The term ‘soft branding’ in the hospitality industry refers primarily to a branding strategy of independent hoteliers whose objectives are to preserve their unique differentiation and management styles, while acquiring immediate positioning, branding trust, and status through third party branded affiliations. In addition to deepening their relationships with existing customers, independent hoteliers have access to new well targeted markets through the ‘soft brand’s’ global distribution connectivity and sales offices, as well as benefits from a variety of other marketing services and business development consultancy that are normally only enjoyed by hotels belonging to larger more standardized hotel groups. Some examples of luxury ‘soft branded’ hotel consortia are Leading Hotels of the World, Relais & Chateau, and Small Luxury Hotels. Specialized niche hotel consortia, such as Design Hotels, Epoque Hotels or Swiss Historic Hotels, are growing rapidly and are offering independent specialized hotels access to more accurately targeted segments, extensive marketing and targeted sales initiatives, as well as participation in appropriate trade shows and events. Pioneer branded hotel consortium Preferred Hotels now has several brands in its portfolio with which independent hotels could match their concept such as very luxurious, boutique, luxury local authenticity, smart but affordable, or historic.
Slattery (Connell, 1992) first used the term ‘soft branding’ in 1991 to refer to middle of the road branding strategies of large hotel chain companies that found it difficult to achieve a strong consistent brand offer across all of their properties. This initial usage of the term was in contrast to ‘hard branding’ that had uniformly replicated products and services. Hard branding is still used in this way today, especially in the US, where there is a possibility for new buildings and centralized purchasing as well as access to a fairly homogeneous work force. Subsequent to Slattery’s reference to ‘soft branding’ as inconsistent branding practices of standardized chains, Rowe (1998) uses the term to refer to affiliation with hotel consortia. She writes that hotel consortium Summit Hotels & Resorts (now a division of Preferred Hotels) is a ‘soft brand’ that offers hotel members marketing as well as brand identity. In 2000, the term ‘soft branding’ was used similarly by Swig to describe the option for independent hotels to join hotel consortia with other hotels that had common attributes in order for all to acquire marketing services, distribution, and brand affiliation credibility without the hotels losing their own uniqueness (Swig, 2000).
Soft branding is especially important in Europe, where unlike the US, there is a formidable challenge in achieving brand consistency of a hotel chain in an industry where existing hotels are located in historical areas restricted by building codes, impacted by local economies, and constrained by regulations concerning standards for official hotel categories. This can be further complicated by cultural differences between the staff as well as within the customer segments. In contrast to the US, the hotel market in Europe is still dominated by small and medium sized independent hotels within a fragmented market with customers who are not necessarily seeking standardization.
A rapid growth and increasing specialization and diversification of soft brand hotel consortia organizations reflect the shift in hospitality consumer trends in Western countries where customers are becoming more discerning, sophisticated, individualist, and experience oriented. Hospitality products and services are oftentimes high involvement and emotional purchases of which intense and unpredictable human interaction is a major component. Therefore, there is still the need for customers’ assurance of a certain level of controlled quality standards provided by a soft brand affiliation that, at the same time, provides the customers with the ‘desired inconsistency’ and individuality with which they can identify and appreciate in non replicated independent hotels. There are growing opportunities for a soft branding approach available to a variety of independent hotels in order to reach today’s individuals in diverse markets and still effectively compete in an increasingly consolidated industry.
In response to the growth of the singular hospitality customer, some ‘hard’ branded hotel companies such as Starwood have created The Luxury Collection, a global chain of famous hotels with the property name dominating both The Luxury Collection brand and the Starwood Hotels and Resorts brand. Starwood Corporation takes some discreet distance from these renowned hotels on the hotels’ Web pages in order not to devalue the property brand. According to Sylt, C. (2008), The Luxury Collection is offering ‘soft branding’ opportunities to exclusive independent hotels while maintaining their strong property identity as well as providing all of the benefits of guaranteed high quality service, extraordinary but not replicated facilities and loyalty programs for their guests through Starwood.
The concept of soft branding is also showing up in bars and restaurants with a similar response to changing consumer demands for individuality. In the UK there is a trend for large pub companies to not overtly brand like before. They have found that customers tire too quickly of hard branded establishments and the product life cycle of strong themes is getting much shorter. Davis, A. (2002) reports that many medium and large pub and restaurant groups are taking a soft, more individualistic brand approach within their own chain outlets and mimicking successful authentic local independents who can quickly alter their concepts to keep up with shifting customer preferences faster than the hard branded chains.
Connell, J. (1992). Branding hotel portfolios. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 4(1), 26.
Rowe, M. (1998). Soft branding works for summit members. Lodging Hospitality, 54(7), 22.