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Why a Brand Must Be Described in Three Words

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A Hilton executive was recently asked, “So what the hell is a Hilton?”

“People can’t necessarily articulate it,” said the marketing honcho. The brand is defined: “If we ... give people an experience that says, ‘Yes, I’m proud of what it says about me to stay here, it makes me feel good; I’m in charge of my stay.’”

What’s your brand? If you can’t answer that question about your own brand in two or three words, your brand’s in trouble.
That’s what differentiates a Hilton from a Hyatt, a Marriott, an Omni? Mind you, this is an organization that is spending $45 million a year on ads (and looking for a new agency).

Do you know your brand?
What’s your brand? If you can’t answer that question about your own brand in two or three words, your brand’s in trouble.

Powerful, long-lasting brands are built by owning a word in the mind.

What’s a Volvo? A safe car.

What’s a BMW? Fun to drive.

What’s a Barilla? Italy’s No. 1 pasta.

It’s astounding how many marketing executives can’t grasp this simple strategy: Own a word in the mind. A few years ago the CEO of Wal-Mart’s ad agency was asked, “What would you say is Wal-Mart’s USP?”

Value? No. Cheap? Yes
Without hesitation, he replied: “Value, loyalty and quality.” Rosser Reeves would have turned over in his grave. “Value, loyalty and quality” are hardly a uinique selling proposition. Outside of every Wal-Mart are the words, “We sell for less.” In every Wal-Mart ad are the words, “Always low prices. Always.” What word does Wal-Mart own? It’s “cheap.” Not a bad word. It has made Wal-Mart the world’s largest retailer.

Does “cheap” appeal to everybody? No. That’s why you know “cheap” is a good word to own. Any combination of words that appeals to everybody will never work in marketing.

In 1983, my agency was working for Holiday Inn, when our client decided to get into the all-suite hotel business. The brand name they chose: Embassy Suites.

At the time, there were only two significant players in the all-suite category. Granada Royale and Guest Quarters. We made two points.

First in mind
No. 1: The leading all-suite chain will be the first brand in the mind. To jump-start the Embassy Suites brand, buy the largest chain in the category, Granada Royale. Which they did.

No. 2: Embassy Suites would be reasonable, no more expensive than an ordinary hotel room. Furthermore, the primary benefit of a suite is to have one room for sleeping and one room for working. Hence our proposed positioning slogan: “Embassy Suites: Two rooms for the price of one.”

Which they didn’t do. Instead they hired the ad agency that proposed using Garfield, the cat. “You don’t have to be a fat cat to enjoy The Suite Life.”

Embassy Suites became a very successful brand. But it missed an opportunity to reposition traditional single-room hotels with a powerful strategy, “Two rooms for the price of one.” And today, of course, Garfield has checked out.

Learning a lesson
I learned a lesson: Maybe you can do both. Maybe you can take a simple positioning idea and “package” it, like putting bacon around a filet. When Federal Express decided to focus on its overnight business, it could have said, “The overnight delivery company.” Instead it wrapped bacon around the “overnight” idea with the slogan: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

What about Embassy Suites? After thinking about it for the last 22 years, how about “Embassy Suites: One room for you, one room for your cat?”

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Al Ries is the author or co-author of 11 books on marketing, including his latest, The Origin of Brands, a book that applies Darwin’s theory of divergence to product categories and brands. He and his daughter Laura run the Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries.

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