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By Karen Post, The Branding Diva®

I was in Cancun Mexico earlier this month speaking at marketing meeting for a large consumer packaged goods company. I have not been to Mexico in over 15 years. And even though I had traveled to the country at least five times in my life, my memories were vague. Maybe it’s early memory loss setting in, maybe nothing was very remarkable.

It’s also funny how as you evolve in your life, as you have more experiences, your brand affinities and values change too. When I was in my twenties, carbonated beverages, sweet liquors, and snacks mattered. Suntan oils had clout and the hotel brand didn’t even register. Today for me, it’s about luxury brands, products that really perform and solve some challenge and brands that reflect who I am.

Wind of change.
Before arriving in Mexico, my brain was introduced to a potential, newly popular brand category, named by the national hurricane center, a tropical storm named Andrew. Fifteen years ago before 24/7 news weather occurrences did not earn such high-profile notoriety. Today as soon as the storm is named, they have branded, tracking meteorology teams, dedicated TV programming and depending on the storm’s impact, printed T-shirts. Fortunately for me and several hundred thousand other folks, this brand never fully developed, in fact, most have already forgotten its name.

Just thinking about a disaster like this while traveling out of the country made me a lot more aware of the brands near me, and how suddenly even a packaged good, like bottled water, or the hotel brand they provided an important security value and relationship to me.

As I made my journey this past week and encountered some brands, I’d like to share some observations and insight on global identity, awesome customer experiences and small things that can have huge impact on any size brand. I believe people keep scorecards of a brand’s communications, their delivery of benefits and the overall experience. Good stuff adds to the brand equity and stimulates loyalty. Disappointing stuff weakens the emotional connection and dilutes their value.

So who scored points with me this trip and who has work to do? I’ve grouped my thoughts and would love your comments on these brands and these subjects.

Delta Airlines.
I’d rather sell root canals than be in the airline business today. Even the media darling brands like Southwest and JetBlue have had their share of brand damage recently. However, if I were a betting branding person, I’d keep my money on both of those companies because they do get the simple, powerful formula and I am confident they will get past this turbulence.

Was Delta a chosen brand or a default purchase?

Chosen brand.
Even though I can’t say I’m having a love affair with Delta, I did consciously choose them over others. Why? Most direct route and The Crown Room. Hanging out in airports can be a doable, productive chunk of one’s day if there is a nice Crown Room. Electrical outlets, nice restrooms, complimentary drinks including adult beverages, and they can service your ticket, change flights etc. a lot faster than the mass service desks.

Branding humor.

Delta logo

As you may know Delta recently emerged from bankruptcy. As part of their new beginning, they have launched a rebranding campaign with the help of creative agency Shepardson, Stern & Kaminsky in New York. Part of the effort is a new visual mark/logo that will be applied to the airline’s planes along with other marketing communications.

According to Delta’s press release, the centerpiece of the new look is “a striking three-dimensional, red “Widget” icon flying across a blue background that reflects the company’s successful transformation into a highly differentiated, customer-focused airline.”

Jonberrydesign thinks Delta and its new “’do” threw the baby out with the bathwater and ended up with something bland and soulless.

I don’t disagree with Jon’s take on the mark, but, I believe the real plane wreck here is the company’s belief that they have successfully transformed into a highly differentiated, customer-focused airline. Are they referring to the same Delta that I know? Maybe my dictionary is old and they know a new meaning for “differentiated.” Last I looked, it meant “be different.”

OK they do have the Breeze Way that allows First Class and high ranking frequent flyers the ability to board early through a special lane. That’s a little different for a small segment of their elite customers.

Details differentiate.
Delta plane What about how the planes smell? A nice brand scent would be different. The plastic wear for drinks could be Delta blue or clear red as a memorable brand asset. Boarding gates with a few nap chairs or more sponsored areas with electrical outlets might be nice. What about something unexpected in the seat the seat pocket? Travel tips, destination trivia, or something that directed guests to the Web site for something of added value?

Oh, I did forget this, on my trip to Mexico the Delta staff had failed to bring any English immigration forms on to the plane, so the entire cabin enjoyed personalized line by line translation so we could complete our forms. Now that’s customer engagement, not sure about different.

