Saturday, July 08, 2006

How heavenly can you get?

Just finished my second week at IDEO in Palo Alto. Last week we collectively synthesized the learnings from a bunch of different research processes; this week we engaged in a collaborative design process, including rapid prototyping and gathering reactions to our crude prototypes from representative members of our client’s target audience. Interesting process; I think I’ll post on it separately after a few days to digest.

In the meantime, however, another comment from the business travel front. Both weeks I stayed at the Westin Palo Alto, which is really walkable from IDEO, but is far harder to drive to than it ought to be, based on some very curious one-ways and no-left-turns. Once in your room, however, you are bound to rapidly become a fan of the Heavenly Bed. A few years ago, Westin introduced better bedding, spurring efforts to catch up in many other chains targeting the business traveler.

All in all, it’s a damn good bed. Good mattress, nice sheets, down duvet, good down pillows – its, well… heavenly, I guess, after a long day. I hadn’t stayed in a Westin in a while and the bed certainly makes a difference.

What’s new at Westin is the extension of the “Heavenly” experience into the bathroom. Dual shower heads, one upgraded towel, and a few other amenities constitute the Heavenly Bath. I’ve been back and forth over this service brand extension; on the one hand, the bed was a stunning success, and certainly created powerful equity for Westin.

On the other hand, I wonder how far that equity can – and should – be leveraged. The shower (full disclosure – I didn’t take a bath) is nice; the water was hot and plentiful, the dual shower heads were, well, nice, if a tad… excessive, and the toiletries were fine. (The snow-white bar soap was among the “creamiest” I’ve ever used – I’m sure many would give that full points for resembling the soap to be found in St. Peter’s guest half-bath.)

I’m just not sure it was transformational in the way the bed was when it came out. With the changes in the industry over the last three years or so, it’s almost more of a necessity to keep up, rather than anything even approaching a disruption.

For Westin, that’s the trap. Six months from now, will something else need to be re-designed and re-badged as “Heavenly?” As you work your way down the list, the candidates get less and less appealing. Heavenly Hangers? Hallways? How about Heavenly Health and Fitness Facilities? They’re certainly substandard in most hotels; as a service brand, I doubt Heavenly is a good fit for a workout room, even a really nice one. (OK, now I see they've got a branded relationship with Reebok for the health clubs in some hotels.)

Action plan for marketers: Have a plan for differentiation and disruption; scenario plan against future paths and what they might mean for product, service and brand evolution. Play out the possibilities – even better, use scenario planning as a way to bring together the internal constituencies responsible for delivery of every aspect of your value proposition; that is, product, service, operations, IT, and yes, marketing. Think long and hard before “badging” differentiating components of the product or service after really understanding where these ingredients fit in your overall brand strategy. (See Pepper and Rogers One to One blog for a recent dialogue on Whatever Whenever at W hotels – which yours truly sees as a classic case of setting up potential disappointment by branding a level of service that is very, very difficult to deliver consistently.)