Which Hotel Marketer Puts the Luxe in Deluxe?

The Ritz-Carlton
Social media mentions (NetBase)
: 410,511
Social media sentiment: 86% positive

Four Seasons
Social media mentions (NetBase)
: 957,826
Social media sentiment: 80% positive

Staying in a luxury hotel like the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons is about one thing: the experience. Hoteliers proffer lush amenities, but if the experience is undistinguished, then there’s always the Hilton on the other side of town. But how does one sell that luxurious experience? Glossy photos of grand foyers only go so far.

“Here’s the thing: [Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons] clearly have two different strategies,” says Matt Statman, founder, CEO, and creative director at Motive. “The Four Seasons does an amazing job at building a thirst for a lifestyle—a destination—and demonstrates how [it]’ll bring it to you in a uniquely Four Seasons way.”

Michael Carey, EVP of Fluent, agrees with this assessment: The Four Seasons, he says, has built a brand in which the hotel itself means something, underscored by the visual focus on hotel rooms, golf courses, and various other amenities on its website and in print. But he also feels that this approach is a bit out of touch—especially today, when consumers are less interested in being users of products and services, and more interested in being engaged.

By contrast, Nicola Smith, VP of innovation at Engauge, points out that Ritz-Carlton focuses on memories—the good times and experiences you’ll remember whenever you stay at a Ritz property. It is this exact message that Carey appreciates the most about the Ritz-Carlton’s “Let Us Stay With You” campaign. “It’s asking you to participate in this marketing,” he says. “And that’s a really appealing proposition.”

That’s also one of the reasons why Flora Caputo, VP and executive creative director at the Jacobs Agency, feels that Ritz-Carlton’s marketing was significantly better than the Four Seasons’. “It’s about these moments that stay with you and become part of your life,” she says. Most important, it’s a cohesive message that’s reflected across all of the Ritz-Carlton’s various marketing channels—on social sites, in print, and on its website.

“There’s a ton of great content [on the Ritz-Carlton website],” she says. “[It’s] highlighting chefs, fresh fish—all of these great stories from places where [it’s] located.” Caputo’s gripe? Much of that content is only accessible after digging around.

The Four Seasons, however, suffers from a major cross-channel disconnect. Case in point: Caputo, like the other creatives, notes that the Four Seasons website has a cool, hip feel—especially with its modern, sans serif typeface. But she points out that this edginess isn’t reflected across other Four Seasons assets, such as in its print ads, where the tagline “As always” alludes to brand legacy—a message and aesthetic that Caputo characterizes as “old and stodgy.”

But at least Four Seasons takes a less traditional approach with social media. While few were impressed by either hotel’s almost-obligatory Facebook and Twitter presences, Four Seasons did relatively well on Instagram and Pinterest. Despite the old world–wealth vibe that permeated other Four Seasons assets, its Instagram and Pinterest pages have a “younger, tongue-in-cheek nature, which flies in the face of what you think…about Four Seasons,” Carey says. The Summer Style Lookbook album on its Pinterest page, for instance, was particularly appealing—as were its various holiday gift guides and albums of literature related to travel. “It has nothing to do with the hotels,” Caputo says. “It has everything to do with the community.”

Ritz-Carlton takes a more traditional—and less effective—approach to its Instagram and Pinterest pages: It simply pushes out content to its audience and turned off the ability for visitors to post on its stream. “It makes their lives easier in dealing with negativity,” Caputo says, “And that’s fine, but there’s something to be said about brands that allow for engagement with the community.”

Still, it rankles Caputo to see various brands misusing social media—many of whom view it as the shiny new toy to bolster SEO. “It becomes very superficial when all you do is push out your content,” Caputo says. “It’s not about linking from the same places to help [the brand], it’s about engaging with the community and sharing.”

Engauge’s Smith felt that Four Seasons was guilty of this more than Ritz-Carlton: “Four Seasons is really focused on pushing out internal content,” she says. “What was interesting to me as I looked at the social elements is that Ritz seems to really be incorporating more user-generated content. When you look at their Twitter feed, they’re really responding to people, they’re answering questions, proactively reaching out when people say they’re staying at a Ritz property.”

Another way to cultivate this community is by building a solid presence designed for handsets and tablets, especially important in the travel and tourism vertical. “Mobile is about immediacy,” Engauge’s Smith says. “When people are looking at their phone, they’re not planning for their trip next year, they’re looking for immediate sites. Thirty percent of people on mobile take action in one hour.”

The Four Seasons website, she says, is fully mobile-optimized and uses best practices, which include large-format images and functionality that revolve around mobile users. “The main function on that site is, literally, to book a room,” Smith points out. “The very first page is ‘Make a reservation’ and from there you can click on the menu and you have a bunch of options.” The Ritz-Carlton website is simply mobile-friendly.

Statman agrees: The Four Seasons did a better job with its mobile experience. Destinations were easier to select and ease-of-use was “phenomenal”—simply click to make a booking. “The Ritz-Carlton was a little clunkier,” he says. “It’s not as robust and dynamic.”

Nonetheless, our analysts think that neither hotel chain’s video assets have any dynamism. Smith notes that the videos are simply forums for additional branded content creation. “To me the first step should be thinking about what’s valuable to the potential consumer,” she says. “The videos aren’t necessarily bad, [they] feel like there wasn’t really a focus on what’s the value to the [audience].”

Statman acknowledges that all the videos were decently shot, though the Ritz’s spots tended to run too long—and the hotel’s focus on people and faces made the videos “a little meaningless and overly dramatic.” Caputo has a blunter take on Ritz-Carlton’s videos: “What a yawner,” she says. “Wow.”

The Four Seasons’ videos weren’t inspiring, either. Fluent’s Carey argues that the luxury hotel chain’s videos harm the brand. After viewing the spots with coworkers, he says, a hush came over the room. One colleague asked: “Are you sure this isn’t an ad for Sandals Resorts? Look at how many kids are in the pool.”

“[My colleagues] equated it to other hotel chains with a different cost,” Carey says. “They equated it to [Ritz-Carlton-owned] Marriott.”

However, Smith points out that this family-focused strategy might actually turn out to be an advantage for the luxury hotel brand; she says she’s noticed that children themselves have become status symbols for a certain demographic. “Look at the buzz around Kim Kardashian and Kanye [West] and what they named their baby.” Smith says. “These are great niches to be playing in, because you don’t normally associate luxury with children. To me, it’s a very smart move.”

Statman points out that the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton no longer represent the epitome of luxury the way they did decades ago, especially with the emergence of boutique hotels like Aman Resorts. “When people want that adult-only luxury experience,” Statman says, “they’re going to the boutique networks, the uber-luxe destinations. Four Seasons and the Ritz have become more mainstream.”

Brand Champion

The Four Seasons squeaks through as the victor. As a whole its brand messaging was inconsistent, but its individual mobile, social, and website presences were more accomplished than the Ritz-Carlton’s. Still the Ritz-Carlton had its advantages, particularly in a solid brand message across its various marketing assets. Some might

argue that, taken holistically, the Ritz-Carlton came out better. Now, if only either brand would do something interesting with its videos.

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