The Art of Microcopy

The smallest strings of copy on a website can achieve the greatest impact.

Collectively referred to as microcopy, I’m talking about the little bits of text that instruct site visitors how to interact with the content while prompting further action and assuaging any ingrained reluctance to convert. They usher users through the sales funnel.

Writing microcopy is a true crossover craft – an exercise in both front-end development and content creation. It’s one of exceptionally few areas in website design that allows lowly copywriters like myself to get their hands dirty turning the nuts and bolts of user experience. It also gives us the chance to inject a few extra doses of tone of voice into a website.

Bus as we’ll see in a moment, playing fast and loose with microcopy tone can macro-backfire. Internet users are a fickle bunch, and they’re sensitive about the way you address them – even in the briefest of messages.

A Brief History of Microcopy

The term ‘microcopy’ (if not the medium itself) was coined by Joshua Porter – a self-described ‘product designer and writer’ with a blog ( on Alexa’s top-100,000 leaderboard. Here’s how he defines it:

“That tiny copy (often shorter than a sentence) that helps clarify, explain, reduce commitment, or otherwise assuage someone performing (or considering) a task.”

In early incarnations, microcopy was mainly used to lead users through the process of navigating a website. It instructed them to ‘click’, ‘enter name’ or – at the most important junctures – to ‘submit’ or ‘purchase’. There were no bells and whistles.

But over time, a glimmer of tone crept in. The garden-variety ‘Click’ became ‘Click Here!’. The humble ‘submit’ button evolved into ‘Sign me up’. These online signposts started sounding more human, even if they weren’t exactly speaking in a branded tone of voice.

Some of the first all-out attempts at putting microcopy in tone happened on 404 pages. A few years ago, clicking on a bad link would strand uses on a page with lifeless notice – ‘404 Not Found’, or something to that effect. But today, just about every well-branded website ha a custom 404 page. In each case, the message remains the same – this page doesn’t exist on our website – but the tone varies.

Here are three examples from prominent 404 pages, running the gamut from matter-of-fact to lightly playful:

  • Google: ‘404: That’s an error.’
  • Airbnb: ‘Oops! We can’t seem to find the page you’re looking for.’
  • Emirates: ‘Sorry. We’ve travelled the globe, but we can’t seem to find this page.’

The 404 page is the low-hanging fruit of microcopy – the easiest place to begin applying an in-brand voice. In fact, when QUO creates tone of voice guidelines for a brand, we often provide sample 404 copy to give an example of the tone in action. It’s a natural place to start.

A Case Study: Microsoft Microcopy Prompts Macro-derision

Tinkering with tone of voice is a dangerous game, and it’s difficult to get right. One of my favourite examples of out-of-tone microcopy comes courtesy of Microsoft Office. It deals with app microcopy, which is functionally the same as the website variety.

Back in 2013, the latest release of Microsoft Office shipped with a new-and-improved dialogue boxes that included messages such as ‘Spelling and grammar check complete. You’re good to go!’.

They weren’t well received. In fact, the Microsoft Community has an entire thread devoted to the issue. In the mix are several cranky Britons lamenting the introduction of ‘crass Americanisms’ to their spellcheck experience. A few quotes for colour:

  • “Microsoft, you have lowered the tone of your product.”
  • “Bottom line: I don’t want my computer to talk bollocks and sound like it was designed by an illiterate teen.”
  • “This has done more to make me detest Microsoft and everything they stand for than anything else.”
  • “The combination of arrogance, ignorance, and self-satisfied pomposity is a daily irritation. And then they wonder why most of the world hates Americans.”
  • “It pales in comparison to my disdain for the informal Monster energy drink fuelled, sleep deprived, LINUX programmer addition of ‘You’re good to go!’ Really?”

Really, indeed. A string of text that completely succeeded in communication a message that utterly failed to speak to (at least some) users in a tone they could appreciate.

For what it’s worth, Microsoft must have realised they missed the mark. In the version of Word currently running on my desktop, a successful spellcheck results in a blasé notification without any of that Monster-energy-drink-fuelled, sleep-deprived gusto that apparently characterises Linux programmers, illiterate teens and Americans in general.

It simply says, ‘Spelling and grammar check is complete.’ Tone matters. Get it right and you’re good to go.

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Want to Innovate? Change Your Attitude!

