BRINGING A BRAND’S CULTURE TO LIFE
As a strategic planner getting started in the advertising industry, one hopes to quickly say that their blood, sweat and tears directly influenced or informed work that is produced and can be seen on television, in a magazine or online. In my case, working on a luxury brand and coming out of a global recession carried with it a greater set of complexities than just making a recognizable ad campaign. As a result of recession, my client had to first make the case for why luxury was worth paying a premium for and, further, show that it had a point of view that distinguished itself in the hotel category. Before I could bring a campaign to life, I would need to rearticulate what was at the heart of the brand and work to bring its culture to life.
When a campaign rings so true to the client that the President/COO says to the most important decision makers that what you have created is not just advertising, but an operations platform across all business sectors—that’s an adrenaline rush. And to hear that the work that you helped to create describes what each and every one of the 35,000 employees worldwide does every single day better than anyone has been able to articulate before—it makes your heart sing. Not only that, it had an impact on one of the most iconic heritage brands in the world—The Ritz-Carlton.
WHAT IS “LUXURY,” ANYWAY?
The luxury category has been in trouble for a while. Even before the recession it had become all too accessible to the masses. There was no longer simply “luxury,” but also “aspirational luxury” and “near luxury” as luxury brands sought to increase profits by creating products more accessible to the masses. It had become all too common to see the logos of luxury brands printed on everything from mobile cases to flip-flops. Luxury lost its specialness. And this wasn’t unique to the United States. Across the world, in all but the countries in the most nascent stages of over-the-top expressions of wealth, luxury had been democratized. Its meaning was left unclear and muddled at best. At worst, it was completely devoid of meaning or had become a complete mockery of itself.
And then recession hit. Even some of the most prestigious companies were found with “SALE!” and “Half off!” signs in front of their doors. Prices were slashed and those consumers still brave enough to be seen with a predominantly logoed bag flocked to stores to scoop up discounted luxury goods for a song.
Emerging tentatively from recession, there was an imperative to reframe the luxury conversation, and quickly. What was the new definition of luxury in this new global economy when even the word “luxury” is seen as distasteful? And how do you convince consumers that luxury is still worth paying a premium for? How do you get across that luxury is not only rare and special but can still play a vital role in their lives? And importantly for The Ritz- Carlton, how do you convince potential guests that they will get their money’s worth?
A CRITICAL POINT IN TIME
In the midst of an uncertain luxury and hospitality landscape, The Ritz-Carlton faced an additional challenge. The company’s brand footprint was increasing globally, so establishing and growing the brand’s reputation in Asia and the Middle East was of primary concern. Additionally, these markets have widely different expressions of luxury, particularly in contrast to areas where The Ritz-Carlton is already well-established, as in North America and Europe. All the while, marketing budgets were decreasing across the board. Since we didn’t have the benefit of a large marketing budget, how could we craft a message that not only establishes a new meaning for luxury, but that would be relevant to these seemingly disparate global affluents?
A NEW GLOBAL AUDIENCE
The start to our solution was to take a look at the affluent traveler in a different light. While many global brands tend to look at consumers as a series of disparate regional groups, we knew that our marketing budget wouldn’t stretch that far. We approached the challenge by looking at global affluents as one universal audience.
We also knew that the lines defining consumers regionally were blurring. One might very well spend six months of the year living in Shanghai, another three in London, and finish out the year in New York City. Knowing that global affluents have certain global travel habits in common, what else might they have in common?
Taking a look at affluent trends worldwide, we hypothesized that this consumer has more in common by virtue of what they love than where they live. And we were right. As we explored the ways that affluents around the world see the world today, it became clear that there were shared values around success, mobility, status, networking and consumption. Though the expressions were brought to life in vastly different ways across the globe, these values were common to this particular set of people—what we came to call the Global Affluent Tribe.
These values collectively described this group more clearly in a way that transcended their disparate regions. What could The Ritz-Carlton uniquely own and leverage from this new point of view on the Global Affluent Tribe? The value of mobility stood out above the rest as being core to what The Ritz-Carlton offers—journeys of self-discovery that stay with you, bought to life through the brand’s expanding global footprint and the experiences enabled by their exceptional service offering.
BUILDING THE PROMISE
Though we began with the assignment of creating an ad campaign, we soon came to realize the depth of the challenges that we were facing. We needed to reframe the luxury conversation and evolve the brand positioning in the process.
The Ritz-Carlton’s difference lies in the Ladies and Gentlemen that work tirelessly to create exceptional experiences at Ritz-Carlton Hotels around the globe. Each and every one of them—from the housekeepers to the General Managers—are charged with seeing opportunities to make a guest’s experience exceptional and memorable.
