Marriott launches Autograph Collection: a tricky proposition ~ Brand Mix

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Marriott launches Autograph Collection: a tricky proposition

As a brand architect, I've always loved Marriott International. Here's a company that's really explored all the brand architecture options. See how, on this frequently-used chart of mine, the company has managed the relationship between the Marriott brand and its hotel properties up and down the price/quality spectrum. Its lower-priced hotels get a Marriott seal of quality endorsement but are kept at some distance. The JW Marriott uses the founder's name to signal a more upscale product and the Ritz Carlton stands alone.

With its extensive brand portfolio and the careful use of its flagship brand, Marriott has managed to compete successfully across a wide range of properties, providing consistent, appropriate and predictable quality to different customer segments. But what to do with those pesky, growing number of people who prefer independent, boutique hotels and who yearn for something that they would describe as less cookie-cutter. What to do about them?

Well, here's what Marriott has decided. It's launching a new brand called the Autograph Collection which will bring together high-end, unique properties in an upscale franchise. From a business perspective, this looks good. The high-end properties benefit from the marketing and operating efficiencies of tapping into Marriott's powerful infrastructure. Marriott benefits by partnering with these hotels to attract this tough-to-reach, independent-minded segment.

From a branding perspective, it's tricky. How can one of the strongest hotel brands successfully appeal to a segment of people who are trying to escape strong hotel brands? How can its new brand stay low enough key that it doesn't get in the way of the individuality of its independent hotel partners but still drive business?

In this Washington Post article, Don Semmler, Marriott's executive vice president of brand management, says that the purpose of the Autograph Collection is to bring a level of consistency to the new hotels, which the company hopes will build trust in the new brand among potential customers. He told The Post: "The universe of independent hotels has a lot of variation, some good, some bad. Our research tells us they want a trusted expert to help them navigate, so there is no disappointment."

That speaks to another problem. Will a company that has been so successful at delivering consistent hospitality experiences be able to stop itself from driving out all the quirks, inconsistencies and peculiarities that give these independent hotels the character that makes them attractive in the first place?

7 comments:

denise lee yohn said...

great questions, martin -- they are important ones for any hotel chain to consider but particularly for marriott -- unlike starwood or ich, the marriott brand hasn't reflected the attributes (e.g., strong design aesthetic, high profile locations, etc.) that are normally associated with independent hotels -- so this move might be more of a stretch because of where it is starting from -- only time will tell, i suppose.

p.s. (i recently wrote a related post about joie de vivre, the collection of boutique hotels -- it cited the jdv as an example of a small hotel company that uses its size as a competitive advantage against larger hotel brands like marriott -- http://deniseleeyohn.com/bites/2009/10/29/size-as-a-competitive-advantage/)

1day1brand said...

Martin,

Thanks for this great information on Marriott's brand architecture.

But I don't really get how moving the brand into an endorser brand at the value levels is effective.

I used to travel to Redmond and stay at "The Marriott" but when they were full, I'd stay at the "Towneplace Suites". The Marriott endorsement of the later really took the shine off of the equity they'd built up in my brain.

-- Axle
@1day1brand

Martin Bishop said...

Denise and Axle: Thanks for your comments.

Denise: I think you're right about Marriott vs. Starwood or Joie de Vivre. Marriott does not have a strong focus on design and it's the model of consistency and that seems to be the antithesis of the independent spirit.

Axle: You point to the dilemma that all businesses face when they use their flagship brand to endorse value properties. This strategy always helps the value properties (like Towneplace Suites) but can negatively impact the equity of the endorsing brand.

I think that Marriott has handled this risk pretty well because it's made sure that the lower priced properties at least conform to Marriott's consistency standards.

yippy said...

Think the key brand question here is the real role of "Autograph" collection. Is it eally a hotel brand or is ti an "endorement / facilitator" brand??...Somewhat like Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

Anonymous said...

Kingsmill Resort on the James in Williamsburg is considering soft branding under the autograph collection with Marriott--many of us owners are not happy with this. I am trying to find out what the possible impacts that will have on the future of our investments since the rooms at kingsmill are owned privately. We feel that we will lose money by having to pay for the branding and this untested market may fail and we will be stuck with a 20 year contact with Marriott--it seems this business idea benefits Marriott's financial portfolio and is a new scheme.

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