Though much ink has already been spilled analyzing Marriott's newly rebranded Bonvoy loyalty program, it's clear that the platform, which has more than 125 million members, won't be fading from public consciousness anytime soon.

The company kicked off its Bonvoy launch campaign with the airing of several television ads during the Academy Awards on Feb. 24. The spots had been created with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet at the helm as director and two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski overseeing the cinematography. 

More Bonvoy promotional activity is planned around high-profile events, including Coachella, the NCAA Tournament and the Dubai Jazz Festival, among others. Marriott is also backing the program via partnerships with sports organizations including Manchester United, Formula One and Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport.

Such heavy investment is not surprising coming from a company with pockets as deep as Marriott's, but what has been somewhat surprising is just how high Marriott has set its aspirations for Bonvoy, which was unveiled in January.

Bonvoy consolidates the group's Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) programs. On the company's fourth-quarter earnings call March 1, CEO Arne Sorenson told analysts that when it comes to taking stock of the group's 30-brand stable, "the brand that is most important is Marriott Bonvoy."

"Each hotel brand hopefully says something," added Sorenson. "It's got a product definition ... and it meets the expectations of our customers in a way that lets them sort of understand what they're booking within our portfolio. But it's that Bonvoy umbrella branding which is the most important thing."

The fact that Marriott expects Bonvoy to serve as a kind of parent brand for its diverse portfolio could be a tall order for the loyalty program, especially since the platform's moniker has received a mixed response.

"I've never seen more backlash over a name," said Gilbert Ott, founder of loyalty-focused travel blog God Save the Points. "Some people seem to really hate the name Bonvoy, so I think Marriott's definitely on the charm offensive right now trying to combat that."

Likewise, Allen Adamson, co-founder of the Metaforce consulting firm and an adjunct associate professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, said that the abstract nature of the Bonvoy name could pose a unique challenge for Marriott. 

"The first hurdle for Marriott is getting people to understand and embrace the name, which will require far more spending and time than most people think," Adamson said. "Because what is Bonvoy? They're creating a brand out of what we call an empty vessel. It has no inherent meaning, so this is really going to take some old-fashioned brand-building in an era when most companies don't have the budgets or the time to do that."

Overall, however, Adamson is bullish on Marriott's efforts to bring its many brands under the Bonvoy flag. While it may take time for consumers to warm up to the name, he said, the company's move to both unify and magnify its loyalty program was "a smart branding approach."

"I personally think the name is actually pretty good," Adamson said. "It conjures up upscale travel and has a bit of panache. It's just going to take a fair amount of investment to get people to remember it and understand it. But it does solve a problem by being such a neutral brand and one that all the brands in the portfolio can connect to without confusion. Marriott really had to do something like this, and there are huge stakes, because this could be a linchpin for unlocking the value in all the brands they've acquired." 

Ott said he sees similar opportunity for Marriott to benefit from a more cohesive branding strategy.

"I think the average traveler who stays at these different brands has no idea that they're necessarily staying at a Marriott property," Ott said. "Whereas with Starwood, people were extremely loyal and knew that Starwood hotels had a unique way of doing things. It's clear that Marriott wants people to recognize that Marriott Bonvoy is the entity behind all these places and to maybe create some of that same beloved recognition that the SPG brand had."

Some in the branding and marketing world remain skeptical about just how big an impact Bonvoy can ultimately have. Thomas Ajello, global chief creative officer and senior partner at the brand strategy firm Vivaldi, said the program so far doesn't live up to the campaign hype. 

"It's not clear that they're doing anything new," Ajello said. "I took a look online and gave Bonvoy about as much time as one would give when trying to research a hotel stay. And in the time I gave it, I wasn't able to find something that made me go, 'Holy smokes, this is something I really need to know about.'"

Ajello said Marriott might need to think more outside the box in order to truly offer what the Bonvoy campaign tagline claims are "rewards reimagined."

"One of my mentors once said to me, 'Online -- especially online and especially in this kind of customer experience-driven world -- you can only derive value to the extent you deliver it,'" Ajello said. "I think rewards brands, in general, are going to need to evolve dramatically. The value isn't there in the way that the perceived value was in the past. 

"If you want someone as a customer, you have to deliver something back in order to get them to connect and engage. Marriott may really need to think about the customer at a much broader level."

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI