Marriott: The Silk Road Strategy

“Marriott International has an ambitious plan to open another 340 new properties in China, averaging approximately one a week”

Executive Summary
Marriott International is the world’s largest hotel conglomerate. The company operates over 300 hotels in China with 500,000 employees. Marriott has an ambitious plan to open another 340 new properties in the country averaging approximately one a week. In January 2018, the company unwittingly distributed an online survey to its Chinese Marriott Rewards members that listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao as sovereign nations.

The mistake sparked outrage among Chinese stakeholders who encouraged government officials to force Marriott to shut down its website and mobile apps on the mainland. Craig Smith, Marriott’s president and managing director of Asia-Pacific operations expressed hopes of restoring credibility by apologizing and working to slowly earn back the Chinese people’s trust and confidence.

Waiting for the brand’s reputation to recover is not enough. Marriott International must actively engage the Chinese Millennial demographic on local social media platforms such as Baidu, WeChat, YouKu and Weibo with informative and entertaining content that celebrates Chinese pride. Key opinion leaders (KOL) in China and electronic word of mouth (eWOM) will be pivotal components of this communications strategy.

Data mining software will track consumer response to persuasive messages that utilize the central and peripheral processing found in the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). Studies have shown ELM to be the most appropriate theoretical framework for the context of hotel communications marketing (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). This digital strategy will promote travel while building rapport within the world’s largest hospitality market.

The campaign will begin and end with qualitative and quantitative surveys to measure the return on investment (ROI).

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Introduction
Marriott’s decision to cooperate with the Chinese government by temporarily closing their six websites and apps in the country was the only real option. If the company had waited for bureaucrats to force a closure, the hotel conglomerate would have lost the opportunity to save face or MiànZi (面子) with its Chinese stakeholders. The greatest asset that Marriott can have when doing business with Chinese buyers is credibility.

There is no concept more powerful in Chinese culture than that of Miàn zi. The voluntary removal of the digital platforms leaves Marriott with the opportunity to restore its reputation and continue its mutually beneficial relationships with Chinese travelers. Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson addressed the situation by honoring the Government’s request and auditing the platforms for errors.

The original complaint against Marriott came from a Chinese “netizen” who spotted the infraction and immediately called for a nationwide boycott of the company. The violation was then officially addressed by Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson who demanded Marriott obey China’s laws and respect Chinese honor. A China Daily reporter added insult to injury when he suggested that Chinese companies would not be so simpleminded as to disrespect American territorial integrity.

In the wake of these events, Marriott has issued an official apology, fired the firm that created the survey, and announced an eight-point rectification plan that promised to educate employees, implement user-friendly lines of communication with offended Chinese citizens, and their subcontractors working in China.

The solution to this problem starts with a qualitative and quantitative study of Chinese stakeholders. Solid research with tireless environmental scanning and enthusiastic symmetrical dialogue will do much to avert future blunders. This proposed campaign will also tap into the power of Chinese celebrities who are key opinion leaders (KOL) on the mainland. KOL endorsements will do much to restore the brand’s credibility through peripheral and central processing on social media or 社交媒体 (shè jiāo méi tǐ).

China’s digital platforms are Marriott’s greatest asset in managing this situation and the internet should be used to give voice to the target audience. The policy is a no-brainer in a country as nationalistic as the Peoples Republic of China. The strategy will incorporate a holistic approach to all cultural and political factors involved in this crisis and harness the power of Chinese public opinion to ensure Marriott’s long-term prospects in the world’s largest consumer market. Decentralization and localization of Marriott’s Chinese assets will be a priority. No one understands China better than Chinese citizens.
Problem Statement:
Marriott International offended Chinese stakeholders when it illegally listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao as separate countries in an online survey. The hotel conglomerate showed gross incompetence and as a result, damaged its brand in the world’s largest hospitality market.
Goal: Rebuild credibility and long-term relationships with Chinese Millennial stakeholders.

Objectives:

  1. Engage the Chinese Millennial demographic with KOL on social media platforms WeChat, YouKu, and Weibo with informative and entertaining travel content that implies Chinese patriotism. Desired change: 15% increase in positive attitudes towards Marriott International’s portfolio of brands by June 21, 2019. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.
  2. Raise awareness for Marriott’s International’s Li Yu or “serving with courtesy” hospitality program with Chinese Millennial population by 15% by June 21st, 2019. Desired change: 15% increase in positive awareness among the world’s most populous nation for Marriott’s Li Yu customer by June 21, 2020. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.
  3. Increase awareness among Chinese Millennials for Marriott’s new Fairfield (wàn fēng) Hotel brand by January 21, 2019. Desired change: 15% increase in awareness among Millennial demographic for Marriott’s Fairfield Hotel brand by June 21st, 2019. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.