The brand also has a plethora of what are called “WOW Stories”—heartwarming stories of Ladies and Gentleman going above and beyond their core job functions to create exceptional stays and memories, all resulting in an experience so significant and meaningful that they make permanent impressions on guests across the globe. This is the true value of a stay at The Ritz-Carlton: the commitment of the Ladies and Gentlemen to create such memories. It is not simply the exceptional, personal service. That’s a promise many luxury hospitality brands make. It’s about the ultimate outcome of the service, the memories that guests leave with. These insights into the culture of The Ritz-Carlton resulted in the brand positioning of “Creating Indelible Marks.”
Luxury hospitality advertising is filled with conventions of exquisite rooms, soothing spas and beautiful people, all asking guests to come to their hotel to stay awhile. We saw a huge opportunity. Why would we want the hotel experience to end when the guest received the bill, limiting our relationship only to the time that guests are staying on property? Why should that time have to end at all? We want to always stay in our guests’ hearts and minds. Instead of asking guests to come and stay with us, we could leverage the power of the experiences brought to life by the Ladies and Gentlemen and ask guests if they would allow us to stay with them—in their memories and the stories they share. In creating a new brand promise, we found something worth paying a premium for, something rare and special, something that would outlast almost any material item. We could redefine luxury moving forward.
What does the promise of “Creating Indelible Marks” have to do with luxury? Actually, everything. In solving for how to stand out in a monotonous luxury hotel landscape, we also solved for a lack of meaning for luxury overall. Luxury is no longer about just being a superficial badge, defined by a prestigious name or expense. We defined luxury as a depth of emotion and meaning derived from an experience that doesn’t easily go away.
BUILDING THE CAMPAIGN
Instead of asking guests to stay with us, we wanted to ask permission to stay with our guests. The strategic vision for both hospitality and luxury came to life in a clear, direct matter in the campaign theme, which quickly became the tagline as well—“Let Us Stay With You.” The memories that guests form while experiencing a stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel will stay with them long after they leave and can be triggered by even the smallest everyday occurrence, taking them back to their time at The Ritz-Carlton.
The print and digital ads played on visual devices that turned everyday objects into evocative scenes. Images recalling memories created by The Ritz-Carlton that would stay with guests are brought to life through the smallest provocations. Ads depicted books on a glossy desk against a window through which a bright blue sky transforms into a sailboat at sea. A shelf filled with exotic knick-knacks and tchotchkes evokes Shanghai’s skyline.
The print and digital campaign was rounded out through a multi—channel approach. A campaign video was created that would run in the rooms of each Ritz-Carlton around the world. It would also live on the webpage and Facebook. A special tab was created on the brand’s Facebook page for guests to share their WOW stories—the first time that The Ritz-Carlton actively invited guests to share their experiences in a public forum.
The website was redesigned and now includes a “Let Us Stay With You” section, a collection of exceptional stories, tips, recipes, and memorable moments from the Ladies and Gentleman at The Ritz-Carlton. We also included a “Stories That Stay With You” section highlighting some of the best WOW Stories from across the globe. A mobile app was successfully launched that leveraged a virtual concierge and linked to The Ritz Carlton’s Concierge tips on Foursquare. And plans began for a six-part “Art of the Craft” video series detailing how great guest memories are created by the best-of-the-best Ladies and Gentlemen.
Through our strategy, we discovered a way to transform the very nature of the relationship between hotel and guest. Instead of simply reflecting a mirror back on the guest or on the brand, we brought to the surface what is rare and special about The Ritz-Carlton, providing guests something after the bill is paid and they have returned to their everyday lives.
AND WE WAITED
On launch day in October 2011, The Ritz-Carlton’s “Let Us Stay With You” campaign received feature placement in The New York Times Advertising column. More importantly, in the months following the launch, we won back “First Choice Brand Preference” versus The Four Seasons, our closest competitor, in a brand tracker. Since then, The Ritz-Carlton has doubled the growth of average revenue per room, achieving the highest level in the brand history. We also achieved nine consecutive months of market-share growth and increased premium product (e.g., Club and Suite room) sales. Room rates are now at the highest level in the history of the company. And increasingly, The Ritz-Carlton is being discussed alongside non-hospitality brands as a luxury brand that is leading the way in creating value and exceptional experiences worth paying a premium for.
These are all results to be proud of. But what I’m most proud of and humbled by are the stories of how the Ladies and Gentlemen at Ritz-Carlton Hotels around the globe received the campaign. On launch day at The Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman, employees watched the in-room video for the first time. The Ladies and Gentleman immediately asked if they could watch it again, deeply moved by seeing a campaign message that finally expressed what they strive to do each and every day through their work.
We were originally tasked with creating an ad campaign, but we did so much more. We reframed the luxury category. We developed brand positioning. And ultimately, we amplified the culture of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. We unlocked the power of a memory and also unlocked an operational platform that is true to the brand. We found a way to continue guiding The Ritz-Carlton through global expansion in a still uncertain economy. But we hadn’t just told guests they would get their money’s worth, we showed them how they would get their memories’ worth.