The hospitality industry is evolving, whether you like it or not. In order to stay at the vanguard of change, hotel operators must innovate. To do that, according to CEO David Keen, they must first change their attitude.

In a follow-up to his Brand Revolution Speech at THINC INNOVATE 2018, David has expanded on his four steps to innovation in a series of article in Hotels Mag.

You can read the first of four articles here.

Cool story, bro

Customers crave stories. For travel and hospitality brands, it’s no longer enough to market your products with only high-res images and a stable of glowing reviews. Let’s look at how three major hospitality players are giving the people what they want.

Storytelling may be an ancient artform, but it only recently emerged as an essential branding tool. Propelled by an online explosion in video content and a desire to harness social-sharing trends, a successful branded storytelling campaign has become the holy grail of content marketing. Well-crafted stories shine a spotlight on your organisation’s narratives. These can range from in-depth origin stories on the ‘About Us’ page to sharable vignettes broadcast on social media. Some brand stories document real events; others are engaging works of pure fiction that embody the company’s values. But virtually all branded stories have at least one thing in common – emotional content.

“Promoting a brand through emotionally charged narratives is an effective way to raise awareness and boost engagement. But telling stories for stories’ sake isn’t enough. You have to know your audience, tap into their psyche and spin tales that resonate with their needs and values. Pull this off, and the rewards are substantial.”

Tales Worth Telling

Industry leaders are coming around to the need to take charge of their narrative – to shape it and distribute it themselves. Here’s how a few heavy hitters in hospitality and travel are accomplishing that:

#1 Airbnb Took Charge of its Narrative with Storytelling

Airbnb has always had a knack for storytelling. Even the company’s unusual name is a story prompt that connects back to the founders’ early days of renting out an inflatable mattress in the living room of their San Francisco loft. It’s an origin story – one that survived full-on rebrands and continues to inform the company’s reason for being.

But they also understand that their core product is difficult to articulate. It’s not as tangible as a mainstream hospitality provider’s. Local hosts are on the frontlines with customers providing all the experiences – from lodging to city tours. They’re the ones doing the meeting and engaging.

In reality, Airbnb exercises little control over its users’ experiences. To counter this, the company has made a concerted effort to shape the way consumers think about its core product – and they’ve used storytelling to accomplish this.

A few years ago, they relaunched the brand with a video that spoke of a world ‘full of cities and towns’ that are ‘constantly growing larger’, one with disconnected people ‘yearning for a sense of place’. Then they move in for the kill:

“What would it be like to feel at home, even when you are away? Imagine having that anywhere.”

In one succinct brand video, Airbnb has taken hold of the narrative and framed itself as an agent of connection. This has freed it up to tell stories about the people it brings together, to tell stories about exceptional experiences offered by Airbnb hosts and to showcase the globe-trotting escapades of its users. This has become a main focus on their website. Have a look at Airbnb’s ‘Stories’ page, where they curate a mix of host bios, user-generated content and other stories related to their network.

#2 Jetblue Connected their Brand to Feel-good Stories

JetBlue was an early adopter in the new wave of branded storytelling. The airline’s social campaign – ‘Fly It Forward’ – focused on Twitter, where it encouraged users to nominate admirable candidates that deserved recognition. These nominees had nothing to do JetBlue.

But a new narrative was about to change that.

Judges selected a few outstanding nominees and offered them a free round-trip ticket. These winners then became goodwill ambassadors and were asked to ‘fly it forward’ by nominating other worthy candidates. The process continued.

By showcasing this goodwill and rewarding it with free flights, JetBlue aligned itself with these stories of selflessness and sacrifice. Of course, all of this was documented on social platforms like Twitter and YouTube. The result was a series of sharable stories about community organisers, survivors and other previously unsung heroes.

What emerged was a kindness chain with JetBlue at the centre. The fact that none of these stories had anything to do with the airline was beside the point. Or maybe it was the point. Twitter swooned.

This is just one example of JetBlue’s successful forays into storytelling. The airline’s ‘Recurring Dream’ video tells a feel-good fictional story about a pigeon who dreams of a better flying experience. It’s cute, memorable and highly sharable – and it links directly to the brand’s key messages.

Then there was the ‘FlyBabies’ campaign, which documented a so-called social experiment where crying babies on airplanes went from a fussy annoyance to a source of free tickets and a cause for applause. Talk about changing the narrative.

