Brand Storytelling in the Era of Fake News

Here Len Stein, president of Visibility Public Relations, recaps my presentation at HSMAI’s Digital Marketing Conference in New York last month. The article was originally published in Branding magazine. – DC

By Len Stein

Daniel E. Craig, who recently discussed the importance of strategic digital storytelling at the HSMAI Digital Marketing Strategy Conference 2017, New York City, first learned about the power of digital storytelling in 2006 as general manager of Opus Hotel, Vancouver, when he launched the hotel industry’s first blog.

“In our blog, we talked about issues most hotels would not discuss, like why we overbooked and sometimes relocated, how we dealt with difficult guests, and what it felt like to get a bad review,” said Craig, whose blog attracted a worldwide following and helped to put the hotel on the map.

He then moved on to his second career as a mystery writer whose lead character is a hotel manager who becomes a house detective in Murder at the Universe and two sequels.

Today Craig, founder of Reknown, is a marketing consultant to hotels, technology companies, and travel organizations, helping shape their brand stories, content and messaging.

People have been telling stories for millennia, and exaggeration has been a staple device. What’s new are the digital platforms for sharing stories, the unprecedented audiences, and the new formats, which present marketers new opportunities and challenges. With low barriers to entry, there are virtually no filters in social storytelling. Anyone can say or share whatever they wish, which has given rise to an era of fake news, misinformation, and so-called alternative facts. As citizens of this post-truth era, it’s hard to know whom to trust and what to believe.

In fact, Edelman’s 2017 “Trust Barometer” found that trust has eroded globally 30 percent across the board over 2016. Marketers must recognize they are dealing with a cynical and skeptical public, and they must accept part of the blame for this situation. As has long been the case, there’s still too much misinformation in marketing today, especially in the travel sector.

“I like to joke that the hotel industry can be credited with creating fake news because of its tradition of featuring fairytale descriptions and fantasy photos in marketing materials, in hopes that guests won’t notice the grimmer reality of the property when they arrive,” said Craig. “For instance, hotels regularly shorten their distance from airports and beaches and to downtown, exaggerate views, and liberally toss around words like ‘luxurious’ and ‘five star.’”

What’s the biggest fake news story in the hotel business today? “Book direct for the best deals.” While it’s sometimes true, consumers who take the time to search online often find better deals. “And travelers should beware of the phrase ‘best available rate,’ which might more accurately be called ‘bestish,’” said Craig. When consumers can find better deals elsewhere, trust in the hotel industry erodes.

It’s no wonder that travelers turn to social media to consult trip information and advice from the source they trust most – other travelers. But the social space poses problems too – from fake reviews to false information to bad advice. Many people turn to Facebook to crowdsource recommendations, but again not all our friends share the same tastes. The end result is that this skepticism is directed toward other consumers and even to people within our personal networks.

In this environment, how can marketers earn trust? Storytelling in marketing is basically about shaping brand messaging to resonate with one’s audience, said Craig. A good story, well told, captures attention, makes people sit up and listen, and compels them to share the story. With so much noise in the digital space, good storytelling is a way for hotels and brands to stand out. But to compel action (from likes to shares to bookings), marketers must build trust with consumers—in the products and services they promote and in the content they share. 

At the root of brand messaging lies the hotel’s brand story, which describes the property and answers the key questions travelers have when planning trips: Where are you? Why should I choose you? How will I feel?

The tagline should capture the essence of the brand, like Gleneagles Resort, “A glorious playground,” or Room Mate Hotels, “Always downtown, wherever you go,” or Swissotel, “Life is a journey, live it well.”

Today’s travelers demand transparency, authenticity, and integrity from businesses, especially lodging providers. To build trust, marketers must uphold these values regardless of what may be happening around them—in their messaging, pricing and storytelling, Craig said.

One excellent example is the Casablanca Hotel, a boutique property in New York City that is part of Library Hotel Collection. The hotel “takes great pains to inform travelers that their classic rooms are small, without views, and not recommended for extended stays.” While it may appear to be a form of anti-marketing, it’s actually clever and refreshing. Rather than over-promise and under-deliver, the property is so authentic and transparent in its marketing that travelers know exactly what to expect upon arrival. This provides staff with all sorts of opportunities to exceed expectations. The end result is terrific reviews and high ratings.

To maximize reach and impact, an effective content marketing program should incorporate three types of media: earned, owned, and paid. Online reviews (free “earned” media coverage) are perhaps the most potent form of content marketing, and while brands have less control over the content of earned media, it delivers the highest level of trust because it originates with consumers.

Some hotels engage in the practice of clickbait, featuring sensational headlines that entice people to click but don’t deliver on promises, and this too erodes trust, Craig said. Clickbait tactics are in part driven by reliance on meaningless metrics in digital marketing, such as the number of likes and shares, which do not necessarily advance one’s marketing strategy.

Imagery and video are powerful promotional tools in travel marketing because imagery is universal, frequently shared, and is more trusted because it is hard to convincingly fake. More than anything, video tells the real story. Marketers should use three types of visuals: professional photos, social imagery (which can be produced in-house), and travel imagery (for authenticity and social endorsement).

To avoid clichés, which are pervasive in hotel marketing, hoteliers should strive for originality in imagery and descriptive copy, and this comes naturally when hotels know their guests’ profiles and speak directly to them. Remember it’s not a one-size fits all proposition. Stories that intrigue baby boomers may fall flat with millennials and elicit out-right derision from Generations Y and Z.

So get to know your property, your guests and their desires before launching a content marketing program. Be honest, truthful, and transparent, and the bookings will follow.

To inquire about booking Daniel E. Craig for a speaking engagement, click here


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