A few weeks ago I talked about trends, and the trouble with simply observing and copying them rather than understanding them and applying the learnings. In that original post on trends I talked about how I was intending to look at trends in a number of areas of personal interest to me and see how I could learn from them and inform some of my current thinking for clients.
The first challenge I have given myself is to look at hotels (which I have always loved) and see how I can apply an understanding of the forces at play in the hotel industry to two automotive challenges.
First, a bit of context on the challenges. A client has asked us to think about two things...how to enhance the customer experience at the dealership, focusing particularly on sales and service behaviours...and how to get the cars out of the dealerships in order to attract more young females to the brand in an approachable and engaging environment.
Second, which trends in hotels to consider? After all, I'm no expert on hospitality, and it's not for me to say what qualifies as a genuine trend. So I'll pick four things I observe going on...
- Stark, clean minimalism moving steadily down the price ranges (from Ian Schrager properties in 1998 to chain and budget hotels in 2008)
- A new wave of indulgent lushness in high-end hotels and their bars and restaurants (led by Jacque Garcia in Paris, David Collins in London, and now Ian Schrager at his new Gramercy Park Hotel in New York)
- A growing recognition that the real value-add and talkability can often be found in the little thing (Hotel du Vin in the UK have always focused on extraordinary showers with guests encouraged to take away large bottles of body wash and shampoo to ensure onward talkability)
- Specialism, variety, and the long tail coming into play (art hotels, golf hotels, spa hotels, surf hotels, foodie hotels, restaurants with rooms, bars with rooms, Joie de Vivre's extraordinary chain of curious themed hotels in San Francisco...)
- The revival of hotel restaurants from being last act of hungry desperation (think the only place to find Steak Diane in the 1990s) to eager, active choice (think Gordon Ramsey at Claridges)
- The replacement of formal service with good service (think Babington House not Buckingham Palace)
So, what's going on? What's to learn from these relatively arbitrary starting points? Let's begin with the spread of minimalism down the price brackets...
1. AFFORDABLE MINIMALISM
The thing about affordable things is that they are cheaply-made and sold. So the more complex or stylised an affordable, the more likely it is to be tasteless or poor quality.
In contrast, minimalism is reasonably achievable, even on a low budget. So it should be no surprise that many budget hotel chains have replaced the chintz and tat of the old privately-owned budget hotels with a commitment to minimalism and good, clean taste. They have realised that people are more comfortable in a cleanly-designed, vanilla room than in a tasteless, colourful one.
This is not to say that stark (or should that be Philippe Starck minimalism) is the only trend in town, as I will discuss below. Simply that stark and clean remains a great cue for those brands playing at the budget end of town. And rather than try to go high fashion and get it wrong, many budget brands would be well-advised to learn from this flight to minimalism.
Need more (non-hotel) stimulus? Think Ikea, Wagamama, and Muji.
The outtake for my car client? Consider making the experiences around your budget vehicles clean, minimal, and universally-acceptable. Trust that buyers of a $20,000 car will favour good simple taste over poorly-executed attempts at excess.
2. INDULGENT LUSHNESS
It is very true, as a number of hotel writers and trend observers have noted, that the Philippe Starck era has ended at the top end of the hotel movement. Although I would clarify that it has not been replaced, simply that is has been rebalanced with a range of other stylings that are more place-specific or guest-appropriate (which is part of the long tail trend discussed below).
For me, the learning is that character, colour, uniqueness, authenticity, art, and heritage are all powerful ingredients for successful design. The key is to have the resources and credibility to execute and leverage them successfully.
For those brands that can play at this level, the rise of detail and depth (as a response to excessive minimalism verging on austerity) represents an exciting opportunity. But for those without the resources or credibility it still represents a great risk.
Again, looking for non-hotel examples? Think about the rise of the gastropub and of hearty cooking, replacing the overly-refined restaurant food trends of the 80s and 90s. Think about the revival of high-quality German riesling wines with crowd-pleasingly high sugar content but quality and price tags to match (unlike the cheap, out-of-favour 'sugarwater' of the 80s). Think about the revival of interest in wallpaper, carpet, fabrics, and textures in interior design (with taste, of course) and the counter-balancing of Ikeaesque simple furniture with replica vintage feature pieces (like Eames and Barcelona chairs).
The outtake for my car client? Recognise that, at a point in your price range, expectations change and more is expected of you. Understand that the world is cluttered by cleanliness, and if you want to stand out you will have to demonstrate some individuality and bold taste. Remain true to your brand but find some ways to inject flair into your experiences and presentation.
For more stimulus, check out agenda inc and read their Articles of Faith about luxury brands.
3. SMALL DETAIL VALUE-ADD AND TALKABILITY
The fascinating thing about Hotel du Vin is the way that their hotels do everything well but then stand out for the little things (the showers, the toiletries, the wine list). Not only that, but they help people take the story with them, and offer the same experience consistently at every hotel they own (with variety and local character supplied solely by the heritage buildings they occupy).
Looking for other examples of brands that win friends by focusing on the little details and every aspect of the customer experience? Look no further than Apple and Virgin. But I'm also trying to gather lots of fresh examples here...
Plus, if you need any more convincing on the importance of the little things, check out this post over at the Brand Experience Lab on the growing trend of online bathroom rating in the US.
The outtake for my car client? Find small things that can make a big difference. And help people make your story their own and take it with them wherever they go (but please avoid the phrase 'viral startegy').
4. SPECIALISM AND THE LONG TAIL
This trend/observation may now seem obvious, but it's worth touching on. In every category, brands are realising that they can win by dominating a minority of the market. The ultra-connected world we live in now allows brands to assemble viable markets out of apparently tiny niches (the long tail).
Better to be loved by a few than viewed with indifference by everyone.
It's a lesson that polarising brands from Marmite to women-only gyms/spas/insurance have learnt well and built on. In short, they say, if you don't love us or can't join us, then you might as well ignore us completely.
What can my car client learn? Simple. Just because you don't want everyone to hate you doesn't mean you have to convince everyone to love you.
5. HOTEL RESTAURANT AND BAR REVIVAL
Hotels have revived their restaurants, bars, and even public spaces by recognising that a good hotel is just a piece of real estate and an idea. Within that real estate and that idea, a hotel can allow a number of specialist, third-party brands to flourish.
The key is to understand the idea the hotel represents (and that its desired guests buy into). After that, the hotel can give up a level of control to more credible and capable restaurant and bar gurus.
The same is true for a car (or any other) brand. Recognise that you have a role to play in the world, and don't be afraid of specialising in that role while inviting other specialists to join you on the journey.
There is a difference between brand clutter and confusion and brand fit and partnership. The key is to stay the right side of it.
6. NEW LUXURY
This is a topic I covered some time ago after I had my first experience on Virgin Blue airlines in Australia.
The learning is simple. Great service is not the same as formal service. From fine dining to luxury hotels, formality is being replaced with knowledge, empathy, intelligence, and wit.
A car brand seeking to move up market would do far better to embed this kind of knowledge and intelligence into its customer service than to ingrain a sense of unnecessary formality.
Like all the others trends and learnings here, there's nothing definitive about this. But that's the point. It's all stimulus, all fuel for thinking. But none of it is the answer. And, let's face it, if observing trends was all it took, life in a creative or design agency would be very dull indeed.