“The ones who take the leap are the ones who win,” says Sean Murphy, vice president of American Express Publishing Custom Media.
Murphy’s not referring to Olympic athletes in the long jump, but, rather, to a re-thinking of content itself, triggered by one client’s RFP.
In late 2011, Amanda Alltree, senior director of marketing for Marriott Hotel’s Autograph Collection—three-dozen boutique hotels in cities throughout the world—approached Murphy and his crew with a challenge.
“We have a collection of hotels that are completely different from one another,” she told them. “There’s no sameness or consistency.”
And, she said, the brand persona, developed through customer surveys, skewed equally idiosyncratic. “The product really appeals to independent hotel guests—they’re anti-brand, in a way,” she told them. “And because a hotel is a very important part of their travel, they do a lot of homework when they’re deciding on a hotel, and research really interesting and unique things.”
Although the Autograph Collection was in its embryonic stage of developing brand identity, one aspect of the program had been pre-determined: a bi-annual print magazine circulated on front desks, in lobbies and in guest rooms, to be slipped into suitcases by departing guests and transported (hopefully) to all corners of the globe. And yet, Amanda explained, the product should be something other than a glossy whose chief purpose is to make the foreign feel familiar.
It’s as if Murphy and AmEx crew had been handed a riddle: A brand that’s not a brand; hotel customers who don’t need to be reminded that they’re customers in a hotel; and a hotel magazine without a whiff of hotel magazine elements.
At AmEx, heads were scratched and chins were stroked, and then ensued a re-examination of some basic assumptions. Says Murphy, “We asked ourselves, ‘What is a magazine? What is an online magazine? Do we have to play by the rules?’”
The client’s answer was an emphatic “no,” and thus commenced planning for the print magazine—Autograph Collection Hotel Magazine—which would be tailed by a website and social media strategy.
To edit the book, Murphy recruited Heidi Mitchell, a print veteran whose resume includes Town & Country Travel and Travel + Leisure. Collaboratively, AmEx and the client identified the Collection’s passion points: art, history, architecture, family, luxury, indulgence, sporting, artistic, culinary, subculture, natural and urban—each an embodiment of the Autograph Collection experience, and a framework onto which Mitchell could fasten an editorial lineup.
Amanda and her Autograph team requested that the content elicit a brainy provocation. “We really wanted to appeal to those people who we think truly appreciate the detail and architectural interest that’s so rich in our hotels,” she says. “They’re going to need content that is a little more intellectually curious for them.”
In response, Murphy emphasized the idea of “fascinating” to Mitchell and staff. “That was the editorial edict,” says Mitchell. “So first we looked at what the client didn’t want: Hotel magazines with beautiful pictures of the resort, and articles about what to do in the city—straight travel pieces. We knew the Autograph Collection guest is already a traveler, so they’ve read those types of articles to get where they already are. But we figured once they’re in their room, at some point they’ll have ten or fifteen minutes to spare—the woman has fifteen minutes before a meeting, or the man is waiting for his wife to get out of the shower—and they’ll see a beautiful magazine on their table and they’ll thumb through it. Maybe they stop and read a fascinating story and go down to the lobby and strike up a conversation about what they’ve read.”
Editorially, “fascinating” included shrimp farming in the desert; a first-person tale of a guitar obsessive; Esperanto’s past and future; and a telephoto-essay shot by Guy LaLiberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, from 220 miles above the Earth, which at first glance seems like abstract images suggesting a chocolate layer cake or a red blood cell, but in fact are the Sahara Desert and Kazakhstan, among other places, revealed by turning the page upside down.
“We wanted something that was just visually operative and lush,” says art director Jenny Knight about the choice of a photo layout taken from the Space Station. “And in the flow of the magazine we needed a little bit of a visual break. The profile of the reader that Amanda and Autograph gave us was so multi-dimensional that the sheer love of discovery they possessed actually opened up the world of fascination to us, topically. We knew we wanted to provide something that was just beautiful—and that photo essay is gorgeous.”
But it was clear to all that designing a gorgeous print magazine that would migrate to a new website, with a Facebook and Twitter strategy, required more than visual puns, fascinating content and beautiful art-house designs. An a-ha moment occurred one day while Murphy was shopping in a suburban New York City wine shop.
Among end caps lined with various bottles and colors and styles, there it was, standing out, recognizable from fifty feet away, a label with a series of dots and dashes—a Sauvignon Blanc from Australia called Morse Code.
“That’s the philosophy of the magazine,” Sean thought. “Morse Code is a beautiful thing to look at, but it can't just be pretty. It has to be several layers deep. Morse Code is the first form of electronic communication in the world, and that's an interesting story in itself. But could we put a message in a piece of Morse Code in the magazine? Send readers to a decoder in the gutter credit, go to the website and decipher it. For the reader who wants to see these patterns in their own life, in their own experience as they experience the content, we’re suggesting, if you like these articles, you'll like these hotels.”
Deciphering the quote—“Creativity is just connecting things,” from Steve Jobs—was designed to offer its own reward.
“The challenge is the reward,” says Murphy. “Lollipops are not always needed. There is a place for rewards points, but the true reward is giving the audience something that they crave. Nobody wants to play an easy game. They want it to be difficult.”
Such game-ification and digital optimization elegantly promotes the content across multiple channels. “What we tried to do was create an optimal fascination experience for the viewer on the website,” says Knight. “So the materials, a lot of them, the layering doesn’t come across quite as much in the way that it would when you’re reading that book in linear form in a physical sense, on your lap with the page. So we have to devise ways that actually can tell that same story in the digital space, which takes a little more work. That part is in constant evolution because that’s where the real power is, in the life of those stories online.”
Online, the website echoes the print product’s sense of discovery—the homepage shuffles, for example, and photo carousels pop on high retina tablets—while also offering readers a chance to book hotel rooms and earn Marriott rewards. “The stories become much more declamatory, more informational as an experience when they’re online,” says Knight. “We do consider that when we’re considering the topics of the stories.”
Amanda from Autograph says that Marriott’s strategy, while leveraging the print product as a way to communicate on property, is rooted in digital. “The fact that we can have this digital corollary is really important to us and the magazine helps us create an authentic presence online, as well as give interesting content across our social media channels and website.”
As of October, a strategy of re-posting and re-purposing content on Facebook had generated more than 37,000 followers, a validation for the Autograph team, which, when originally faced with how to spend their budget for this project, decided on content, not advertising.
“Content is a much more authentic way to reach peoples’ passions and interests,” Amanda says. “I shouldn’t say that we’re doing content in lieu of the other—we do have advertising relationships, too. We’re just taking a very strategic, very targeted approach because of the size of the hotel portfolio. I think as we get more hotels into the portfolio we’ll be doing more advertising, but at this point the targeted approach makes more sense for us. I think what we really want to do is use content to be authentic. It’s just so much easier for our hotels to pull to our positioning through these ways of re-posting our content online. It really helps them establish themselves in their local market. I think it’s an authentic way, a true way, that our hotels can get across what kind of experiences they offer.”