Topic Profile
Marriott International Inc. is a global hospitality company with approximately 6,500 properties in 127 countries. The company got its humble beginnings in Washington D.C. as an A&W root beer stand, opened by J. Willard Marriott in 1927. The mom and pop business grew to become a chain of restaurants known as Hot Shoppes. Marriott began to diversify by catering food to airlines in the D.C. area before making a dramatic shift into the lodging business in 1957.

The corporation grew from one hotel in Arlington, Virginia to a national operation with a diversified portfolio of brands that offered different price ranges in the 1980’s. Over the years Marriott has expanded through merger and acquisition to include brands such as The Luxury Collection, Bulgari Hotels & Resorts, W Hotels, EDITION, St. Regis, JW Marriott & The Ritz-Carlton. Their premier brands consist of Autograph Collection Hotels, Design Hotels, Le Meridien, Marriott Hotels, Renaissance Hotels, Marriott Executive Apartments, Gaylord Hotels, Marriott Vacation Club, Westin, and Tribute Portfolio.

The hotel conglomerate’s second-tier brands include AC Hotels by Marriott, Aloft Hotels, Courtyard Inn, Element Hotels, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Four Points, Moxy Hotels, Protea Hotels, Residence Inn, SpringHill Suites, and TownePlace Suites. The company’s closest competitors include Accor, Best Western, Carlson Rezidor, Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental Hotels Group, La Quinta, and Wyndham Hotels. Marriott International continues to set itself apart from other lodging companies with cutting-edge technology and impeccable customer service.

Marriott innovation transforms the hospitality and travel industries on a yearly basis. One of this year’s technological advances includes the ability to talk directly to hotel staff through the company’s mobile app in real time before, during, and after the customer’s stay. The revolutionary Marriott Rewards app personalizes the customer’s travel experience by adjusting to their individual needs throughout their stay.

More important than technology is Marriott’s world renown customer service anchored in the Golden Rule philosophy of treating others the way you would have them treat you.
Target Audience

Chinese-tourists9
The Millennial demographic makes up 415 million prospective customers in China and this group spent over $261 billion on travel in 2017. Chinese Millennials are educated, affluent and proud of their heritage. They are independent, open minded, crave freedom and want to escape their mundane daily routines for adventure in exotic locations. Digital platforms are undisputedly the best method to target Chinese consumers born after 1984 (Agozzino, 2012).

An estimated 97% of Chinese Millennials have smartphones and most use them to access the internet over 30 times a day. As social media has become more prevalent in the lives of China’s young people, eWOM has taken on a greater role in their purchasing decisions (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). There is a high level of trust among Chinese Millennials for peer reviews about hotels on preferred websites. “The ELM is one of the most frequently used theoretical frameworks in studies on eWOM and has been used to explain the persuasive power of eWOM among consumers” (Fileiri & McLeay, 2013).

It is important to note that, “the ELM has been applied to determine how online consumers view online reviews” in this proposal (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). More than ever before, Chinese netizens are turning to friends and acquaintances online for information about travel and feedback on purchases. Young travelers in the planning stages of their trip primarily turn to the WeChat and Weibo apps for fact-finding, reserving accommodations and sharing their experiences.

It is by using ELM and eWOM on digital platforms in China that Marriott, “can emphasize the involvement of highly credible members of their loyalty programs in the social media environment” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015).
Communication Plan
Message 1. Wherever your travels take you, Marriott offers you a home away from home. We have 30 brands to choose from in every price range on every continent. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.
“Technological advances have created an ever-widening array of options for sending messages designed to shape, reinforce, and change target audiences’ responses” (Stiff & Mongeau, 2016). Firm-generated content (FGC) on social media is effective in increasing brand recognition with tech-savvy consumers. This phenomenon is known as “social-network proneness” (Kumar, Bezawada, Rishka, Janakiram, & Kannan, 2016). As Millennials engage with peers sharing purchasing experiences, a product’s online presence is increased.