#3 Marriott Entertained Audiences with Pure Fiction

Marriott was one of the first major hospitality players to go all-in on using stories to market their products. In 2014, they launched a full-on creative studio to create, produce and distribute content on behalf of their vast portfolio of brands.

This studio set about producing a steady stream of polished video content designed primarily to entertain. A trilogy of Two Bellmen films are the crown jewels in this new endeavour. These highly choreographed action films run from 17 to 35 minutes and are shot on location at specific Marriott hotels. Each has racked up several million views on YouTube.

David Beebe, who founded Marriott’s Content Studio and ran it for nearly three years, once explained that the why behind the content was more important than the what. In other words, they weren’t making content for content’s sake. Most of the content they produced connected back to specific sales packages, thereby driving bookings.

What’s Your Story

One of the reasons a well-crafted branded story is so compelling is that it’s uniquely yours. It sets your brand apart in the market and provides customers with a human connection – something they can engage with.

You might even say that the way to your target customer’s heart is through a story, which begs the question: What’s yours?

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Designing Profitability

Benjawan Intrasuwan, Head of Digital at QUO, reveals why smart website design means much more than just making it look nice.

Online travel agents (OTAs). You love that they help significant numbers of guests book at your hotel, but those commission fees just don’t feel right. What’s more: what happens to the fantastic brand you created that is perfectly tailored to appeal to your target guests? On OTA websites, hotels are reduced to pretty much just a basic comparison of price, location and amenities. There is very little space left for an original brand to shine through. You have almost become a commodity.

For these reasons, the ultimate aim is to obtain commission-free direct bookings through your hotel’s own website. This is where smart website design really shows its value.

Express Your Brand

Your site as a whole should embody the mission and culture of your hotel and show visitors how you are different. Each page should feature content that clearly portrays its purpose. There should be a distinct sense of style, whether you are going for a sophisticated look or a laid-back vacation vibe.

Here are 8 principles we keep in mind as we build websites designed to  significantly boost the number of visitors who actually convert and make a direct booking.

1. Be Quick

Worse than someone who comes to your website and doesn’t make a booking is someone who doesn’t even reach your website to start with. Forty per cent of users abandon a website that takes more than three seconds to load. Part of any delay is server speed, but website design also has a major impact on loading time. High-resolution images, video and advanced design elements slow down a website. You need an experienced designer to ensure that image and video weights are compressed and advanced design used sparingly to keep things fast.

2. Grab Attention

Research shows that the vast majority of users will abandon a website within the first 10 seconds if they don’t get a good feeling from it. This makes the design of the home page incredibly important. As soon as the site loads, it should enchant the guest and convince them that the rest of the website will provide them with what they are looking for. A good idea is to feature a ‘wow’ hero image or video that encapsulates what you want the guest to know about the hotel.

3. Make it Intuitive

Visitors come to your website with a clear purpose. It is important to make the experience as easy as possible for them. The navigation of the website needs to be simple. Approximately 25 per cent of users report leaving a website because it is too hard to navigate. Users especially shouldn’t have to search for the ‘Book’ button. It needs to be on virtually every page, prominently positioned and visible at all times. Using a bright colour that contrasts with the surrounding space ensures it catches the eye.

4. Personalise

A website should be designed to appeal to target guests. Are you looking to attract business travellers, young families, couples or groups of friends? The design needs to reflect that through the choice of images, styles and colours. Users will book if they feel a connection with the hotel’s brand. With modern websites, the content and layout that is presented can change depending on the user’s IP, so you can target geographic areas and returning visitors. Personalisation is the key to making a deeper connection with a user and encourages bookings.

5. Be Responsive

Your website must adapt to different devices. With the massive proliferation of smartphones, a major proportion of the visitors to your website will be viewing it on a device that is not a desktop computer. If your website is not responsive and has not been designed to look good when displayed on a smartphone screen, you will frustrate and lose many of your visitors.

6. Share Experiences

One of the most important parts of your website is engaging content, and one of the most important forms of content is photography. Photos and videos should be professional, tell a story and deliver a strong message. Hotels can also use blogs to build the brand’s narrative, give exciting updates and inform guests about events and attractions in the area. Your content should be professional, informative and entertaining. Your website is the digital front door to your hotel. If you can’t wow a guest online then they will assume your hotel has nothing exciting to offer.

