which need strengthening. But there is a disconnect here, and I hope Starwood officials were only trying to fool the media and not themselves.

Its disingenuous to position their new direction as radical. They are following a certified trend, walking in the footsteps -- Im sorry, corporate footprints -- of office supply companies, dog food companies, destination marketing campaigns and (hate to bring this up) other hotel companies.

To prove that other hotel ad campaigns were generic, Javier Benito, chief marketing officer, showed four rather dull hotel print ads, then confessed he had switched the logos.

But absent in his show-and-tell were Peninsulas campaign using Annie Leibovitz photographs, Marriotts edgy athletes-on-a-bed series and Hotel Indigos haiku campaign.

The only way he could build a case was to tamper with the evidence.

To wit: Similar to the new Starwood ad proclaiming that white tea is the calming new scent of Westin, the only photography behind Indigos haiku is a green plant. Hands down, I like the Westin ad better. The photo is more arresting, and it has the very cool touch of having a perfume strip. But unfortunately, the Indigo ad was already out there to compare it to.

Reading Starwoods keyword glossary, I was reminded of Canadas rebranding keywords. Where Canada promotes self-expression, St. Regis is bespoke. Canadas exploration morphs to Le Meridiens discovery. Canada: Freedom. W Hotels: Escape.

Looking at the Starwood keywords and the brands, I think they represent, in a very traditional sense, classic, not radical, brand positioning.

The ads are, of course, only the external face of the rebranding; Starwood must also deliver the appropriate experience at the property level. Training employees is important, but the ultimate rebranding challenge for hoteliers is that its difficult to match brands with keywords due to legacy inconsistencies among its properties.

For instance, the most bespoke Starwood property Ive visited was not a St. Regis but a Sheraton (keywords: warm, comfort, connection) in the Luxury Collection (keywords: enriching, local experiences) in Addis Ababa.

That property certainly failed the local experience test. The French restaurant, the owners Ferrari and the Bellagio-like choreographed fountains did not strike me as particularly typical of Ethiopia.

Still, Starwood may be able to command brand discipline with W, Aloft, St. Regis and its work in progress, Project ESW by Westin.

Heyers branding credentials as former president of Coke give him more credibility than others who speak in buzzwords -- and if former Starwood Chairman Barry Sternlicht had wanted radical reshaping of his brands, he would have hired the guy who revitalized Mountain Dew instead.

In the end, I suspect that people who define their branding strategy in buzzwords are just as likely to achieve success as iconoclastic thinkers.

I sincerely hope the new Starwood campaign improves guest experiences and spins buzzwords into buzz. But if youre looking for radical, keep looking.


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