What's a Turnaround Expert Doing at Intercontinental, a Brand That Doesn't Need One?

Hotel Group's Top Marketer Says the Company Believes 'Doing Fine Is Not Fine'

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Larry Light's career is one that most marketers dream of having. He's known as one of the business's leading brand-turnaround gurus, having practiced the art at Nissan and McDonald's. He was chairman-CEO of his consulting firm, Arcature. And he's an agency man, too, having served in executive roles at BBDO and Bates Worldwide.

Larry Light
Larry Light

Mr. Light is also known for his book, "Six Rules for Brand Revitalization: Learn How Companies Like McDonald's Can Re-Energize Their Brands," and the idea of "brand journalism," which argues against having one large message and instead for employing multiple stories to speak to various audiences. "We don't need one big execution of a big idea. We need one big idea that can be used in a multidimensional, multilayered and multifaceted way," Mr. Light said of the concept.

Earlier this year Mr. Light was named chief brands officer of InterContinental Hotels Group, where he oversees the branding of Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites. Ad Age caught up with Mr. Light to talk about what brought him to InterContinental Hotels Group and what he hopes to accomplish for the brand.

Ad Age : You've been working as a consultant at Arcature since you left McDonald's in 2006. Why go back to a CMO role, and what attracted you to IHG?

Mr. Light: The common pattern is that I would work with the client as a consultant [at Arcature], and then that might evolve into this line of responsibility. I've been asked but have not accepted a job where it comes out of the sky -- where I haven't had a previous relationship. It's worked best when I know the company, I know the principals and then they ask, "Now that you've advised us, can you help implement your advice?"

[IHG is ] a unique situation. Most of the issues I've consulted on ... it's because there was an urgency, burning platform or a sense of crisis -- the most famous one being McDonald's—but actually Nissan was probably even more stressed. In this case, there's a unique opportunity. The company's doing just fine. The track record has been very good, share price has been fine. So you can't say there's a sense of urgency. ... [But] as [IHG CEO Richard Solomons] likes to say, doing fine is not fine. That's a very rare attitude, when people have an appetite for change when there's no urgency. That intrigued me when I was consulting.

Ad Age : Do you plan on doing anything new with the marketing at IHG in terms of consumer targets, positioning or overall strategy?

What you'll see is improved clarification of positioning and improved organizational alignment. We're going through a strategy process, and it's a very disciplined process. But my anticipation is that the No. 1 challenge we have is improved clarification of our brand positions and, most importantly, improved execution of our brand positions. No guest has ever made a reservation at a hotel saying, "I read in The Wall Street Journal or in Ad Age that you have a great strategy." ... All they know is the execution of the strategy, so my big emphasis is that we want to continuously improve.

Ad Age : Would you say there are similarities between IHG and McDonald's in terms of execution?

Mr. Light: There are a variety of similarities. First, they're both franchise systems. They are industries that have to be managed differently than packaged-goods companies. I can control quality of Coca-Cola because it's created in a can. ... Quality is controlled by the bottler according to very high specifications. But in a franchise business it's more complex, and in the franchise-service business it's even more complex because now the product is delivered through people. What I said to the owners is , "You don't own a hotel. You own an opportunity to create a branded experience."

With a franchise you have this double challenge: You have to get owner alignment and conviction and then you have to get it down to the hotel in front of every customer every day. If you have a vision of perfection, define that experience and you tell yourself, "My goal is to deliver that branded experience in every hotel in every geography to every customer every day." You don't say, "I want to deliver it to 90% of the customers some of the days."

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