Carla Raynor has been with Homewood Suites for 10 years, and for the past two years has been VP-global marketing, overseeing marketing efforts for the chain of extended-stay hotels within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio as it seeks to gain greater prominence in a competitive category.
Look no further than Homewood Suites' inaugural participation in last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as evidence of its newfound enthusiasm for exposure: A giant yellow duck named Lewis, its mascot, rambled down the street in the company of Smurfs and Dora the Explorer in an effort to reintroduce -- indeed, largely introduce -- himself to a broad audience on a very visible stage. It was part of a three-year partnership with the parade that cost $950,000. In the first year, the coverage resulting from Homewood's participation in the parade had a combined advertising equivalency of $1,039,158.
Homewood Suites has incrementally decreased its measured media spending over the past three years, according to Kantar. It spent $6.9 million in 2010, $7.5 million in 2009 and $8.4 million in 2008. But it is making its dollars work overtime under Ms. Raynor's leadership. And it has to, she said: "It is such a quality product, but it has such low awareness" -- 12%. In articulating her strategy for the brand, she explained, "We wanted to look at a way to really open up the awareness around the brand, make it sexier, showcase the quality of the product," she said. "One way as an ad campaign, another was events, being more aggressive online. So we put several things into play."
Advertising is just one component, she said, adding that her marketing team has spent a lot of time "mapping through the customer journey. You can't build loyalty without people continually coming into the brand."
In a recent interview, Ms. Raynor explained her strategy for pushing the brand forward and grabbing mind share as well as market share.
Ad Age : Explain the interconnectedness of your marketing strategy.
Ms. Raynor: We actually have a map that shows how we wanted everything to fit together. We really spent a lot of time looking through the customer journey with the brand and making sure that instead of putting our energy and investment in one area, we looked at critical areas where we needed to strengthen our relationship with the customer.
Ad Age : For example?
Ms. Raynor: One was social media. We have had the Maestro monitoring tool for almost a year now. We can see the feedback we're getting from guests on almost a daily basis. We did not realize the revenue impact of that ; we realized that was an opportunity, so we've put a plan in place to address every conversation -- we put key performance indicators in place to see how it's impacting revenue. We also invested in e-commerce services: We hired an e-commerce specialist who works with every hotel; the e-commerce team is going in and making sure that every review gets a response. Once that happens a lot of times a guest will post a positive review. As that happens, your popularity index will increase, [for example], how you're ranked on TripAdvisor. We are looking at the correlation between the percentage of increase up the popularity index on, for example, TripAdvisor, and the conversion bookings from those sites.
Ad Age : What about with Twitter and Facebook?
Ms. Raynor: On Facebook, we're posting specials and offers, but we have found that 's not the most effective way to use Facebook. We've found that people don't really care about being pushed specials all the time. What they really want Facebook to do and the way we found it works best for us, is help with reservations, specific things related to a specific stay. So that 's what we're changing our model to accommodate -- changing it to one-to-one specific support with their specific names regarding their specific stays.
Ad Age : How are you dealing with any negative posts on Twitter?
Ms. Raynor: We have a social-media strategist who will respond back to that guest and try to get them in a one-on-one dialogue. We always try to respond back so we feel that at least both sides of the conversation are being heard.
Ad Age : How was your business affected by the recession and what's the brand strategy moving forward?
Ms. Raynor: The recession was very good to us [given that we're] a value-based product. We've seen our YTD occupancy grow. It continues to be extremely strong. For us it's really been about, how do you slowly build your rate and be really smart about your pricing? For a brand like us, we were a little bit recession-resistant because of the way we're positioned.
Ad Age : What will we see more of from you?
Ms. Raynor: We will definitely be in the Thanksgiving Day parade again next year. We were so pleased. The three-year contract paid for itself in year one, with the media ad equivalency and the PR in addition the feedback we received. During that week alone, we went from 12% to 18% awareness.
Ad Age : What was the rationale for launching an agency review?
Ms. Raynor: We did a lot of research with our guests and looked at our product and came up with a new brand essence, which is "be at home." And that 's started to infiltrate our internal culture and our training that we give to our hotels and our staff. So we really wanted to make sure we had one kind of underlying essence for the brand that could permeate across everything the brand touches.
Ad Age : What are you looking for in a new agency?
Ms. Raynor: We are looking for someone fresh. [Someone who can] bring new ideas to the table, with no preconceived ideas of what can work and what can't.
Some of the great brands that I admire, they typically have great campaigns that have some great longevity to them and they're building up toward a bigger, more strategic long-term goal. So we're looking for someone who can demonstrate they've done that .
Ad Age : Any examples?
Ms. Raynor: The brands that continuously do the right things: Target : inspiring design. Very value-oriented but also very high design. Coca-Cola. Very classic. It's refreshing. Brings happiness. Starbucks is just in the beginning of their branding career. We're looking to combine all those things. [We're looking for] agencies with retail experience, [those that ] have done a lot with design. And not just have the branding be in all external communications, but [also know] how can you bring it into every aspect of the customer journey.