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Hospitality Brand & Design Debt: What it is and How to Address it

“Design debt is all the good design concepts of solutions that you skipped in order to reach short-term goals. It’s all the corners you cut during or after the design stage, the moments when somebody said: “Forget it, let’s do it the simpler way, the users will make do.” Ward Cunningham

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Brand / Design Debt is a process in which your hotel or property’s strategic design decisions fall out of order as you hunt for short-term fixes and quick results. While understandable from a financial and operational perspective, this search for quick turnarounds erodes trust and lowers the perceived value of your brand in the eyes of your guest. This ‘debt’ is incurred through major inconsistencies and discrepancies in branded touchpoints including your tone of voice, brand identity and visual design, on-site collaterals, as well as your website design and user experience. We all know that lack of trust and lowered perceived value lead to one thing - a  failing business.

Your guests don’t really know why they do or don’t trust you: it’s a gut feeling that takes place subconsciously when interacting your brand - both online and on-site -  through all your designed assets, communication and service.

Rushing to market comes at a price.

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How Do Your Incur Brand / Design Debt?

Brand / Design Debt can happen as a result of many factors - we’ve categorized them below according to project phases and operational size - in order to better recognize and amend any issues during those phases.

Pre-Launch

  • Time is not properly taken to define Brand Strategy, Audience Personas, Guest Journeys, and  branded touchpoints
  • Brand voice, messaging, and tone are not clearly defined
  • Lack of Brand Guidelines or Standards for internal team to understand what is considered ‘on-brand’
  • Unreasonable deadlines
  • Uncoordinated internal team and communications
  • Lack of brand and design audits to ensure standards are met

Post-Launch

  • More stakeholders become involved and speak on behalf of the brand - unknowingly deteriorating the original strategy, direction, and voice
  • Focusing on quantity of touchpoints over quality of touchpoints
  • Focusing on short-term fixes
  • Unreasonable deadlines
  • Uncoordinated internal team and communications
  • Lack of brand and design audits to ensure standards are met

With newly launched properties, owners tend to burden the load or hand-off to junior staff, who aren’t equipped to properly define the vision or execute brand strategy effectively through copywriting, visual design, and website implementation. The result is an amateur outward expression of the brand, resulting in lower brand value and difficulty in attracting guests.

With smaller operations, brand management is more straightforward (although burdensome)as the core team is trying to maintaining standards: imagery style, copy and messaging, color choices, visual style, font use, etc. If the brand is setup correctly from the beginning with an agency or experienced internal team - owners still tend to have their hands in the ‘design pie’ to oversee and approve output - which can detract from their true powers, improving operations and guest experience. The consequences are a lack of attention paid to guest experience and fulfilment, resulting in loss of trust and service quality.

With growing brands - more stakeholders are onboarding into the team, providing their input, and often indirectly diluting the brand’s strategic positioning and direction. A brand that has a powerful presence and unique identity can be led astray through ‘design by committee’ - a process in which too many (unnecessary) voices are taken into consideration, creating a ‘Frankenstein’ outward appearance - an inconsistent mix of visual directions, messaging styles, and priorities.

Consequences of Brand Debt

Short-term and results-driven decisions often incur brand / design debt - as they have not been considered in relation to the overall strategy and direction.  Some of the outstanding repercussions of brand and design debt include:

  • Lowered guest satisfaction and fulfilment
  • Difficulties in attracting new guests
  • Incongruence in positioning, design system and messaging
  • Lowered competitive advantage due to decreases in perceived value
  • Confusion amongst team and internal stakeholders around brand direction, style and unique value
  • Financial re-investment into refactoring (redesigning) inconsistent and off-brand collaterals and elements (paying back the debt)

What to Do / How to Avoid It

The great news is that there are solutions to avoid brand debt and ways to address if it does happen, which is natural in most businesses.

  • Create clear and easy to understand brand guidelines and standards for your hotel: these include your tone of voice and messaging, visual and graphic style, as well as outlining your overall positioning and guest personas. Update them as needed, especially when lots of new assets have been created
  • Focus on communication across internal stakeholders to manage and audit branded touchpoints (social, website, on-site collaterals) in line with Guidelines
  • If possible, assess guest emotional and functional reactions of certain touchpoints and collaterals. Take into consideration high value / low cost and consequently high value / high cost solutions to be addressed in order to reduce brand debt across the guest journey.

We recommend finding a balance between slow perfectionism and quick messiness - the goal is to produce quality brand touchpoints across the guest experience.

In the words of Robert C. Martin - “Craftsmanship over crap.”

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