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Indian Hotels Go In For A Brand Makeover

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The quiet self-effacing little Park Hotel in Delhi has had a brand identity makeover. It’s now proclaiming itself as THE Park in black and white tones, with the tagline ‘Anything but ordinary’.

After nearly 30 years of being in business, Park has also suddenly announced a new brand called The Zone. This will be a design driven upscale brand. "Over the past few years, we saw a growing demand for a new kind of hotel - for a new kind of traveller, who is about people and passion," says Priya Paul, Chairperson Apeejay, Surrendra Park Hotels, explaining the rationale behind this new launch.

This new segment of hotel will be priced around $80-$100 and will be positioned lower than THE Park which is upscaling itself a bit more.

The Park is not the only one going in for a brand rejig and a segmented approach. The stately Taj, and ITC have both created different brand segments in recent years. The Leela, the Lalit are all investing in revitalizing their brands. The buzz among brand consultancies is that Leela is inviting pitches. Newbies such as Lemon Tree, Keys Hotel, have entered the hospitality fray with significant investment on branding.

Is it the advent of the foreign brands that has made the Indian biggies nervous and forced their hands? Or the changing profile of the traveler and hence the imperative to stay in tune with their guests’ new needs.

A bit of both says Manav Thadani, chairman of HVS India. Brand consultant Anand Halve agrees but says, “In an overall sense, I think it has to do with a category ‘coming of age’ just as in the past few years we have seen this happen to ready-made garments, furnishings, home appliances.”

Halve’s firm Chlorophyll did the brand exercise for Lalit, the initial brand strategizing for Taj’s Ginger hotels (when it was still being called Indi-one), and has done the brand strategy for budget hotel chain Keys, funded by Berggruen Holdings. Partha Chatterjee, executive director of Keys hotel describes how the brand philosophy of Keys is unique as it was co-created “by the customer”.

“Differentiation has become critical. The Indian traveler is today spoilt for choice,” says Lulu Raghavan, India head of Landor, the brand consultancy that did the Taj branding and is behind the Park re-imaging as well.

There was a time when the Taj’s of this world could play at just one traveler segment point. The upscale luxury segment. But since 2006 when the great Indian hotel rush began, a plethora of lodging segments opened up in the country’s starved hospitality landscape. Mid-market became the new mantra. There was a need to capture all this.

“Taj was the first one to start with a more segmented approach,” says Raghavan. Not just price point segmentation.. but also traveller segmentation. So for a group that wanted contemporary unstuffy luxury, it created the Vivanta. For travelers looking for crisp service without any bells and whistles there was Gateway. And for those seeking basic bed and breakfast there was Ginger. And above all at the top were the iconic Taj classic hotels.

ITC’s COO Dipak Haksar says that the hotel chain has “strategically customised its hotels and categorized them to fulfil the service and budgetary needs of travellers.”  The 90 hotels that the chain has straddle the luxury space (Luxury Collection), upscale (Welcomhotel/Sheraton) and midmarket (Fortune).  The Welcomhotel brand is further segmented into Welcomhotel Heritage and Welcomhotel Sheraton. Interestingly, ITC which has 9 per cent share of the branded hotel market in India and is a veteran player has chosen to align with global player Starwood. “ITC hotels has an exclusive tie-up with Starwood Hotels & Resorts for its top of the line premium brand, the Luxury Collection as also with the Sheraton brand for two of our hotels,” says  Haksar.

Even the Park which till now has stayed away from the frenzy and aggression of expansion (born in 1967 – it still is only a 12 hotel chain) is talking of adding about 800 rooms over the next four years. Three of these will be owned. Zone will be primarily managed properties and four have been signed.

For Leela, troubled by debt crisis, the imperatives of rebranding are different. It has shaken off its partnership with Kempinski (which incidentally is now making its own foray on its own in India). And now the attempt at every Leela hotel is to play up on the Indianness – and capitalize on the city where it is located.

For Lalit, the rebranding exercise began with the death of its founder Lalit Suri, and the end of its foreign associations. Till 2008, all hotels in the Lalit Suri group were operated under the brand of The Grand Hotels, Palaces and resorts.

Once Jyotsana Suri took charge, the hotel chain decided to end all its tie-ups, and create a brand that was a “living tribute” to its founder. Says Anand Halve, “We developed the new brand name to represent his legacy, hence the name ‘The Lalit’. The stylised graphic representation in the logo is in homage to Mr Lalit Suri’s devotion to Lord Ganesh and the ‘L‘ of the Lalit, becomes the trunk of the Lord’s image! Lord Ganesh also represents new beginnings and change.”

For the old players there was also a need to rebrand as several new fresh young players were popping up in the horizon, with clearly thought out differentiated products. Take Lemon Tree with its zesty spirit (as you enter any Lemon Tree hotel, the scent of lime greets you) and born out of well researched customer needs. It addressed many of the pain and pleasure points of customers.

At the same time, the branding can lead to some confusion. Manav Thadani points how Oberoi’s Trident brand and Taj’s Vivanta and Gateway have not truly been able to explain the differentiation. “Branding for branding’s sake is not enough. There is a fuzzy line in many of the brands,” he says.

But admittedly, it’s a good start. Just like in the FMCG space – and hotel rooms are becoming more like commodities and sold like packaged goods – branding will emerge as the strongest differentiator in the days to come.


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