Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I've Had the Same Axe for 10 Years...

Nice piece on the NYT  "Itineraries" page about the branding and rebranding and re-re-branding of hotels.  I suppose something that the cognoscenti have known about for a long time but the Times does flesh it out with plausible detail for the entertainment of us yokels.  The point is that the brand (or "flag," in the trade) may come and go but the hotel may go on forever.  So, the Essex House on Central Park South--you've seen the sign--is now a JW Marriott; last year it was a Jumeirah; a while back it was a Westin.    

And there is an interesting tension here.  One, through all the caterwauling, the name remains the same--who would want to change the sign?  People will remember the old name, just like they remember the old phone number.  Still, they do want you to know that there is a new sheriff in town with all the good things this canard is supposed to imply--the Marriott medallion is just as important is the Essex House label, and in the same way: they give an image of stability and constancy in a turbulent market.   [Ownership/management of the real estate--the dirt--is a different topic altogether.] Will things really change?  Ah, who knows!   Sometimes, the new flag means a new manager with a whole nuther attitude (which may nor may not be a good thing).   Sometimes it is new bells and whistles with the same old gent frantically pulling the levers behind the scenes.  Interestingly, a Times source suggests that  if you are an event booker, you want an escape clause that lets you out if there is a change of brand.

Great so far, and no need to blame the Times for failing to generalize the point. But we can generalize, can't we?    We know that the "corporation"--these days, almost any large corporation--is more likely than not to be just (as my friend Anupam likes to say) the locus of the intellectual property.  So, Saralee doesn't make cakes; it contracts with people who make cakes.  Likewise Nike in footwear, HP in computers, likely almost any product whose name is vivid enough that you are likely to remember it.  They are selling the sizzle; someone else is cooking the steak.  Or as they say, "I've had the same axe for 10 years; it has had three new heads and two new handles."

[There's a nice discussion of all this, with references to the literature, in Gerald Davis' Managed by the Market--a book which is in general a first-class nontechnical discussion of the changing nature of business and finance.]

Afterthought:  A Google search suggests that Jumeriah had been doing some savage discounting.  Does this mean they were having trouble figuring out how to manage one of the world's best hotel locations?  Maybe the fuller story is here.

1 comment:

The New York Crank said...

The problem is that in some industries, the brand becomes meaningless. I can't speak much about hotels, other than to mention that staying at the Essex House once upon a time meant that you were staying at the tippy-tippy top of the high end, in a place with its unique quirks and amenities that got celebrities' tongues waging wittily. (Sample from the playwright Abe Burroughs: "For my second story window in my room at the Essex House, the people on the street below look like enormous ants.")

However, I can speak knowledgeably about advertising. In advertising, conglomerates have been gobbling up distinctive ad agency brands and turning them into look-alike and sound-alike commodities that just happen to have brand names glued to them. They are nothing like their original selves when their brands had meaning. In the 1960s any advertising person, just by looking at, or watching, or reading, or listening to an ad, could tell you whether it had been done by Bates, or Doyle Dane, or Ogilvy, or Dancer, or Papert Koenig Lois, or Esty, or Noman Craig and Kummel. Not all those agencies did good work (a few on the list were actually awful), but each one turned out an advertising product that had a distinctive sensibility in look, grammar, vocabulary, attitude, concept or some combination of those.

These days ad agencies are interchangeable, their work is interchangeable, their people are interchangeable, and from your second story window at the Central Park South Essex House Marriott, you're in just another damn Marriott.

Very crankily yours,
The New York Crank