I have worked for a couple of organizations that comprise a portfolio of brands under one corporate umbrella, and I've noticed that there tends to be a predictable cycle regarding brand strategies.

If the portfolio is managed as a centralized unit, eventually a strategist will suggest that the brands be assigned to individual managers who will be empowered to do whatever it takes to maximize the growth of their individual brand, up to and including competing with other brands in the portfolio.

Typically, after a few years down that road, the brand strategist (or her/his successor) will decide that the group should again be managed as a solitary unit, relegating individual brand managers to the role of implementing a centralized strategy.

A few years later, the cycle repeats. I call it the strategy pendulum.

I have seen virtues and pitfalls in either direction of the pendulum, but a recent conversation I had with Ed Fuller, president and managing director of international lodging for Marriott International, provided some insight into what can happen when one end of the swing really gains momentum.

Ed is the architect of Marriott's global "billboard strategy," which avers that the best way to interest non-U.S. travelers in staying at a Marriott when they travel abroad is to really wow them with their Marriott at home.

In other words, if the JW Marriott in Shanghai is designed to draw in and impress local Chinese residents, they will be more likely to want to stay in a JW Marriott when they travel overseas.

Fuller first described the strategy to me three years ago, and when we met up again last week, he said it was going extremely well.

The billboard strategy sounded as if it would serve the JW Marriott, Renaissance and Ritz-Carlton brands well, but I wondered whether it might suppress international growth among the lower-end products in the company's 20-brand portfolio.

Fuller said that you could add other brands if there was a demand for other brands' attributes, but all in good time.

"If we started out with Courtyard by Marriott in a new country, the residents' impression of the whole corporation is that we are three-star. That would hurt us when we try to come in next with a JW Marriott or when they're looking for something nicer abroad for their own travels."

But it's not a matter of simply putting in a high-end property first, either. In the 1980s, Fuller said, Marriott would sometimes open a very nice resort as their entry into a destination. 

"That won't work either," he continued. "It's fine for visiting Americans, but the folks who live in that country's cities won't be familiar with the brand and will have no reason to consider Marriott either domestically or abroad. That's why we open the billboard hotels in the largest cities first."

He outlined how his overall approach worked in the U.K. "First we covered major cities with high-end brands, then spread out to secondary cities with Marriotts. Now we're introducing Courtyards in earnest in smaller markets, and they're all doing fine."

There are exceptions to the pattern, he said, notably in the Caribbean. Though the islands are independent countries with their own cultures, they pay close attention to what's opening on other islands, so there's no need to establish a first-presence with a high-end brand on every island.

"In a sense, San Juan is the capital of the Caribbean, and that's where we put up [the billboard hotels]. On the other hand, the only hotel we have in development on Trinidad is a Courtyard. You have to match what the market's after."

With similar logic, he has introduced Residence Inns outside the U.S. only in South America "because business is done similarly to how it is done in the U.S., and business travelers' needs for lodging are similar."

Has he ever made a mismatch? Brought the wrong brand to a country? Opened a JW Marriott in Papua New Guinea, for instance, and found there were no takers?

"There's an occasional hotel ..." He broke off in mid-sentence. "I'll never admit to a mistake. But I can tell you one thing: We're not going to put a JW Marriott in Papua New Guinea."

Fuller appears to have jumped free of the pendulum strategy for the foreseeable future or, at the very least, he's having fun discovering just how far it can swing in one direction.


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