Why Culture is the Foundation for Any Luxury Brand

A strong brand identity and commitment to culture can turn challenges into opportunities.

Those of us who choose to work in hospitality end up here for a variety of reasons—maybe it’s due to a love of exploration or a curiosity about the world, or because of a deeply held belief that travel is what breaks down barriers and connects us. And we all share an inherent desire to connect with and take care of others. But as an employer, how do you foster this type of passion and purpose, not only in a way that enriches the lives of your associates, but in a way that allows them to share it with others? Through brand culture.

Strong culture is rooted in a defined identity that speaks to a brand’s mission. At Marriott International we have no shortage of brands—30 to be exact. My focus is on our luxury portfolio, which includes eight brands, all with their own distinct history, heritage, and vision. Our luxury portfolios made up of The Ritz-Carlton, Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Bvlgari Hotels & Resorts, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts, EDITION, The Luxury Collection, JW Marriott, and W Hotels, and if you’ve had the opportunity to stay with more than one of these brands, you know that they offer very different experiences. This is because they were all born from a different purpose. Our brands appeal not only to a variety of guests but also to a diverse international group of associates. Our associates may choose to work at a St. Regis because they are drawn to the brand’s deep history and sense of glamour. A W Hotels associate may already be living the brand’s high-energy lifestyle and might welcome the opportunity to share that spirit with like-minded colleagues and guests. With this portfolio of brands—all that continue to grow globally—the most effective tool we have to create both engaged guests and employees is brand culture.

One of the yachts from Ritz-Carlton’s collection. Photo courtesy Marriott

When I think about enlivening culture across our luxury brands, I think first about the purpose each one was created to serve. JW Marriott was founded in 1984 and is named after the company’s founder. Now, JW Marriott the brand brings to life much of what was important to J.W.Marriott the man: a place where everyone is welcome, and a legacy that celebrates family, connectivity, and mindfulness. Meanwhile, our Luxury Collection Hotels make a different promise entirely, and that’s intentional. These properties strive for complete authenticity. They want to be the heart of all things local and provide guests with a deeper connection to their destination.

While I’ve only called out two, all of our luxury brands have their own similarly defined rich heritage and purpose. This tie to a unique legacy is what allows our associates to operate at a higher level, it is what inspires them to create special moments for our guests, it is what connects them emotionally to their job, and it is what provides them with non-material motivation.

For our brands, culture is the North Star. Its guiding principles set the tone, lead in all decision-making, and empower our employees. Creating these brand cultures takes dedication and a commitment to reinforcement.

The Ritz-Carlton brand, which was built on the promise of providing genuine care and comfort to guests, is known worldwide for its incredible culture. This is supported by a clear brand vision, the Credo, the Service Values, the Motto and the Employee Promise, all of which make up the legendary Gold Standards. These elements of The Ritz-Carlton brand identity are reinforced daily at every hotel globally during a short, daily meeting called line-up where the content is the same, no matter the property. In fact, all of our properties, across all of our luxury brands, conduct a daily line-up. However, it looks and feels very different, depending on the brand. This consistent moment helps create a global community, furthers a spirit of connectivity, and serves as a regular reminder of brand purpose and inspiration.

Inside the Perry Lane hotel in Savannah. Photo courtesy Marriott

Brand culture starts with a community of great leaders—hiring and investing in talent that is committed to the brand vision. I often tell our general managers across all of our luxury hotels and resorts globally that they and their teams are the most important stewards because they are creating the experience in daily interactions with our guests. We have seen that robust culture across our brands has delivered in spades. Among our associates it is what ultimately motivates and inspires and is what makes our teams want to go the extra mile. Among our guests, it is what drives brand loyalty by creating an emotional connection and is what keeps them coming back.

While culture is, and should be, specific to each individual brand, it must ultimately complement any core company culture. Marriott International is an organization built on a strong set of fundamental values that includes putting people first, pursuing excellence, embracing change, acting with integrity, and serving our world. While our individual brand identities go deeper with their guiding principles, they ultimately support and strengthen our company’s most important tenets.

Across the board, COVID-19 has changed everything from consumer priorities to how we do business during a period of recovery. Brand culture can be tough to enforce in the best of times, and it is even harder to enforce when people may be working remotely, disconnected, or stressed about the pressures of daily life. But this is also the time that culture is most important to embrace and enforce. In difficult times, a return to that North Star can provide stability, inspiration, and motivation. It is the beating heart of a brand, and it is what keeps it from being replicated. In short, a strong brand culture is what turns challenges into opportunities.

Chris Gabaldon is Senior Vice President, Luxury Brands for Marriott International, where he oversees global brand operations and marketing strategy for the company’s powerful luxury portfolio.

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