7. Provide Social Proof

Around 78 per cent of people trust peer recommendations, but only 14 per cent trust commercial advertising. Many people will not book a hotel until they have first checked out reviews from fellow travellers. If a user has to leave your website to find these reviews, there is a big chance they won’t be coming back. Integrating guest reviews into a website helps to give potential guests the reassurance they need to make a booking. Sites like TripAdvisor provide the ability to insert review widgets into hotel websites so visitors can check reviews without leaving the site.

8. Measure and Test

Optimising a website is an ongoing process. It’s important that usage is measured and analysed to spot areas where people are dropping out, getting frustrated and not doing what you want. Running constant tests to see what works and what doesn’t and making relevant changes will increase the percentage of visitors making bookings. Google famously ran a test using 41 different shades of blue for their advertising links. The result for Google was USD200 million per year in increased revenue.

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Joes vs Pros

The first time I hosted friends in Bangkok seems like a lifetime ago. The year was 2009, President Barack Obama had just been sworn in, James Cameron’s Avatar was the year’s highest grossing film and I became an ad-hoc guide for six energetic millennials.

At the time, I felt such pressure to make sure my friends ate, saw, smelled (durian), wai’d, and tried everything. It was their first visit to Thailand, and they were counting on me to deliver an “authentic local experience”. (Little did I know how much those three words would impact my career today).

Looking back, my biggest takeaway is simply that most travellers desire an element of the extraordinary: something unique, captivating and memorable that they can recall for years to come. In order to provide that, I had to gauge their particular appetites for adventure and plan our itinerary accordingly. But what if they didn’t conveniently have a local buddy on-hand – how would their trip have turned out?

Perhaps with the help of articles, top-10 lists and published travel guides, they would have been OK. Better yet, they might have sought out their hotel’s concierge for sightseeing ideas, discussed Bangkok’s best street food stalls with a lively waitress at breakfast or discovered the neighbourhood’s temple after chatting with an ever-smiling doorman.

Inevitably, and thankfully, hospitality at its best requires genuine face-to-face human finesse. It is that very notion – and the idea that travellers are inherent story collectors and experiences seekers – that makes Airbnb’s recent offer, Trips, something to keep an eye on.

Guiding a New Path

In what seems like a natural extension of Airbnb’s mottos of ‘Live There’, ‘Welcome Home’ and ‘Belong Anywhere’, Trips enables plucky locals, and even non-profit organisations, to share their insights, passion, culture and art with curious travellers. Made to tap into Airbnb’s already substantial global network of hosts and guests, Trips is motivated by the fact that, as Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky says, “You can spend as much time planning your trip, as on your trip.”

The new offering is something the company says will ‘fix’ this problem, giving travellers authentic local experiences while freeing up the time usually spent researching and arranging said experiences. Experience Hosts, as they’re calling these local insiders, can’t just be any regular Joes. They must be creative, expressive, welcoming and, most importantly, not think of themselves as tour guides. This extends to the types of experiences hosts should offer. Airbnb challenges them to create “an experience that your guests wouldn’t be able to find on their own”.

The latter point is perhaps the essential trait of Trips. Because, regardless of what travellers wish to do – dive with sharks, hunt truffles, learn Dominican bachata dance – it is still easiest (and safest) for them to ask their hotel to arrange it.

The reason Trips is such an exciting prospect is that many hotels either aren’t prepared or are too mired in convention, to cater to travellers’ growing appetites for off-the-beaten-path adventures. The majority of hotels and tour groups continue to peddle generic tours that don’t quite fulfil expectations or inspire the imagination. This is at their peril, as more forward-thinking operators are taking a leaf from Airbnb’s playbook, realising they need to offer distinct, bespoke experiences if they are to sell their tours.

Learning from Experience

Airbnb has already had a profound impact on the industry, and although it is less than a year old, Trips is shaking up expectations and business models in the hospitality and travel world. To the
benefit of travellers everywhere, this has been a motivating factor for all operators, from independent properties to global brands, to invest more into creating, and enhancing, their own experience offers.

