The rebranding of an icon

From the Boutique Hotelier interview with Margaret Wolhuter. 

When we were tasked with the mission re-imagine one of London’s most luxurious hotels, we fully embraced the chance. How does one take an iconic offering like The Connaught and transform it into a modern showstopper, while keeping in mind both its current and new guests? Our own Strategy Director Margaret Wolhuter sat down with Zoe Monk to explain how it was done and where it all began.  

Our relationship with The Connaught Hotel began about eight years ago, just before the major refurbishment. As a company, we were appointed to work with them to reposition the brand and create a new communication platform, about six months before the hotel closed. The idea was that when the hotel reopened the new story would be there to tell.

The first stage of developing the new brand was embarking on a journey of the hotel’s history – we did a lot of research. During the research we spoke to a lot of guests – past guests, potential guests, anyone who could inform us and help us understand the user experience. We wanted to see how the hotel was perceived, and what people – whether it being guests, staff members or industry commentators – really valued about The Connaught Hotel. Overall, we were looking to see what needed to change and what should be retained. Through all the investigative work, there was one recurring theme that kept being mentioned by everyone we spoke to. The thing that everybody loved and the main reason that so many people would choose to stay at The Connaught Hotel – despite having so many other options – is the personal and extremely attentive level of service they received. The Connaught Hotel received a lot of repeat business, as the guests loved the sense of being known and recognised – so the positioning around that time was of a very personal and appropriate nature.

The first positioning of the hotel was around the level of service. Two years after we first worked with The Connaught – despite it going strong with high occupancy – they thought it was time to develop the feel of the identity to reflect their new younger audience. We were delighted to take on this opportunity, and we sensed a braver mood, so we decided to then take the new identity to another level. We based it around three core elements: place, heritage and personal. Being located in Mayfair, we wanted to make The Connaught Hotel the heart of the community, where people would naturally gravitate to. Heritage was always a big part of what we did, but we knew that we needed to connect the heritage to the modernity that the hotel was starting to develop. We decided to reflect this through art collections, functions and activities. Finally we based it around just bringing forward The Connaught’s personal aspect, which they had all along. It was and still is one of the fundamental reasons why people love the hotel and are so loyal to it.

The striking imagery of the rebrand was decided upon in a number of stages. Our creative head identified an artist he thought could capture the essence of the hotel – and that’s exactly what she did. Kristjana S Williams stayed in the hotel to really engage with the iconic references and to experience all of the feedback we received. She then created a piece of installation art and re-expressed all of the visual elements of the hotel; the history, the art and the story. From that look came the feel for media collateral – umbrellas, carrier bags, menus, brochures and in-room dining.

If we were to approach a new branding of a boutique hotel or a rebrand, we would firstly want to understand the client’s vision – what they have in mind and where it came from. We would then understand how their brand is perceived today. Its possible that it could be completely new, in which case we would be working with a blank slate, so we could work completely with the client’s vision or they may ask us to come up with an idea ourselves. The next thing we would do is look at any competition, and we would decide on an angle that nobody else has. We would want to conduct interviews with the clients. With The Connaught we did interviews with a number of industry commentators, who are people who know the luxury sector very well. We realised that a hotel experience is less about the physical thing, but more about how it makes people feel.

We believe that hotels need for a rebrand is a frequent thing. The core idea – if it is done well – should live on for many years and not be removed, but we think the expression of the idea and how it is portrayed should be changed regularly. There has been a big shift in luxury hotels. At a time, you had to dress and look a certain way to stay in a luxury hotel however it is now all about the guests and hotels shaping their offer to suit them. Rules have changed and hotels have had no choice but to move swiftly to follow and anticipate that.