Best Western and Westin – brand tales from the wild frontier

Best Western has always been a bit of a me-too brand.

The company’s recent attempt to fix its problematic name and confused economy brand image follows the well-trodden path of Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn with a ‘basic, plus, premium’ segmentation strategy.

But then there’s BW Premier Collection, Best Western Plus Executive Residency and – just for the millennials – two new concepts named ViB (Vibe) and Glo (Glow) — how are they supposed to fit in to our consciousness?

It’s still confusing, it has to be said, and oddly reminiscent of Oldsmobile’s panicky attempt to overcome its failing brand by pretending it didn’t exist and pouring money instead into models with names such as the Alero, Bravada and Firenza. But all credit to CEO David Kong — for the first time in the 69-year history of Best Western the company has really tried to address the problem of the Best Western brand.

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The name, as you might well imagine, has its origins in the American West, which is loosely defined as the territory west of the Mississippi River.

The company was founded after the Second World War when a network of independent hotel operators in California began making referrals of each other to travelers. The informal network eventually grew and in 1946 it was decided to formalize the arrangement. With a singular lack of imagination they named the new company ‘The Best Western Motels’.

Why ‘Best’? Most likely it had something to do with a chance meeting that took place 16 years earlier in a small town to the north of California in Washington State. Two hotel competitors found themselves having breakfast at the same diner in Yakima. They struck up a conversation and decided to band together and form an alliance, which they named ‘Western Hotels’.

The folks down in California were surely aware of Western Hotels when they were thinking about a name for their company. Given where they were operating, ‘western’ must have seemed a natural. Not to be outdone by Western Hotels they found what they assumed to be an easy way round that problem by going up the superlative scale –not just Western, but Best Western.

In 1964, Best Western bumped into the geographic limitations of its name when it decided to expand east of the Mississippi. Extending the same ‘territory as brand” logic the properties were named — you guessed it —  ‘Best Eastern’. It didn’t last long. By 1967 the Best Eastern name was dropped and all motels from coast-to-coast got the Best Western name and logo, a move that would substantiate its claim to be the “World’s Largest Hotel Chain” by the 1970s.

Western Hotels, meanwhile, had taken a different route to growth with service innovations such as the first guest credit card, a state-of-the-art reservation system and the first hotel to offer 24-hour room service.

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Positioned for global growth

With expansion into Canada in 1954 the company changed its name to Western International. And then, in what was a truly inspired rebranding exercise, Western International morphed its name into ‘Westin’ in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Westin Hotels & Spas is now a brand cornerstone of the Starwood Group. The addition of the Westin bird logo by Landor in San Francisco gave the brand a luxury caché that was much admired in the hotel industry.

Unlike Westin, Best Western never got to grips with the evolution of its brand as the business grew. It wasn’t until quite recently it actually came to understand that Best Western is a brand – albeit, a brand with baggage – and not just a name. I am reliably informed that, at one time not too long ago, a branding agency seriously suggested to Best Western that it build a brand around ‘Best’ and drop the western part. No takers at Best Western.

A hint of what might be ahead for the Best Western brand is the introduction of a BW monogram in the new, modernized Best Western logo. A good move although still too tentative. David Kong should have seized the opportunity and gone the whole hog with BW as the main hotel brand and corporate name and ring-fenced Best Western as its economy brand.

And what of ViB and Glo? One thing I do know about millenials – they don’t like being sold to, especially by their grandfather.

The unbearable lightness of agility

Characterized by quickness, lightness, and ease of movement, nimble: this is what it means to be agile.

Ever since Hewlett-Packard spun off its test and measurement business as Agilent Technologies in 1999, it seems that every old company reborn as a spin-off wants to proclaim this rejuvenating quality in its name.

HP was in the thrall of Carly Fiorina at the time. The newly appointed CEO was fresh from her triumph at Lucent Technologies, the AT&T spinoff. HP wanted some Lucent magic.

The beauty of the name ‘Lucent’ lies in its literal meaning – giving off light; luminous. It was a one-off, but that didn’t deter the test and measurement executive team. “Give us a Lucent” was the order to Landor, the company that came up with the name.

The result was Agilent. Helpfully explaining that the name is derived from the word “agile” the company said in a statement that the name reflects the company’s “focus on providing breakthrough products and services with agility, speed, and commitment to its customers.”

Agilent has chugged solidly along, steady and reliable as a stock but scarcely the agile giant it would have us believe it was going to be.

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Being agile has since become nothing more than a corporate conceit. It says more about the executive team’s view of how it wishes to be regarded than of any distinguishing and differentiating corporate virtue.

The latest company to come trippingly into the world is Engility, a government services company spun-off by L-3 Communications.

The name is derived from “engineering” and “agility” says the company. It states: “As the name Engility implies, we have a demonstrated ability to anticipate our customers’ needs and move quickly and efficiently to deploy resources on large and small, complex programs worldwide”.

Sigh. There is really only so much you can say about being agile before you soon begin to sound stale, clumsy, and seriously pedantic.

