The art and science of storytelling: How to make your hotel brand come alive


Consumers are drawn to inspirational brands that tell a story and draw them in. Learn how you can transform your marketing message into a marketing story.

By Bonnie Knutson

Most of us have a favorite teacher from our school days. You know the kind: the teacher who made the subject come alive. They made you feel like you really wanted to come to class, to learn, to remember.

For me, it was my high school American history teacher, Mr. Waltz. He would come bounding into the room, sometimes wearing a hat, cape or shoes from the period. He would exaggerate his gestures. He would stroll around the room, sit on an old wooden stool that he kept in the corner, bend, twirl or hunch down to the floor. And he was even known to jump up onto the desk. His voice would range from a high-pitched imitation of a Jane Adams to a deep drawl of Daniel Boone.

Mr. Waltz ignited the words from a textbook, breathing them into life. Our texts became not just historical facts but historical narratives, and with every word and every story we became immersed. But more importantly, he sold the subject to us and we bought it.

Isn’t that exactly what we want for our hotel? To tell our brand’s story so our target market is sold and then buys. But the question I always get from managers is: Do stories create the brand or does the brand create the stories? Or is it a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The jury is still out on that.

Storytelling is an ancient art
Cavemen drew stick figures on the walls of their caves. Monks spent countless hours copying manuscripts onto parchments. Like many cultures, Native Americans told stories as a way to pass down their customs, history and heritage. Fast forward to today. Storytelling has never been hotter. Never mind Disney, Netflix or TNT. Think about business – your hotel business. And think about your hotel’s story and how you can most effectively express it.

No matter how hot storytelling is in brand marketing and building, it is often misunderstood. One of the world’s greatest brand storyteller, Guido Everaert, reminds us that good brand storytelling is not about the language, it is about creating and telling stories in a compelling way. It is about finding the right metaphors and structure in which to tell your story. It’s about hitting a hot button in the hearts and minds of the target markets. By doing so, you create a part of life and generate a story that is unique to your brand and, more importantly, can be readily remembered with ease. In other words, the story has to be relevant for consumers and move them to act.

There are countless books and articles about how to interject life into your brand story. While each has its own approach, there are several common threads that run through what I’ll call the Storied Six.

1 The 3 parts + 1.
Like any good novel or fairy tale, your brand story must have a beginning, middle and an end. Authors call it problem, conflict and resolution. For your hotel, the consumer has a problem (have to overnight someplace), there is conflict (where should I stay) and must find a resolution (your hotel). But a business story is unique because it must also have a fourth element, i.e., the +1. It must motivate the consumer to act; what is known as a call to action (make the reservation).


2 The brain matters.
Brains like stories. Research has found that we like to daydream. We have a short attention span and our minds are constantly looking for distraction. In fact, Erik Qualman, noted author of Socialnomics, points to research that shows the attention span of a goldfish is eight seconds, whereas the attention span of the human brain is seven. But we do focus when we have a good story in front of us. Good storytelling brands – Nike, Kashi and Budweiser to name a few – have harnessed this science to their advantage. They know that our brains are much more engaged by storytelling than by facts. It comes down to the old mantra to sell benefits, not features.


3 Relevance and authenticity.
Abraham Lincoln supposedly quipped that you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. There is no direct evidence that the 16th president did utter this now-famous quote. But if he were around today, he would probably have to say that you can’t fool anyone anymore. Today’s travelers are savvy, experienced and have 24/7 access to information about your hotel. They can smell a con a mile away. So if your message – your story – doesn’t authentically “speak” to what is important to them, it won’t stick. The traveling public feels empowered and will skip over or ignore any story that doesn’t add value to their lives. This is as true for a traditional 30-second commercial, a print ad or social media. So here is where authenticity comes in: Your hotel has to live the story you tell. Think about Coca-Cola’s “Happiness” story or MasterCard’s “Priceless” story.


4 Personalize and customize.
Scott Donaton, a top creator of brand content, says that customized story content is 92 percent more effective than traditional TV advertising and 168 percent more powerful at driving purchase preference. Traditionally, brands have talked about themselves – their attributes and efficacy. But that won’t work in today’s increasingly competitive hotel industry. Your story has to be understandable, useful and above all, entertaining to break through the media clutter. So you have to find out what your audience wants to hear and frame your story around that. Never mind that your banquet room can seat 300 for a wedding dinner, the story is that it is big enough so that the family can seat “Aunt Mary” and “Uncle George” (who don’t get along but have to be invited) at opposite ends of the room. It is the WIITY Principle in action – What Is Important To You.


5 Be an editor, not a publisher.
I once read that brand managers have to think like editors, not publishers, because putting your story out there isn’t the end, but the beginning. In other words, today’s guests also want to add a chapter to your hotel’s story via social media’s ability to generate two-way conversations – between your brand and consumers as well as between consumers and other consumers. This means, of course, that you have to really stay on top of who is saying what about your hotel. If you want an example of how it was done right, Google “Oreo Daily Twist Campaign.”


6 Measure, Measure, Measure.
When talking about advertising, retailer John Wanamaker lamented that “half the money I spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” That is probably truer today than ever before because there are so many fragmented media channels. And your story has to be able to resonate across them all, or at least the ones that your target markets use. This means your storytelling has to be more than about the story itself. It also has to be about to whom you say it, when you say it and where you say it. You have to get both the content of the story and the media channels through which you distribute it right. That is a tough but definitely doable assignment.

The bottom line
People don’t watch advertisements, they watch what piques and holds their interest. I’m continually looking for examples that do both and I’m sure you are too. But I always admonish hoteliers not to look at what other hotel brands are doing, but rather look to see what is resonating in other industries. If you just follow other hotels, then your brand story simply becomes a “me too” and won’t break through all the media clutter. But if you look outside, you’ll probably be able to find a brand story or two that can be adapted to your hotel.

Storytelling makes your hotel brand come alive by giving it a unique identity. Good hotel marketers have to be good storytellers. They have to know how to make their hotel’s story personal. Why it was born. Why it exists. And why I should stay there. They have to know how to immerse the consumer into their hotel’s story, just as Mr. Waltz immersed his students into history. They have to take consumers on a journey they will want to experience. It may not be easy, but it is well worth it, and your RevPAR will thank you.    ■

Bonnie J. Knutson is a professor in The School of Hospitality Business in the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. She is an authority on emerging lifestyle trends and innovative marketing. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and on PBS and CNN. Dr. Knutson is also editor of the Journal of Hospitality & Leisure Marketing.

A modified version of this article was originally published on Hotel Business Review. Printed with permission from

3 great examples from the outside

1 Guinness’ brand story is one of having a big heart. To get an idea of how concisely a brand story can be told, watch their video of a group of guys playing wheelchair basketball. The twist is that only one of the players is actually wheelchair bound. All his friends are playing wheelchair basketball so that they can play together. The story is all tied together by the voiceover that says, “Dedication, loyalty, friendship – the choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.”

2 Minnetonka “Me to We” story is authentic and personal. It takes consumers on a brand journey that makes them want to be a part of the story. It is the kind of storytelling that can make you pass up other shoe brands to buy theirs. It is powerful enough that some believe it can develop a cult-like following (e.g., UGGs and Harley-Davidson).

3 Then there is Lego, who not only created a brand story but created a whole movie (The Lego Movie) built around the brand message that there is a “builder” in each of us if we only believe and let it come out. The interesting aspect of this brand story is that consumers – adults and children – actually pay to watch it.


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