Starwood Capital Partners had morphed from a real estate company into a fully fledged hotel operator with its twin acquisitions in 1997 of Westin, a 1981 contraction of Western International (1963) and ITT Sheraton Corporation, which was itself named after the 1962 opening of the Sheraton Motor Inn on Manhattan’s West Side.
Worried about the impact that Ian Schrager’s hip hotels were having on corporate sales at Starwood’s Westin and Sheraton chains, in 1998 CEO Barry Sternlicht responded with W.
Overnight, as it were, this sleepy industry woke up to the potential of strongly branded concepts and conscious – even mannered – naming that would help to articulate and publicise what a brand stood for. This was not something that concerned the Pritzkers, for example, as they built Hyatt Corporation from the name of the Hyatt House hotel at LAX, which they purchased in 1957.
W, which brought hip, boutique accommodation to the masses, was an unashamedly Morgans-inspired concept but one that actually worked and supported business travellers with their needs, which let’s be honest, beyond their lobbies, Schrager’s hotels never really did being a monumental triumph of sizzle over sausage.
The W brand name was eye catching both graphically and linguistically but it was a bold move to place all of its marketing dollars behind a solo letter vs. a family name or proper noun. The strong and striking twenty-third letter of the alphabet was made to work hard, however, not just as a brand name but as leitmotif woven throughout the guest experience, most obviously in the brand’s legendary (and trademarked) ‘Whatever / Whenever’ service. But W’s branding went further popping up across a wunderkammer of warm, witty and welcoming touchpoints many of which were aptly named with Ws (e.g. swimming pools = Wet, laundry = Wash and suites were Wow.)
Sternlicht’s $75m makeover of New York’s Doral hotel spawned not just the first W but a veritable lexicon of pretenders, eager to demonstrate that they, too, had absorbed the branding lessons from Starwood’s “funky” brand but too often regurgitating and imitating W verbatim, without so much as a second thought.
Where W had blazed a trail, the hotel industry – ever follower rather than an innovator – has tried to emulate and replicate W’s success to such an extent that possibly every inch of the lifestyle brand naming territory has been mined out. To illustrate, consider just how extensively linguistic or literary references have been used for naming inspiration. In addition to W, we have Autograph, Chapter, Edition, Journal, The Unbound Collection and Verse Hotels.
In fact, there are at least 22 attempts to do a ‘W’ – literally by naming brands after the remaining letters of the alphabet: The A Hotels, B Hotels & Resorts, C Hotels, D Hotels & Resorts, G Hotels, H Hotels, K+K Hotels, J Hotels & Resorts, L Hotels & Resorts, M Gallery by Sofitel, (NH Hotels), O Hotels, P Hotels, Q Hotels, R Hotels, (So by Sofitel), U Hotels & Resorts, V Hotel, Xotels, Z Hotels.
The careful reader may have noticed that E, F, I, T are still available, so if you’re about to name a new hotel brand, hurry to bag one of last remaining places in the alphabet. Or you could stop and do an Apple, an Orange or yes, a W, which was truly to innovate.
Recently, Luxury Branding was commissioned to help formulate and then to articulate and name an innovative new hotel and resort concept. Sadly, for commercial reasons, the brand isn’t going to go ahead but after a great deal of creative angst we managed to find an entirely new way of branding a concept and I promise you, there was neither a name nor, heaven forbid, a letter of the alphabet in sight!
This article was first published by HOTELS Magazine.