A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton | Part 5: Branding

Recent History of Hilton Branding Strategy

Before we talk about branding, it is important to understand what a brand is. If we approach the question philosophically, a brand is just an entity that exists in our collective imagination. If tomorrow, all Hilton hotels disappear, the brand will continue to exist. This is because a brand is what we perceive about a particular product or service, and not a physical entity.

Only the mandate of a judge can dissolve the Hilton brand. This is because in our heads, the law is above the brands or in an “imagined order.” In practical terms, Hilton only exists in our inter-subjective imagination, in other words we all agree that Hilton is a major brand. If you really think about a brand, it lives on a small piece of paper sitting somewhere in the country. Lawyers actually refer to corporation brands as “legal fiction entities.” 

To understand the evolution of brands we need to go back 70,000 years ago, to the beginning of the cognitive revolution. At that time, early humans only gathered with about 150 individuals at a time., If groups grew larger, social order destabilized and these groups eventually dismantled (1) . 

Thanks to the development of “fiction,” humans were able to gather in much larger groups, today comprising millions of people at a time. Fiction allows large numbers of strangers to cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. This development was, in fact, the beginning of religions, imaginary geopolitical boundaries, brands, and so on. All of these concepts exist only in our heads, these “myths” and our collective imagination allow us to co-exist and collaborate in much larger groups than pre-cognitive revolution humans. 

Despite the fact that brands live only in our heads, their influence is so great that a corporation can buy private property, open bank accounts, get loans, and mostly any other transaction intended only to serve humans. In fact, today corporations have a lot more power than people. In the blink of an eye, they can get the resources they need to operate, way beyond the capabilities of individual humans. In this pandemic, for example, Hilton raised $1 billion from American Express and $500 million in senior unsecured notes (2) while I, as an individual member of society, have been waiting for my federal unemployment benefit since March. Brands can do this, because collectively, we believe they have a lot of value. But how much are we talking about? In Hilton’s case, we value the brand at $10 billion (3). 

Hilton understands the power of branding. It seems almost counterintuitive that the Hilton brand is more valuable today than in 2017 when it owned and leased 150 of the largest hotels around the world. Hilton’s brand is also more valuable than Marriott’s brand, even though Marriott has 16% more hotels than Hilton. 

Disparities like these in brand valuations are normal — it all depends on how well companies craft their story. Just look at what happened recently in the automotive industry: for the first time Tesla was ranked the most valuable, surpassing Toyota in market capitalization for the first time (4). Tesla produced 367,000 cars in 2019, while Toyota produced 14.7 million (5). Tesla’s brand in this case seems to be more valuable for investors’ than Toyota as investors are betting that Tesla would be more successful in the future, with Toyota lagging behind. Toyota’s ugly Prius hasn’t been successful in selling the story of the electric future, and that has hurt Toyota’s brand image and reputation. Tesla value is off the charts for a company of its size, but in our minds, or at least on investors’ minds, that’s how much it is worth. 

After this brief introduction to brands, you should be able to appreciate their power and the benefits that come with this power. Some people think that putting a monetary value on a brand is crazy, but it is not. That’s why celebrities can charge $5K, $8K or even $50K to write a 140- character sentence and share it in social media. If nobody pays you $10 to send the same tweet, your personal brand is not as strong as you think. Brand value can be translated easily into real businesses and real dollars. 

Hotel corporations with strong brands attract millions of loyalists, hotel owners, employees, and business partners, and that’s what Hilton does best. In the hotel industry, Hilton occupies rank #1 in our collective “imagined order.” We perceive small brands as weak, because we believe they can be acquired or go out of business in a recession a lot easier than a major brand. Small brands are at the bottom the “imagined order” and large brands at the top. 

Branding played a key role in Hilton’s corporate culture transformation. This is because brands not only impact customers’ perceptions, but also that of employees and business partners. A good brand would be able to attract and retain talent more easily than a weaker brand, and Hilton knows that well. When a brand is good, it attracts the best talent in the industry — people want desperately to work for it, sometimes without even considering other options. 

Brand value can also change over time. At some point not long ago, Hilton was part of a pool of weak, troubled brands. The company was divided between the European and the Americas operations, and the subsequent acquisition of different brands led to a disintegrated culture without a north. To learn more about how Hilton was able to realign, read my article about the topic here

When Chris Nassetta joined the company, he realized that the brand had to be repositioned, and although he almost immediately drafted a plan, the results only started to materialize many years later. One of the first documents on record of Chris’ actions was the 2012 Brand Strategy and Action Plan book. Published internally, the plan provided some direction on how the Hilton brand promise should be delivered and what changes should be implemented. 