This activity has a snowball effect, building ever greater levels of traffic and engagement between consumers. Research suggests the use of FGC social media is an effective method of boosting sales (Kumar et al., 2016). The authors also state that data collection on social media traffic is seen to be particularly effective with Chinese Millennials who are comfortable with technology and are frequent users of digital platforms (Kumar et al., 2016). An astounding 70% of Chinese Millennials utilize online platforms to organize their travels and KOLs are viewed as reliable sources for travel advice.
“Social media enables the widespread viewing and sharing of consumers’ experiences and opinions of hotels and destinations” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). This Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) plan will use credible sources and ELM on multiple social media platforms to successfully persuade Chinese Millennial consumers. Internet targeting is an effective tool that employs social networking, streaming media and rich media messages to invite interaction among groups willing to participate in sharing information online (Yadin, 2012). Persuasive communication will help Marriott increase brand awareness in China by enlisting KOLs to influence consumers on the mainland.

Social media reviews are especially effective with the Millennial market segment that is “full of active consumers eager to become brand ambassadors” (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016). Studies have proven that tech-savvy Chinese netizens are a perfect target for e-commerce strategies. With 78,168, 835 followers, actress Yao Chen (姚晨) is China’s most popular celebrity on Weibu. Chen also happens to hold the title for the social media account with the most followers ‘fans’ (粉丝) in the world.

For this reason, Yao Chen will be hired to be Marriott’s key spokesperson and brand ambassador in China for a period of one year. Chen will post pictures and videos of her international travels to exotic locations all over the globe weekly. The carefully scripted videos will match Hollywood standards of quality. The actress will stay at one property that represents each of Marriott’s 30 brands.

Source attractiveness will play a huge role in exploiting persuasive messages that will utilize ELM and peripheral processing. This message will consume the largest amount of the campaign’s budget. Chen’s commercials will run on all Chinese platforms for one year upon which time the company will carefully evaluate their effectiveness and return on investment (ROI). A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.
Teng, Khong and Goh (2014) state that “eWOM marketing campaigns can be utilized in an ELM framework to identify and measure the impacts of various constructs in persuasive communication”. This strategy will apply to both “central and peripheral routes simultaneously in high-involvement web advertisements” (Teng, et al., 2014). One thing is certain, however, that “the ease of accessibility to social media sites from travel-related search results verifies the importance of social media within the hospitality industry” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015).

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Message 2. The Marriott Rewards membership app offers a seamless travel experience all from the convenience of your smartphone. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.
In the fast-paced environment of digital and social media marketing (DSMM) Chinese consumers are increasingly using social media and mobile phones to communicate and make purchases (Lamberton & Stephen, 2016). Marriott’s communication plan for China must include multiple social media platforms to successfully inform prospective consumers on the benefits of the company’s products and services. Chinese digital media platforms offer the most efficient path to communicate specific messages to particular stakeholders such as Millennials, and consumer dialogue on social networks will improve Marriott’s brand awareness through eWOM (Batra & Keller, 2016).

EWOM such as consumer testimonials are most effective with Millennial stakeholders because this age group is comfortable with technology and sharing their information online (Batra & Keller, 2016). The authors further point out that social media platforms are well suited for the creation of online brand communities (Batra & Keller, 2016). It is particularly important to note that data collection in real time will make it possible for Marriott practitioners to rapidly make improvements to online messages. New technologies make it possible to collect consumer interaction and closely monitor “how many unique visitors click on a page or ad, how long they spend with it, what they do on it, and where they go afterward” (Batra & Keller, 2016).
A famous blogger named Aikeli Li (艾克里里) will discuss how user-friendly the Marriott Rewards app is and that even the least tech-savvy person can enjoy its benefits. In the background, Li’s grandmother will be using the app to plan his travel itinerary. The Marriott Rewards message although dealing with technology will use the peripheral route. “Peripheral cues are simple rules or information shortcuts such as brand image and source attractiveness that consumers use to assess a recommendation” (Fileiri & McLeay, 2013). The happy and funny content will appear in both video and picture/print on WeChat and Weibo for the period of one year. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.

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Message 3. Marriott International’s Li Yu experience starts before our guests arrive at their home away from home. Weary travelers are immediately greeted by Mandarin-speaking hotel associates to serve you. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.

In recent years marketing professionals have increased their use of ELM and KOL on Chinese social media platforms (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). It has been determined that the use of ELM on social media extends the relationship in customer engagement beyond short-term messaging to brand loyalty and long-term relationships (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). This campaign will ensure that the Li Yu brand promotion is shared by KOL through active engagement on WeChat with the target audience (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). The Chinese WeChat app boasts over one billion active monthly users and 900 million use the platform daily.