While some are catching up, others are already well on their way. West Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis is leveraging its rock-n-roll reputation to tap into experiential travellers. From making their famous underground recording studio available to guests and adding the Morrison Hotel Gallery (an extension of the New York City-based gallery) to monthly themed events focused on music and artists, the Sunset Marquis has proven that hotels can more than compete with the independent local insider ‘host’. Perceptive guides and guest experience managers at hotels may even employ Trips as an additional platform – because if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Multinational hotel groups with brands that showcase local culture and design, such as IHG’s Indigo or AccorHotel’s MGallery, are also a step ahead and should have little difficulty adapting and even innovating. Still, while some will rise to the occasion, there will undoubtedly be a thinning of the herd.

Local tour companies dependent on standard one-day trips may have to go back to the drawing board. I doubt anyone will miss those loud, flag-waving, time-keeping tour guides, their military-strict
sightseeing schedules and their cold, uncomfortable minibuses. No matter what the future holds for this industry, one thing is for certain: it doesn’t pay to lather, rinse and repeat.

Hoteliers VS. Hosts

While independent hosts have agility going for them, hospitality expertise and training are not to be taken lightly. The very purpose of Airbnb is to connect regular people with, well, regular people – not seasoned hospitality professionals.

While there will always be outstanding, generous indie hosts, hoteliers as a whole still set the standard for service and care. A team of in-tune, dedicated specialists is better equipped to serve. And judging by the expansion of their training programmes and the growing intensity of their experience proposal vetting, Airbnb knows this.

Consumers and industry experts should not discount the value of brand standards, service and operations guidelines, job experience and ethical requirements. Each assures guests of respect and fair treatment.

Being a hotelier entails so much more than checking-in guests, offering poolside service or even being a local discovery guide. It is a specialised role that demands expert precision, commitment to guest
experiences, passion for service, creative innovation and enthusiasm for each and every guest. Hoteliers, whether seasoned or newly minted, have a very real stake in delivering the best services to guests.
For Airbnb, whose hosts are probably not seasoned hospitality experts, maintaining standards will be an ongoing challenge.

Last year, the company came under fire over its hosts’ ability to refuse potential bookings based on guests’ race, nationality, age, gender and more. A study published in May by Rutgers University, based on nearly 4,000 Airbnb booking requests, found that bookers with disabilities were refused at rates higher than people without disabilities.

While Airbnb has implemented a non-discrimination policy to “reaffirm their commitment to inclusion and respect”, there are obviously still ways around the language. Currently, the most severe consequence that rogue Airbnb hosts face is being removed from the platform. Meanwhile, Airbnb’s reputation suffers.

Naturally, hosts do not have the same connection or obligations to Airbnb as a hotelier has to their property and brand.

Ask the Experts

Did I end up being a good local ‘experience host’ for my friends? Much to my relief, they ended up falling in love with Thailand, and their happiness was well worth all the planning. But I can’t claim all the credit. While it was easy to share my enthusiasm for a city so close to my heart, I had plenty of support.

Thanks to Thailand’s mature travel industry, I was able to tap into a well-established infrastructure. I stole ideas from articles. I scoured top-10 lists. And every morning while my friends were diving into their hotel’s breakfast buffet, I reviewed my itinerary with the concierge, whose insights and advice were essential to our holiday.

So while Trips may signal a new era of travel, it’s not the end of the tour. The quest for an authentic local experience is always going to rely on exactly that: experience.

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More ‘Social’, Less ‘Media’

QUO believes social media content should be more ‘social’ than ‘media’ to win against ever-changing algorithms. By QUO Brand Strategist Rica Facundo.

Many hospitality marketers panicked about the recent change to Facebook’s algorithm, which now decisively favours user content and meaningful engagement over promotional posts from businesses. While brands ultimately need to adjust their approach to media planning, data crunching does not address the crux of the problem. Neither do content strategies with no real-world implications.

QUO believes that the answer to social media content strategies is simple yet easily overlooked: create meaningful experiences in real life that guests will naturally want to share with their communities online.

That is why the Facebook algorithm change actually works in favour of hospitality brands.

Share-worthy experiences have always been at the heart of the industry. People seek out novel adventures for their next online #humblebrag. They document, then relive fond travel memories through throwbacks. They cultivate their communities through photo tagging and inside jokes left on comments.

A shift to more meaningful interactions is also an emerging theme evident in the hospitality industry, with travellers seeking more wellness and purpose-driven experiences. Now more than ever guests will advocate and recommend hotel experiences that align with their personal beliefs, instead of those that just pay lip service to them.