In this 121-page document, Dave Horton, the global head of Hilton brand at the time, did a great job explaining the challenges of the brand and what the future should look like. This is how he put it:

 “The amazing story of Hilton Hotels & Resorts continues. As the most iconic name in the hotel industry, our power and reach allow us to deliver our Brand Promise — To ensure every Guest feels cared for, valued and respected — at a level that’s simply unmatched worldwide. But in 2011, we refused to lean in our legacy. The level of collaboration exhibited across our global portfolio was nothing short of inspiring. Through our innovation, dedication and genuine passion to shape relevant experiences, we went beyond our Brand Promise. We ignited a Culture and, by aligning our initiatives and support teams to meet the needs of each of our regions, have set the stage to differentiate our unified Brand as never before… We’ve invested a great deal of time, energy and resources into forward-thinking initiatives intended to level the playing field. Guided by a clear Brand architecture, and armed with our first global Brand management platform, we must now approach 2012 with an emphasis on simplification, execution and amplification.” 

2012 Brand Strategy and Action Plan

One of the first steps Chris Nassetta took to rebuild Hilton’s brand was to incorporate the Hilton name to each of its hotel brands. He understood that “Hilton” carried a lot of brand power, but smaller brands such as Homewood or Hampton Inn, not that much. This was a clever move and marked the beginning of a new branding era for Hilton. This shift led to an increase of portfolio branding and better allocation of marketing dollars. For the first time, Hilton’s brands were not competing with each other, instead, they were targeting consumers with different needs on a new dimension. As a consequence, Hilton’s brand improved significantly, leaving other hotel companies in the dust. 

Today all Hilton brands carry the Hilton name. For instance, “Hampton Inn” is is “Hampton Inn by Hilton.” The same applies to other brands such as “DoubleTree by Hilton.” and “Homewood Suites by Hilton.” Although it seems like a minuscule change, it had a huge impact on Hilton’s brand value.

Surprisingly, other major hotel brands haven’t followed suit. Sheraton stills Sheraton, Aloft stills Aloft, and Four Points is actually by Sheraton, despite the fact that all of these brands are part of the Marriott portfolio of hotels. Accor rarely uses the name Accor when marketing individual brands such as Ibis, Novotel, or Swissôtel. The Accor brand is not displayed at these hotel properties which is a missed opportunity for reinforcing that “imagined order,” which, at the end of the day, brings value to a brand.

Although this change is credited to Chris, the truth is that the first Hilton hotel that pioneered this concept was the DoubleTree by Hilton in Lima, Peru. When this property opened in Latin America in the year 2000, it was the only DoubleTree in the country, so its management team added Hilton to its name to take advantage of its major brand power. 

Today Hilton is the 63rd most valued brand in the United States (3), much higher than Marriott, currently at 78. The brand grew 17% between 2018 and 2019 while Marriott dropped 30%. The fastest-growing hotel brands came from Hilton’s portfolio: Homewood Suites, DoubleTree and Hampton Inn (5). The full finance brand report can be accessed here

The impact brands have on customers benefits business partners and employees. Loyal customers and willing to pay more for a company they feel is better aligned with their needs and preferences. This added value translates into incremental revenues which, in turn, translate into more profits for the company. With this incremental revenue, Hilton has been able to benefit employees through a variety of industry-class benefits and advance business partners by reducing franchise fees, in many cases 1% or 2% (6), as well as improving occupancy levels and daily rates at the hotels, below similar brands.

Employees feel prouder working for a reputable brand, and they feel more confident about the future. These feelings help drive levels of engagement to new highs, while people perform at work beyond expectations. As Chris Nassetta and Matt Schyuler have said repeatedly, when you are in the business of people serving people, happy employees really matter. 

References

1. Harari YN. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: Harper Perennial; 2018.

2. Clark P, Smith M, Surane H. Hilton Selling $1 Billion Loyalty Points to American Express: Bloomberg; 2020 [Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-16/hilton-selling-1-billion-in-loyalty-points-to-american-express.

3. WPP. Brandz Top 100 Most Valuable Brands 2020. WPP; 2020.

4. BBC News. Tesla overtakes Toyota to become world’s most valuable carmaker: BBC News; 2020 [Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53257933.

5. Taylor M. Hilton Overtakes Marriott as World’s Most Valuable Brand: Travel Pulse; 2019 [Available from: https://www.travelpulse.com/news/hotels-and-resorts/hilton-overtakes-marriott-as-worlds-most-valuable-brand.html.

6. Dent J. Rethinking Hotel “Brands”. 2019.

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