Hilton's Perverted Brand
Before you get too hopped up, I should tell you that brand perversion is concerned less with drooling, lecherous white men than it is about favorite, long-standing brands being co-opted for short-term gain and long-term destruction. One of my favorites, recently suggested by a reader, has been the Hilton brand...or what's left of it.
The big question on everyone's lips these days is not about Hilton's hotels, but the effect one Paris Hilton has had on the brand itself. Has she helped? Has she hurt? What's the deal with her, anyway? So let me begin by explaining that Paris Hilton has had no effect on the Hilton brand at all. I can say this with utmost confidence for the following reasons:
First, and certainly least importantly, if you know anything about the Hiltons, you would also know that they're not exactly bible-toting, card-carrying Catholic fundamentalists when it comes to sex, prurience and that kind of fun.
One quick check of your history books will tell you that Conrad Hilton's sons, Barron and Nicky, were both rich playboys whose fascination with celebrity sex included marriages to Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively. Both actresses were far less notable for their acting talents than they were for their ability to fill out a tight-fitting dress, if you get my drift. Clearly the star-sucker gene swims freely in the Hilton gene pool. Paris is just one more from a clan of attention whores. In fact, the only difference between Paris and her predecessors is that instead of reading about what they did in newspaper gossip columns, we get to download and watch it on our personal computers.
The question remains, however, what impact has all this carnal gaeity had on the Hilton brand itself? After all, it's been over half a century and the Hilton name is still among the top brands recalled for hotels throughout the world.
The answer, unfortunately, is "not much." Fact is, the Hilton brand -- like so many others -- has been severely affected by Caretaker Management Syndrome, in which executives charged with maintaining the brand have absolutely no idea how to maintain it. Although Hilton's bygone management once made a valiant attempt at establishing and maintaining its brand, those days are long gone. What began as a focused, premium-value brand proposition has languished over the years, a rudderless ship drifting on the open seas of incompetence. Hilton has had no brand strategy since the 1980's, when in one last, admirable attempt, it strove to become known as "America's Business Address." It wasn't a bad idea.
The thinking was that the economy was bad, which meant the less reliable leisure travelers were staying home in droves. Following the airlines' lead, Hilton decided to adopt the 80/20 rule, figuring that business travel was the most stable market they could go after. They almost did it. A pro-business position actually was more reliable, not to mention deliverable: Installing business centers with communications equipment and trained staffs was easy (and inexpensive) to implement.
You have to remember that this was long before anyone could even pronounce the word "internet". The fax machine was considered state of the art and word processors still had years to go before being replaced with personal computers. The "America's Business Address" strategy made sense, too, because it had built-in brand-compatible partners: airlines. Together with the major carriers, Hilton could become part of the total business travel package. In fact, everything was going Hilton's way until the one, most unexpected thing that could happen, actually did happen:
The American economy began its unprecedented decades of economic growth.
With Ronald Reagan's inauguration, the world sat up and took notice that change was coming. Reagan (now THERE'S a killer brand if ever there was one) endured a year or two of economic difficulty, after which the nation rode a rocket of both confidence and performance the likes of which it had never seen. Within a few years, people started traveling again, and Hilton, salivating over the new growth in consumer spending, dropped its pro-business brand strategy like a hot brick to go after the dollars being burned by Mr. and Mrs. Whitebread America.
So much for Hilton being the Playground of the Stars or America's Business Address.
It's been decades since Hilton created, established or implemented a brand strategy to replace the one it dumped. As a result, today nobody knows why they should -- or shouldn't -- stay at a Hilton hotel. Once again, they know the Hilton name, but they don't know why the Hilton brand is "the only solution to their problem," other than that she REALLY knows how to treat a man.
If you get my drift.