This strategy defined the new social media campaign and long-term social media approach that QUO created for Wink Hotels, a new hospitality brand aimed at tech-savvy ‘Indochine 2.0’ travellers.

After the Wink Hotels brand launched in October 2017, the first posts on its Facebook page were standard press releases that pushed the product without giving compelling examples why the brand was relevant to the lifestyle or mindset of an Indochine 2.0. traveller. This is a stark contrast to the ‘Indochine 2.0’ campaign that is currently underway. Even though Wink Hotels is still being built, the brand aims to create content that demonstrates its ethos in order to resonate with a new generation of travellers in a meaningful way.

While the initial headlines after Facebook’s recent change were screaming every variation of ‘RIP Facebook for Marketers’ in the long-term the change will become a return to the essence of social media – that it’s a behaviour, not a channel.

A social-savvy hotel brand needs to understand the nuances of human behaviour, particularly when it comes to what their guests desire and believe, to create travel experiences able to spark this kind of ‘shareability’ online. If brands focused more on the ‘social’ than ‘media’ in their content strategies, this will ultimately give guests a more compelling reason to share the brands they love with their social networks.

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A Rose by Any Other

The secret to creating a great hotel name? Create a great hotel. By Orion Ray-Jones, Content Director and Regional Director, Indochina.

Call me Orion. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – I may have told you to call me Ryan. Easy to spell and pronounce, the alias could’ve made life a little easier for a kid growing up in a time and place where names from Greek mythology were rare. Every year, on the first day of school, I would wait to be called on by a new teacher, dreading the inevitable “Or-EE-ahn” mispronunciation. In the worst-case scenario, my educator would write my name on the blackboard, and, depending on their handwriting, the ‘r’ might extend a little too far, turning into an ‘n’. Onion. So much for being named after a legendary demigod who sparkles in the night sky.

Having analysed a number of studies about baby naming, pop economists Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt concluded “names are not destiny”. According to their meta-analysis, there seems to be little correlation between a child’s moniker and their future success. And to some degree, the same holds true for a brand’s name. So-called experts predicted that the Chevrolet Nova would do terribly in Spanish-speaking markets, as ‘no va’ means ‘does not go’. The car sold like hotcakes. Chase Bank (named for a mostly forgotten US Treasury Secretary) is worth about USD250 billion, even though nobody wants to ‘chase’ their bank for money. And one of the biggest successes in the video game industry came in 2006, when Nintendo released its Wii. The system was a smash, despite, er, the obvious.

The list of successful brands with ‘bad’ names is endless. Yet, agreeing on a name for a new hotel, company or product can often be the most contentious part of the branding process. Owners are justifiably concerned about choosing the ‘right’ name for their investment, spending hours agonising over hundreds of names. But are we all wasting our time sitting around conference tables arguing about whether ‘MonkeyHouse’ or ‘QX17’ best represents the concept of our millennial-focused brand? Yeah, we probably are.

Names are important. They can communicate something about a brand’s positioning, ethos or vision. And if you get it wrong, it can be the hardest thing to change, as a name holds more brand equity than the logo, corporate colours and building architecture combined. The Chevy Nova might have performed fine in Latin American markets, but the infamous Ford Pinto didn’t fare quite as well when it was released in 1980 in Brazil, where ‘pinto’ is slang for male genitalia. Ford changed the name to Corcel – ‘horse’ – and lost all the marketing dollars spent on the old name. These days, the Internet is full of similar missteps, and speakers of any language have surely seen LOL-worthy photos of foreign companies advertising brands with saucy names in the local lingo.

While the pitfalls of potty-talk make for great memes, more common naming problems are far less funny. The complex world of intellectual property law makes it near impossible for globally expanding brands with real-word names to enter new markets without some risk of trademark infringement. In countries where punitive damages can be awarded, a bad name can be a very expensive mistake.

More difficult yet is navigating the ever-changing world of SEO. Just when you think you’ve found the perfect name, you discover it’s already been taken by a guesthouse in Uruguay which has bought up all the best URLs and planted itself firmly at the top of Google’s search results. If you don’t have the appetite for buying or litigating your way into your favourite URL or trademark (see: iPhone), you’ll have to go back to the drawing board.