WeChat provides an excellent means of creating “influence impressions” and “peer to peer word of mouth” (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). The hospitality industry is rich with data and this information is exactly what is needed for the world’s largest hotel chain to design social media content that piques the interest of China’s young urban professionals (Adamson & Dev, 2016). Chinese young people want personalized travel experiences to share with peers; they do not have loyalty to their parental brands; they want convenience combined with technologically advanced hotels (Adamson & Dev, 2016). Ashley and Tuten (2015) found entertainment to be the most successful method for social media engagement and stated that “social media participants are likely to desire entertainment and information” from preferred brands.

Marriott’s key efforts to interact with the 18-34 age group should be through celebrity travel bloggers (Garrahan, 2015). A combination of the top ten travel bloggers in China will be hired to write reviews about the Lu Yu experience. These KOL will post pictures and short video clips at various destinations enjoying Lu Yi hospitality. The reviews will begin on WeChat which has emerged as the principal reference for travel information and hopefully cross-pollinate to other platforms where young travelers get travel information. This should be effective because “travelers who adopt information from online reviews will incorporate the information obtained in their mental models” (Fileiri & McLeay, 2013).

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Message 4. Marriott’s new Fairfield (wàn fēng) brand offers budget-conscious travelers all the benefits of a proven global brand. Excellence in customer service goes hand and hand with simplicity and comfort. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.
The dissemination of branded content in China will require creative use of social media platforms (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016). Marriott International must engage Millennials with KOL in short videos that simultaneously promote Chinese patriotism and its new Fairfield (wàn fēng) hotel brand. The patriotism portion of the message is very important for China’s young adults who take pride in the country’s rich history and legacy of modern achievements. Marriott will enlist Papi Jiang, (酱), China’s most popular social media celebrity, to mix the country’s heritage with its modern accomplishments into her travels around the country while staying at Fairfield Hotels. Her short videos will appear on Sina Weibo and YouKu projecting pride, fun, and happiness. Each vlog will be approximately four minutes long to encourage stakeholder interaction and run for a period of one year.
In what Lamberton & Stephen (2016) refer to as the “digital transformation of marketing” the internet has introduced new opportunities for “interaction and experiences” in consumer behavior. The one factor that pulls the “fragmentary” nature of the Chinese internet together is the desire to be entertained while connected to people and brands (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016). The business to consumer relationship has become one of collaboration rather than that of the traditional transaction. The dialogue created in this e-commerce relationship has a strong tendency to persuade and influence prospective customers (Adamson & Dev, 2016). Marriott’s content marketing effort will “allow consumers to get involved in a brand’s universe, enjoy varied experiences around it and above all, feel an individualized and personal experience” (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016).
The media habits of Chinese Millennials are quite different than that of older generations (Tanyel, Stuart, & Griffin, 2013). Marriott must move away from legacy marketing to social media communication to engages the young audience online (Garrahan, 2015). These efforts should include buzz marketing (Tanyel, et al., 2013). Currently, content that goes viral is the best value for advertising dollars (Agozzino, 2012).

Marriott must embrace the buzz marketing technique and make it an intricate part of their internet campaign (Garrahan, 2015). These strategies are extremely effective among digital natives because “mobile devices are regarded as essential tools” in China (Tanyel, et al., 2013). A survey of Millennials demonstrated that information and entertainment in advertising created goodwill for the companies that provide the content (Tanyel, et al., 2013). It is clear that advertising of the future will require that prospective customers are informed and entertained before any substantial brand loyalty will be created (Garrahan, 2015).

Anticipated Outcomes
The obvious shift to digital platforms as the main pathway to target consumers will require Marriott to use the ELM on the internet. The growing consumption habits of this target population will become the lion’s share of future travel both domestically and abroad (Agozzino, 2012). Social media platforms enabling consumers to share experiences and opinions are an important persuasive element in changing buying decisions among Millennials. Studies will continue to suggest several elements which should be present in order to result in a positive consumer attitude change include: the credibility of the source of information, visual advertising, and involvement of credible members of the hotel loyalty program. Agonizzo (2012) elaborates on the use of quality content in social media to build better connections among existing stakeholders, as well as prospective clients.
As social media has become more prevalent in the lives of Chinese Millennials, eWOM has taken on a greater role in this demographic’s purchasing decisions (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). The speed at which consumer reviews, pictures, and posts circulate on the internet is unprecedented and there is no other age group that participates in this exercise more than the 97% of Chinese digital natives who own a smartphone (Yadin, 2012). The impact of social media on commerce in China is greater than any other country and its influence is growing. Marriott International will cultivate consumer to consumer conversations on WeChat that build positive brand awareness.

