Sunday, July 03, 2005

Hilton's Perverted Brand

I do a fair amount of work the media, mainly from reporters who want a perspective on brands in the news. If it's not one brand's crisis, it's another brand's success. Increasingly, I'm finding the stories taking on a different light:

Brand Perversion.

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.


Blogger Anita said...

Rob, you didn't mention the latest trash to come from the Hilton's, namely, Mother Hilton. There is a new reality show where Mrs. Hilton tries to teach manners to young women. Yuck!

11:12 AM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

Hey, when SHE makes a downloadable video worth watching, she's in the next Hilton article, I promise. Actually, it's one more log on the fire: a perfect example of the gravy train hauling anyone and anything it can for quick, easy bucks, as the brand continues to careen out of control.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, where can i download this video from.

6:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

rob, it's reassuring to have you confirm what has been apparent to us for so long. As a travel company dealing direct with hotels we've never been great fans of larger chains. But a cooperation with Hilton has proved almost impossible. They tout these lines about 'maintaining rate parity' and 'protecting the online space' when the subtext is simply that they we don't want to sell through distributors other than where they retain full control of the pricing. The idea was always that by managing all online distribution of their hotel, Hilton could retain their brand integrity. But we've always wondered where this integrity lies. For a start there are two Hiltons, 'Conrad' and 'straight up'. Then Hilton is split between Hilton International and Hilton Hotels Corporation. They've also got a mid-range brand in Scandic and various disparate leisure affiliations. It's confusing enough for savvy investors but I feel particular sorry for the U.K. traveller who thinks they've got a good rate at what they assume must be a 5-star hotel in the States only to find out that it's a whole different game out there and they're staying in a slightly upmarket Travelodge.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, you would do well to check your facts. Barron Hilton was not married to Zsa Zsa Gabor. Zsa Zsa was Conrad Hilton's second wife. Barron was married for more than 50 years to his first and only wife, who just passed away last year after a long illness. Nice, the way you dishonored her.

The one who is careening out of control is you - an egotistical, sloppy branding "expert" who has failed to even do his homework.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, Have the other major brands, Marriott, Starwood, Intercontinental done a better job?

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who the hell are you actually - what a prick! No idea about facts and figures and last time I checked, Hilton was one of the most successful brands in the hospitality industry . . .

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"drooling, lecherous white men" Meaning only white men are perverts? And the Liz Taylor jab; what, she was not a stunningly talented actress?

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand Rob's artical. He doesn't state why the Hilton Brand is no longer a preffered Hotel name. I work in the idustry but not for Hilton, but I can say with the additions of their select service hotels such as Garden Inn's they have capturesd alot of the business and leisure. I think alot of the executives at corporate are wishing the world never heard of Paris, and while I agree with Rob on this part I certianly would have to disagree with him about the brand as a whole, they still rate as a very good product and are well positioned in a very competitive industry

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a frequent traveler at many of the well known industry brands and I couldn't care less what the Hilton family does with their personal and professional life.In fact that is their own personal business.

What I do know is what a Luxury Conrad is,what a full service Hilton is and a Hilton Garden Inn ,Emassy Suites or Hampton Inn is.What product is for me and not for me.Agree that there is some confusion or blurring lines to the less savvy consumer no doubt.
The Hilton folks have added brands along the way that clearly will need more help in defining what the brand is and each brands identity more fully.

I also know a great value proposition when I see it and that is something the Hilton Honors program offers and delivers.
While they have a made a few unflattering changes along the way to the program they have done a mighty fine job in other areas of the program and the hotels.

I agree with the poster that their attempt to strangle competition from free market discounting is highly suspect.Yet many others including the IHG have followed in their footsteps. So I suppose they are on legal grounds.
I do sympathize with travel providers and consumers who may end up losing product to sell or the consumer paying a higher rate as a result of some of these policies.

With all that said I will give credit where credit is due.
I admire much of what Hilton has done as a company and where they are trying to go in the future.
Hilton Int that is a seperate book by itself :)
Compared to many other big name brands I have reasonable faith in the Hilton US folks to keep on delivering.

Back to the Hilton family press comments
If anything in todays more open minded generation there is rarely anything that is considered bad press.
The worst press is when they stop talking about you :)
Any kind of hype today builds buzz and thats the best form of free advertising in the world.
The fact is Paris has millions watching and making the Hilton brand more known to the next generation of Hilton customers.

And they are by far Hilton's best long term prospects as the older generation starts to retire and get off the road.Even if there are a few giggles of embarassment along the way

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aside from factual inaccuracies in the editorial, I disagree with Rob on a number of issues.
The "America's Business Address" campaign, while somewhat memorable, did not reinforce Hilton's positioning through the 1980's and could not be considered all that successful. As most recall, during the 1980's, Hyatt, Marriott (especially Marriott) grew tremendously and overtook Hilton's share of the full service (corporate transient and group) business. They did this not by catchy slogans, but by operations consistency, increased distribution and new construction, and of course frequent guest reward programs.
Despite Frankel's "expert"analysis, in the 1990’s Hilton has regained its preeminence in the marketplace through brand extension, new product development, frequent guest programs, and increased distribution.
Frankel’s constant preoccupation with sex, starlets, and videos reveals himself as the real "pervert" here.
Joe McCann
Optimum Hotel Brokerage

10:43 AM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

Free speech, baby, that's what it's about!

6:09 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Well, it's interesting to compare the Hyatt's Pritzker family with the Hilton's Hilton family. One is quite quiet in their activities - and philanthropic, while the other is known for a couple of It girls, and proving that money doesn't buy class.

From a PR standpoint, the family's antics have surely been a topic of conversation - and hand wringing - on what damage there might be. Likely, there is even a crisis plan in place, should it ever get really bad. How much involvement that one family has in the business could be the simple answer.

From a branding standpoint, I know that living in a hotel-rich city, I don't think of Hiltons as the tops. That's the Hyatt at Gainey Ranch, the JW Marriott at Desert Ridge, the Westin Kierland, the Four Seasons. But, there are tons of other hotels, and building or rebuilding a brand is not an easy thing. Right now, what do people think of when they hear the Hilton name? I went to a conference, and it was at a Hilton. My first thought was, oh, a Hilton. They need to fix that. Right now, if I were a NASCAR fan, it's all about Best Western. Who is Hilton reaching out to?

6:47 PM  

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