In response to these complexities, a whole industry has sprouted up around brand naming. Equal parts art and science, the process usually starts with analysing a brand’s DNA, target market and competitive set. From there, the hunt for a word that embodies the brand and appeals to its consumers can lead almost anywhere. Fairy tales. Thesauruses. Dictionaries of dead languages. Boggle. Linguists will agonise over the euphony of every syllable, dissect the shapes of each letter and disappear deep into semiotics as they look for that perfect word. A long list of possibilities will become much shorter as names are disqualified for problems with pronunciation, intellectual property and URLs. The winning name might come from an ingredient (Pepsi), a nickname (Adidas) or geographic place (eBay). It might even be totally arbitrary (Apple) or made up (Kodak).

In the past, owners named their companies according to personal taste. Now, most believe it’s more important to use a name to maximise brand value, rather than appease a whim. It is far more important that the name resonates with the target consumer than with the boardroom, after all. A name that sounds ‘cool’ to a 55-year-old man in a suit very likely won’t have the same appeal to a 20-year-old, and vice versa. Effective branding demands empathy with the consumer, so it’s often useful to think about how one’s mother, or grandkid, or favourite barista would react to the word. What does it tell them about the brand’s offering? How does it create an emotional connection with them?

A ‘great’ name won’t just appeal to customers, but to employees as well. The recently launched Hotel Jen is inspired by a fictional character – Jen. ‘A professional hotelier who loves life, travel and the adventure of discovering new places,’ the character helps to define the ideal member of staff. CitizenM prides itself on treating employees as ‘equals’ and ‘individuals’. Jaz in the City seeks out staff members who love music and the destination – passions that can be evolved into employee-led service concepts.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best brand names come from real words; some studies have shown they’re twice as memorable as made-up words. Pros will also tell you that a perfect name should have a ‘story’, though it’s often hard to tell how much the general public knows, or cares, about the deeper meaning of brand’s appellation. Ace Hotel’s name cleverly matches its from economy-to-extravagant concept with the position of an ace in playing cards, but I have yet to meet anybody outside of the industry who knows this. What the public does care about is their ability to remember a name. An effective name has to be distinctive enough to stand out from the deck, but not so complex that the consumer can’t spell it when they’re doing an Internet search.

A less clear-cut criterion is pronunciation. It’s very difficult to create a name that is pronounced the same in Cameroon, Cambodia and Cuba. Usually, a variety of localised pronunciations won’t hurt – indeed, it’s welcome proof that a market has figured out a way to make a foreign brand more indigenous. Other times, only a brand’s most loyal customers pronounce their name correctly while others falter. A correct pronunciation of Hermés or Moët signals to listeners that the speaker has a level of sophistication worthy of the products. Outside of the luxury segment, it’s probably best to choose names that don’t intimidate or trip up the speaker, which is why we see so many Latin- and Sanskrit-derived names in the market. These languages have combinations of consonants and verbs that are relatively easy for consumers to pronounce, no matter where in the world they’re from.

So you have chosen a name that’s clever, unique, pronounceable and visually beautiful. It doesn’t translate to naughty body parts in other languages, and it has a rich and meaningful story. Everybody loves it. Success must be right around the corner? Possibly, but it won’t have much to do with that amazing name. A great name will not save a horrible product any more than Nintendo’s questionable choice of name hurt its fantastic gaming machine.

No matter what name is ultimately chosen, it will gradually gain meaning as the rest of the branding and the product itself come to life. There’s nothing inherently luxurious about the words ‘Four Seasons’, but thanks to the brand’s history of excellence, those words now conjure up images of top-notch service and refined accommodation. And while Coralia, Adagio and Ramada all have mellifluous sounds, none are brands from which you’d expect a couture-clad clientele and endless Champagne. Trends in naming also change over time. Who would name their company ‘Yahoo!’ or ‘General Motors’ these days? But customers will continue to trust an old brand name if the product continues to deliver. In other words, a name is only as good as what it represents.

My ‘Ryan’ phase was pretty short-lived, though I do still use the nom de théâtre on occasion, usually when making reservations at a noisy restaurant. (There are only so many times you can scream “O – R – I – O – N” into a phone before you give up.) My unusual name hasn’t made me legendary like my namesake, but at the same time, sporadic teasing from classmates and frequent mispronunciations haven’t done much harm. My name is sometimes a good conversation-starter (“hippie parents,” I explain), but its ‘story’ is often misperceived (my grandmother-in-law was slightly disappointed to discover I wasn’t an Irish ‘O’Ryan’). Sometimes a name is an asset, sometimes an annoyance, but ultimately irrelevant if the person behind it is a jerk. A generous, friendly man named Onion will always win out over an obnoxious demigod called Orion.

