Starbucks, Meet Starwood

Hotel Company Plays Tastemaker

By Published on .

As Lenore Skenazy described a while back, Starbucks cafes (and coffee shops in general) often function like modern middle-class salons, where, for the (bloated) price of a cup of coffee, one can feel cultured and connected for an hour or two. So it's no surprise to anyone that the Seattle coffee company has successfully parlayed its clout into music sales.
Moderator Tamara Conniff, exec Editor of Billboard; J.J. Rosen, EVP Commercial Music Group, Sony BMG; Rob Mano, sr. director entertainment strategy, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide
Moderator Tamara Conniff, exec Editor of Billboard; J.J. Rosen, EVP Commercial Music Group, Sony BMG; Rob Mano, sr. director entertainment strategy, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Credit: Scott Gries
But, after attending yesterday's "Branded Music Entertainment: How Leading Brands Activate Through Music" Advertising Week panel, I'm left wondering: can a hotel company do the same thing?

Last week Starwood Hotels announced a partnership with Sony BMG Music that would incorporate hand-picked, cross-licensed music into each of its nine chains to flesh out their brand experiences.

Yesterday's panel, which can only be described as media push for the strategy and nothing like a conversation over a latte, included J. J. Rosen, EVP Commercial Music Group, Sony BMG, and Rod Mano, sr. director entertainment strategy, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, who both engineered the deal.

Under the partnership, Sony BMG dispatched 20 musicologists (usually known as R&D people outside of academia) to identify songs that suited each of Starwood's brands. "Music is part of the experience," explained Mano, "like a scent in the lobby." He admitted that he had never heard of a musicologist.

Using these tunes, Starwood built them into playlists that are played indoors and outdoors at its hotels and (along with digital video gleaned from electronic press kits) on an exclusive station available on TV sets in guests' rooms. The W Hotels' compilation CD is also available in each room, and guests can choose to take it home and have $20 added to their bills.

Creating a sonic extension of Starwoods' brand is a brilliant idea, and, although it's been done before, it makes perfect sense within a company that goes through the trouble of specifying what scent should fill each lobby. But Starwood may have overextended itself with its digital strategy. Mano and Rosen spent much time celebrating the video web page Sony BMG created for Starwood (that was displayed at the presentation, but I can't find it online), where guests can watch music videos through a branded player and purchase ringtones and the W compilation. A nice idea, but who is going to come to W's site to watch videos or discover new music? Partnering with an established and trusted voice on music might have been a subtler and more effective strategy.

"Our brand doesn't know music," admitted Mano. "We look to Sony for expertise." And he's exactly right. In the mind of your average consumer, a hotel is a luxury or a necessity, but culture usually falls somewhere in between. People may like what you play in the lobby and you can make a good mix CD, but a hotel company will have a difficult time if it wants to be a resource for anything beyond free toiletries.

We can probably thank jazz that coffee and culture can fit in the same cup, and, because of this, Starbucks uniquely stands to make plenty in the record business (and now through iPhones). After all, not many people can squeeze notes out of a trumpet like Louis Armstrong and not many people can make a perfect cup of espresso. Try doing both.
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