Seriously, Delta. Walk the talk. If differentiated is what you promise us and your new mark symbolizes this, deliver it. That would be different.

Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, Cancun

Was Fiesta Americana a chosen brand or a default purchase?

Default brand.
My client hosted their conference here. It looked like my kind of place (5 diamond rating and luxury) from their Web communication, but the experience to me was nothing special.

Fiesta Americana lobbyThey did not do a lot of things wrong, just not enough extraordinary. This waterfront property was spacious and lightly elegant. Marble adorned the floors, mammoth flower arrangements were the centerpiece of every important room and the staff was pleasant. From here the experience took over. If it had been great, the above would have had more value. But, since they lost points on brand execution the grandness of the environment and décor just faded into a very average place.

The food was fair. The walls were thin. Someone was always pounding on something. The room’s air conditioners were loud and either freezing or barely cooling. There was a huge population of screaming kids and nasty, black birds everywhere. I’m not sure what was worse. I think it was the birds, because they swarmed all the pools and the outdoor restaurants non-stop, like we were filming part 2 of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous flick; very creepy. Even though this brand hosts many English-speaking guests, there were many touch points that were not in English. Which brings me to the point, when your consumer can’t understand what you are saying, you’ve got a challenge.

The psychology of pricing.
When a brand starts disappointing me on the experience, other elements seem to be amplified—like nickel and dime pricing. I don’t get why hotels continue to take this approach instead of just increasing the room rate. This would enable customers to feel good and as if they are getting something for free, instead of the annoyance and even guilt that comes with paying for the fitness room, in-room coffee, and $20.00 a day Internet.

I had added a day after my speaking assignment to relax. I was not feeling like I was in the nirvana zone and knew I needed to find one of my trusted brands for some relief. There was a Ritz Carlton down the road; surely they could deliver on a five-diamond experience.

Ritz Carlton, Cancun

Was Ritz a chosen brand or a default purchase?

Chosen brand.
What a difference a trusted brand makes. From my first step onto the property, a well-spoken, welcoming brand ambassador greeted me. I explained I was not staying with them, but was interested in lunch. “No problem. We are happy to see you” said the staffer. “Would you like a tour of the property so you will know where everything is?”

Globally, The Ritz has done a great job at setting high expectations and consistently meeting them. Whatever country or city you are in, the piped-in classical music, lobby and room décor, art, food, service, and even scents are familiar and thoughtfully executed. At this Cancun property there was not one chirping, annoying black bird anywhere, and no screaming kids. I suppose the price tag at least keeps the kid population down. I had a fabulous lunch, the food was incredible and the service was over the top. The experience was great.

Delivering a total sensory brand experience, leaves lasting impression.
Global branding guru and author of Brand Sense, Martin Lindstrom claims most brands only tap into two of the human senses. Why is that, when full sensory stimulation and engagement significantly heightens the emotional connection between the brand and a consumer. Maybe because investing in these touch points makes it difficult to track ROI? Or operations leaders get too bogged down with bigger scale, non-detail activities?

The next part of my day in Cancun was the ultimate sensory experience, all in the Ritz Carlton brand fashion. While I was having lunch one of the staffers was telling me about a Mexican food cooking class they offered in this super cool, state-of-the-art culinary learning kitchen. She also asked me if I had ever had a massage on the beach at their spa? This was not a hard sell conversation, but a very casual, helpful chat with a very knowledgeable, hospitality pro. Both sounded intriguing, but since I had limited time and an over-abundance of stress, I opted for the spa treatment.

I’m sure this in-depth expertise on property-wide services is part of the staff comprehensive training. Many businesses fail to see the opportunity and don’t do enough in the area of knowledge transfer concerning different departments or business units within an organization to all employees. Two ideas here are to invite employees to experience these services and also consider conducting job swaps where individuals are placed in completely different positions and departments to learn first-hand about diverse areas of a company or property in this case.