Ten Tips for Naming

  1. No name will please everybody. Don’t make the choice by committee.
  2. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t blow important deadlines or sacrifice time spent on business strategy in search of perfection.
  3. Choose a name for your audience, not your ego.
  4. Specialist intellectual property attorneys in countries of operation are essential.
  5. Consult an SEO expert. Another company in a different industry in a foreign country might or might not be a problem.
  6. While pronunciation should be reasonably easy for target consumers, allow for regional variation.
  7. A name will gain richer definition as the visual identity and product are developed.
  8. A name cannot explain everything about your brand. Choose your primary communication goals.
  9. Do not try to choose from a massive list of names. Have your agency only present 3-6 at a time so that you can consider them in depth.
  10. If people love your product, they will come to love your name.

Collateral Advantage

In crafting an exceptional hotel experience, it’s the little things that count.

It’s human nature to be curious, and so it should come as no surprise that guests will leave no stone unturned during a resort hotel stay, peeking into every drawer and rifling through every magazine. Brands need to rise to the occasion during every step of the guest journey – engaging customers by satisfying their curiosity and enriching their experience.

Whether traditional or digital, every piece of hotel collateral from arrival to the point of departure should deliver the brand promise. These include often-overlooked opportunities like registration forms, luggage labels, key cards, brochures, signage and bathroom amenities. There is a tendency amongst many in the luxury hospitality sector to play it safe; they seem to be scared of displaying any intellectual playfulness when it comes to collateral design. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Working closely with a designer, hotel brands should strategically take advantage of all these applications, which are fantastic vehicles for leaving an impression and forming bonds with the guests. Every piece of collateral is a natural platform for enhancing the brand essence. Simply slapping the hotel’s logo all over these items or labelling them in unimaginative ways misses a fantastic opportunity. The results are utterly boring, whereas well thought-out and relevant pieces of communication – using words and/or graphics – can grab attention and create moments of magic.

The very best items are so desirable, they become memorabilia, promoting the brand well beyond the hotel’s confined perimeter as they will travel all the way back to the guest’s home. The best of the best are shared online, through social media and on the pages of trendsetting publications.

Which one of these two door hangers is more likely to seduce? The one that says ‘Please do not disturb’, or the quirky example created by W Hotels: ‘WHEN? Not quite yet’. With this witty, ‘on-brand’ message, W not only shows confidence but also portrays the brand as one of the smart thinkers who understands the sophistication of their hip, intelligent guests.

Another good illustration of my idea of efficacious collateral comes from the London-based agency GBH. They describe their branding work for Mama Shelter as: ‘Positioned as affordable luxury, The Mama way is both warm and cosy but also surreal and surprising’. They created a set of key cards that feature portraits of chickens and allow the front desk to write room numbers on the medals that hang from the necks of the poultry models. There are also bathroom amenities that talk in the MAMA language.

In these examples, the use of wit is very rewarding. But beware: a too-witty idea that bewilders guests is worse than no idea at all. If the concept isn’t truly strategic and effective, you’d be better served by playing it straight with a boring conventional approach.

One way to assess whether the cue will be grasped or not is to test it amongst a few people outside of your organisation or department. If you’re in doubt, make sure the concept works both ways: whether the viewer gets the witty idea or not.

While creating design perfection can be a near impossible task, spectacular collateral is a cost-effective medium for communicating with guests. Their curiosity is your opportunity to surprise and delight them.

Pierre’s Tenets For Ensuring Your Design Collateral is a Strategic Success:

1. Make sure the brand essence and the tone of voice are well defined. If your brand is based on embracing the local culture, you might create collateral that educates the guest with images of artefacts accompanied by cultural legends.

2. Be inventive, and create collateral beyond the expected list of items. These pieces should fit your brand but create a unique experience.

3. Assess each application to see if it fits the brand characteristics and criteria.

4. Make sure the design of each element is relevant to its application.

5. Allocate adequate budgets for design, photography or illustration, and copywriting.

6. To quote Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”