Ivy Esquero, Director, Head of Planning, Strategy & Insights, Hilton
I don’t think I have to reiterate the impact COVID has had on travel. Almost overnight, we watched as the core of what we market and HOW we marketed go out the window. In some markets, demand plummeted to single digits. Consumers went from a world where we could inspire them to take a long weekend away on Koh Samui…to one where many of them were stuck in their homes, many for months at a time.
While travel demand was certainly challenged, there were still opportunities. At Hilton, we were able to launch two of our biggest campaigns in APAC, grow our audiences and engage our most loyal members.
In March 2021, we introduced our new co-branded card with American Express in Japan, the first expansion of this relationship following our very strong partnership in the US. We launched at a time when states of emergency were being announced throughout Japan. Domestic travel was down and international travel was non-existent. One year in and not only are acquisitions strong, but cardmembers have become some of our most engaged consumers.
In June of last year, we also launched our “Dine like a Member” campaign throughout Asia Pacific, after a pilot in China. This time coincided with rolling lockdowns across key markets, such as Australia, India and Southeast Asia. Despite these barriers, the program drove strong new member acquisitions and traffic to our outlets improved from domestic customers, a core target of our campaign.
So, how did we decide to move forward and still find success despite the kind of year we’ve had?I’ll share 3 quick lessons which helped drive insights into strategy and helped with connecting with new audiencesand markets.
Lesson 1: Connect the data
The first lesson we learned is to triangulate data and identify what was meaningful versus what was noise. Many marketers across industries probably had to grapple with similar challenges, especially as consumers began to turn online more at the start of the pandemic.
First, we looked across our sources of information to develop our baselines and understand what was different.
Search and Social:We looked at search and social trends to see how activity was changing - e.g. we tried to understand who was driving the conversations? Are they different? What influencers are still active? Search and social trends were also really helpful in understanding any differences in how people buy.
Traffic:We used traffic data to our owned channels and analyzed patterns of engagement.
Audiences: We also closely monitored different audiences to ensure our brand health measures were healthy. Inputs such as customer feedback, experiences from our customer-facing teams and brand conversations helped us provide more qualitative inputs to our data.
By triangulating data, we were able to define what were real trends that could impact the business. By using data to establish benchmarks, validate trends across sources and stay more on top of audiences and markets as they quickly moved, insights were more actionable and timely.
"By connecting data insights, we identified new audiences and new offerings that have helped boost our engagement"
In launching Dine like a Member, benchmarking gave us data to prove that demand was there. We saw that F&B interest was stable or even growing in some markets, even with lockdowns in place. Furthermore, this interest was coming from people who had never had interactions with us. Not only did benchmarking help identify new audiences, it also provided ideas on how to talk to them.
Lesson 2: Build on your Brand Strengths
The second lesson for us was on brand. Despite a challenging time for travel, we continued to see high interest in dreaming and in connecting with Hilton.
Establishing brand hierarchy was key. Knowing when to lead with our parent brand, our Hilton Honors brand, our individual hotelbrands or even individual F&B outlets, allowed us to talk to people at the right level on different channels.
A benefit to this approach is that it opened up connections with people who may not have been willing to hear from us before. For example, for Dine like a Member, people who may not opt to receive communications from us or to download our app, may now browse or be curious, after their F&B experience. So not only does it benefit F&B, but it also provides an additional pipeline of new customers who may now be open to staying with us on their next holiday.
With all our activities, we really leaned on some key pillars.
First, we capitalized on our strong brand awareness to introduce new brands and offerings. While people knew us as a hotel company, we were not known as a credit card or restaurant operator for many. But leaning on the people awareness and knowledge our or Masterbrand allowed us to build awareness for these activities pretty quickly.
We also leaned on our connection to quality and the premium that people placed on our brands in APAC. While we were going after some new audiences, these core values allowed us to capitalize on trialers and new members, reinforcing why they should engage in the first place and lowering risk. By then continuing that conversation with value and recognition, we were able to deepen those conversations pretty quickly.
As a result, some of the new members we are acquiring through these new approaches are overperforming on engagement. As we continue to talk to them, we are making sure that those interactions continue to reinforce their early experiences and encourage them to keep coming back.
Lesson 3: Test and Learn
The last lesson was really being comfortable with some failures. We took a test and learn approach to help us sharpen our tactics. Not everything during the pandemic was successful and we had our share of failed tests. However, by allowing ourselves to try, we were able to find or eliminate tactics that strengthened our approaches.
Some of the more interesting tests were around language. Hilton has a long history as an American brand and many consumers see us communicate primarily in English.
But during the pandemic, we wanted to test a few channels in local languages because of new domestic audiences who were engaging with our brand. We had some mixed success.
Email, for example, seems to be a channel that can probably stay mostly in English. Outside of Japan, performance was not significantly stronger in-language. This could be a consequence of the profile of an email user, who tends to be older, more affluent, and urban.
Where language did count was in digital, specifically app and web banners. No surprise that localized banners performed better (we see this in paid activities), but one interesting note was these banners or placements performed well, even when surrounded by English content. So the mixing of languages, which sometimes can be seen as a bad experience, actually had good outcome for us. We are now testing a few more channels with mixed languages and we hope to take this learning forward to future campaigns. The key takeaway is that your in-language experience may not need to be perfect to drive better results.
It has certainly been an interesting few years for travel. As consumers continue to change and the channels they use with them, there are sure to be more challenges and more innovation ahead. But through the challenges, there are also great learnings that we were able to capitalize on.
By connecting data insights, we identified new audiences and new offerings that have helped boost our engagement.
By sticking to our brand truth, we were able to quickly establish strong relationships and drive relevance.
And by being comfortable with failed experiments, we have found some good foundations for new tactics and optimize our communications.