Let the senses awaken.
Ritz massage My “seaside” massage was to start at 6pm. My personal concierge arranged everything, scheduling, selection of massage products, down to which therapist would be best for me. Once this was finalized, she prepared a passport-like document in a personalized envelope, all setting the tone for my ultimate experience. This is another important branding touch point; the packaging before a service is delivered. The service is not limited to luxury categories either, business services often miss an opportunity to add a higher perceived value by how they package documents like proposals, contracts, or offering options. This can take the form of a very interesting envelope, or box/container or even silver tray.

Per the instructions of the staffer, I arrived an hour early to enjoy the full range of spa features. I have had a lot of spa treatments in my life, so my “really impress me stage” is pretty high off the ground. I’m happy to report the Ritz hit a home run.

The environment was immaculate. This orderly detail communicates so much to your customer. It says you run a smooth, quality organization. After being greeted by the front staff, I was introduced to my personal valet. She was there every step of the way, ensuring I had everything I needed to be totally relaxed. First stop–my locker. It was filled with small branded amenities, a lush robe, and matching slippers. Next was the steam room. My valet guided me there and presented a chilled glass of cucumber water and iced towel for my eyes. The room was filled with intense steam and a potent aroma of infused eucalyptus oils. After 10 minutes the valet was back to escort me to the whirlpool located in an outside area. Along with warm towels, she presented a beautifully appointed tray of dried fruit, nuts, fresh mango juice and a loose tropical flower. The attention to every sense and thoughtful service took my stressed soul to another place.

The only off-the-brand track details I noticed were in the posted rules throughout the wet rooms. Absolutely no spitting or blowing nose in any of the spa areas. Hmm, can’t say I considered doing either of those. Maybe they printed the signs as duplicates from the men’s room.

From the whirlpool I was guided to the quiet room. Dimmed lights, candles flickering, and my valet brings me a heated, lavender-scented neck pillow. This just kept getting better. The important aspect of all of this is how the brand experience is extended far beyond the one point of the purchased service, in my case getting a massage. This thinking can apply to so many service businesses.

The sea massage begins. Situated about 200 feet from the hotel in a quiet area away from any noise other than the natural sea tide, the wind, and soon-to-be a mild thunderstorm. The white gauze, screened-in grass hut was open on two sides, allowing a strong breeze to add to my experience. The head cradle was scented with a cool mint scent. The sheets were finely woven Egyptian cotton. The treatment was unbelievable. A soft rain started about 15 minutes into the session, followed by thunder and stronger winds. It was like the ultimate Disney ride that extracted all my evil tension and stress. And there was my valet, ready to guide me back to the hotel. Finishing off the journey was a very high tech multi-point massage shower, complete with an assortment of Ritz brand hair and body products. An awesome end to a memorable brand experience. As I exit the spa, and pay my bill, the front staff, along with my personal valet, gift me with a token of their appreciation. The gift was a small fragrant necklace on a soft silk cable with a tiny clay bottle filled with one of their signature scents. What a nice way to be reminded of the brand even after I return home.

This brand experience was a complete 360 adventure. It neglected nothing and reinforced the essence of this global brand of luxury, quality, and supreme service.

4 takeaways to increase the strength of any brand experience.

Even non-luxury brands can gain from the Ritz’s all touch point approach.

1. Small details make a big difference.
2. Leverage all 5 senses.
3. Address the before, during, and after brand communication and experience.
4. Full-circle staff education and training on company-wide brand offering is key.

In summary, my trip was good. Familiar packaged good brands—from the Evian water to the Bayer aspirin—had a deeper connection to me in a foreign land. Easy communication enhanced all my experiences. Language gaps and things not in English added a frustrating element that I assigned to the brand owner as a shortcoming. Mexico is beautiful place, but there is nothing like America. And I’m glad to be home.

About the author: Karen Post, a.k.a. The Branding Diva® is an international authority on branding, marketing, and entrepreneurial matters. She is has been featured as a business expert in print publications; on TV, radio, and on Web channels. Karen authored the best-selling book Brain Tattoos, Creating Unique Brands That Stick in your Customers’ Minds and she is co-founder and CEO of Oddpodz.com, an idea engine for creative professionals and business. Her work has benefited large and small organizations in the United States and around the world.