More and more Chinese Millennials are turning to friends and acquaintances online for information about travel purchases. Members of a collectivist culture, such as China, are more influenced by preferences and needs of others. The opinions of others or group norms is emphasized. In this culture, associating a product with positive consensus is likely to lead to a favorable evaluation.

In addition, the best marketing plans seek to engage with prospective customers through social media platforms and Marriott International will “make conversations actionable through co-creation and collaborative problem solving” (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). Marriott must become a major player in China’s highly advanced use of social media to interact with customers. Chinese social media users play multiple and “dynamic roles in the complex exchange of information” in online travel communities (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). ELM research points to the potential of customers feeling a level of “vested interest” in a brand at this level of engagement (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014).
The use of mobile devices to connect with social media platforms provides incredible opportunities for tracking consumer responses to advertising in real time (Yang & Kang, 2015). Data is now processed “with greater methodological and analytic capacities” (Lamberton & Stephen, 2016). New software technologies make it possible to gather intelligence on a level only imagined in the past (Yang & Kang, 2015). Social media usage creates a treasure trove of buyer information and Marriott will use this information to enhance customer service activities (Yang & Kang, 2015). The geo-social marketing software platform called Hyp3r can target segments of the Chinese population with highly customized interaction.

Unintended Consequences
This campaign will track stakeholder response through data mining software. This data is used to encourage further engagement on digital platforms (Yang & Kang, 2015). There is growing public concern regarding the impact of data mining on consumer privacy. Chinese Millennials have a growing distrust of internet marketing. However, the same cannot be said about KOL reviews. When it comes to travel, studies show that Chinese Millennials have an urge to share, are comfortable sharing personal information online, and are a perfect target for data acquisition. In the future, Chinese Millennials may have concerns about moral and ethical internet advertising which will require Marriott to navigate between tremendous opportunities and questionable tactics (Tanyel, et al., 2013).

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It is clear that social media usage on mobile phones creates a treasure trove of buyer information (Yang & Kang, 2015). However, “social networking and mobile technologies present a disquieting phenomenon because of the pervasive nature of mobile technologies that significantly impact users’ privacy” (Yang & Kang, 2015). A delicate balance will need to be found between customer privacy and intelligence gathering because data mining has such far-reaching implications on society (Yang & Kang, 2015).
While data mining is critical to the success of communications planning, its collection could potentially damage the reputation of the Marriott brands involved in its collection (Yang & Kang, 2015). There is little doubt that social media systemic review is on the rise but consumer sentiments across the globe call for actions such as “access limitations, de-identification, secure storage and statistical privacy” to be an international e-commerce standard (Yang & Kang, 2015).
When asked about the implications of data mining, Marriott’s chief global marketing officer Karin Timpone said, “surveillance shouldn’t be looked at as a privacy concern, because the customers like when they are singled out by the company” (Golden & Caruso-Cabrera, 2016). The use of software that tracks consumer reaction to online content is at the core of this campaign. Data mining on social media, while prevalent, is increasingly seen to be infringing on the privacy rights of those that use technology for e-commerce (Yang & Kang, 2015). However, “Millennials will continue to expose their lives, ignoring potential negative implications and undermining the old privacy norms” (Yadin, 2012).

Although there are concerns regarding consumer privacy, marketing on social media in combination with data mining is currently the most effective way for Marriott to build mutually beneficial relationships with tech-savvy Millennials.

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Conclusion
Marriott International is currently using 24-hour media rooms to develop and track branding efforts on digital platforms in East Asia. The strategy is based on the premise that, “social media enables the widespread viewing and sharing of consumers’ experiences and opinions of hotels and destinations” and “hotels can use these ambassadors online to increase the development of attitudes toward hotel consumers (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). It was Cialdini (2009) who stated, “the principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us”. Research has proven that dual-processing models of persuasion are effective in China and that “ELM represents the most appropriate theoretical framework for the context of hotel communications marketing” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015).

 

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