Hibu, corporate names, and the search for meaning

Overlook, if you can, the name ‘Hibu’ for a moment and focus on the wording of these headlines from two national UK newspapers.

They are classic ‘gotcha’ headlines.

What this obnoxious form of journalism implies is concealment, as though an executive has been caught out by a diligent media while attempting to launch a ‘meaningless’ name  on an unsuspecting public.

The CEO in question, Mike Pocock, is a thoughtful American executive of considerable experience in the technology industry. The business challenge he is faced with is formidable. Briefly, it is this:

The UK publisher of the Yellow Pages directory, of which Mike Pocock is CEO, is desperately trying to jolt itself out of a death spiral.

The digital revolution is taking no prisoners. Print-based businesses are dying. The future of content is on the web and brands that don’t connect with that future, no matter how revered, are dead or moribund. Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders Books and Tower Records have already fallen.

Yellow Pages is one of those brands. It clearly doesn’t connect with the digital future the company is trying to build.

The writing has been on the wall for years. Up until 2001 the Yellow Pages directory print business was a stodgy division of BT (British Telecom as was). It was sold to a private equity buyer as Yell Group – yell.com being the name of its UK local search engine.

Yell Group was floated on London’s FTSE in 2003 and after a decade-long acquisition splurge combined with declining revenues the company found itself in bad financial shape. A new management team was drafted in under the leadership of Mike Pocock.

He quickly came to the conclusion that none of the existing brands in the Yell Group stable had what it takes to move the company into a new digital future. Yell, with its dictionary definition of “a sharp, loud, hideous outcry”, was particularly inappropriate.

Like it or not, Hibu is an attempt to draw a line under Yell’s “dinosaur” status with a fresh name, a brand better positioned to carry the business forward as a local search engine and marketplace that links shoppers with the businesses nearest to them.

The business logic and brand strategy are sound enough. What Mike Pocock didn’t reckon with was the British press’s appetite for juicy rebranding stories that involve national institutions and what they regard as ‘meaningless corporate names’.

With the scent of the Consignia savaging still fresh in their nostrils the assembled hacks smelled blood again, and they pounced.

Ripping apart new corporate names is much more entertaining for outraged readers than detailing a CEO’s strategy for business recovery. And judging by the intemperate comments online the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail know their readers well.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the name itself, Mike Pocock should have been better advised and more thoroughly prepared to deal with the matter.

At a time when he should have been selling hard his strategy for recovery he was wrong-footed and forced to engage in a distracting conversation about the meaning, or lack of, of the name Hibu.

It is the nature of the news beast you are dealing with in the UK.

There is unreasonable belief that, in order to be ‘real’, a name should possess a traceable semantic lineage back to an ancient source.

And so the question was bound to come: Mr. Pocock, what does Hibu mean?

‘It’s a word’, he said. ‘If you go back 15 to 20 years, Google and Yahoo didn’t mean anything. It’s how you support the brands.’

He’s right, of course, but that played unwittingly into ‘meaningless name’ narrative.

It is no use pointing to Google and Yahoo! by way of non-explanation. Rebranding an established, high-profile company is not the same as naming a startup, which is what Google and Yahoo! were when they were named; corporate rebranding is an entirely different game played by different rules.

Hibu is involved in a high stakes game that involves changing people’s minds about what you are.

The rebranding of insurer Norwich Union to Aviva, for example, was given a free pass because the company stayed in front of the story. Much was made of the the name’s tenuous link to the Latin word for ‘life’ to appease the language police, but the real trick was in winning the communication war: why the name was being changed, why Aviva was chosen, and the enlisting of Ringo Starr, Bruce Willis, Alice Cooper and Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everidge to reassure the public that changing names is OK. ‘I changed my name, and look what happened to me’ was the message.

Language is, after all, an artificial construct. It is symbolic in nature, a system of communication made up of symbols and sounds that mean something only by convention. All names are, therefore, arbitrary; they are linguistic surrogates for the thing they represent. Peel back the etymological layers around a ‘real’ name like Disney, for example, and it is just as arbitrary as Verizon or Syngenta.

This is Hibu’s challenge. The question about the name should have been recast: Hibu was carefully created for very specific and practical purpose – now let me tell you what it’s going to mean to our important constituencies.

It has nothing to do with the meaning, or otherwise, of name itself. Corporate rebranding is a PR and communications challenge as much as it is a branding challenge.

See also: From A to Zeneca, a brief history of corporate naming.

Quote unquote

Talking of questionable quotes, there’s one I have seen cropping up over the years that has been ascribed to Sir Hector Laing, who was Chairman of United Biscuits, a UK cookie conglomerate, in the 1970s and 1980s. He is supposed to have said sometime, somewhere:

“The most important assets are brands. Buildings age and become dilapidated. Machines wear out. Cars rust. People die. But what lives on are the brands.”

A quotable quote if ever there was one, but did he say it? I have tried to establish its provenance various times without success. Anyway, like many quotes that were not actually said, it has lapsed into myth. Even though Walter Landor never said “products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind,” and just as Archimedes probably did not shout “Eureka” jumping out of his bathtub, people would rather believe they did.