Brands that make an emotional connection to their customers have greater success and earn a higher customer lifetime value (LTV) than ones that miss the mark.
But according to research by Skift, the emotional connection with travel brands is significantly lower (1-2% of consumers will buy because of loyalty to the brand) than other sectors, such as electronics (10-30%). I suspect this is because most travel products are purchased through aggregators like OTAs, Google Flights and metasearch engines, which means they are most often differentiated by price and not the quality of their brand.
So what’s the best way for travel brands to create an emotional connection with their customers, and earn higher lifetime value? By understanding and filling the emotional needs of the customer, and building value through storytelling.
But that’s not the topic of this post. Rather, we will explore two ways a brand can create higher lifetime value: filling the emotional needs of customers and prospects, and building value by telling a good story.
First impressions count
A brand makes its first impression on a customer in a split second. The way we feel about something is quickly decided by the rigid and impulsive reptilian brain that controls our functions. Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard Business School professor, once said 95% of our purchasing decisions occur subconsciously, through emotions rather than reasoning. That’s why it’s so critical to make an immediate appeal to the heart of new customers. For travel and hospitality businesses, the first impression happens on OTAs, travel sites, social media, advertising, and the brand website. So the influence of what users see on these channels is inordinately high.
The influence of what you see
The buyer journey has two stages in which they see the travel brand for the first time. First, there’s the exploration phase, where they are looking for inspiration and ideas for travel destinations. Then there’s the planning phase, when they’ve chosen a destination and are now comparing and choosing accommodations. According to research by Skift, three out of four travellers research hotels and destinations online before making a booking. About one in five uses OTAs exclusively, while one in ten turns to hotel websites. But most people use both (about 68%).
As you probably know, people don’t navigate hotel websites in a logical way. The do it quickly and haphazardly. They are looking for information as fast as possible while relying on System 1 thinking (fast, automatic and emotional). That’s why websites need to “cut to the chase”, and why the visual elements of a page have an outsized influence on the user’s decision making. Visual content appeals to the emotions of users, and accommodates the quick, instinctive way people navigate websites.
The problem with visual content on OTAs
The image quality of hotel listings on OTAs is typically poor. Users complain about this often, and your experience has likely been poor. I hear anecdotally from hoteliers that they save the best images for the hotel website, to encourage direct bookings. But there are two problems with this approach: One, a user who is going to book on OTA is likely to just pick another hotel if the visual presentation is poor. And two, you lose the benefit of the “billboard effect” from users seeing quality images of your hotel. Expedia commissioned some research that shows that good photography improves engagement on a travel site. So the best chance of making a connection and conversion is to always use the best available images. Bad photos crop up because there is no established protocol for hotels adding images to OTA websites. OTAs may offer suggestions, but without some kind of quality-assurance process in place, this is a pretty haphazard process for most hoteliers.
Beyond the first impression
While first impressions are important, building long-term value for your brand needs to go further. You must make a strong emotional connection to your customers – appeal to their heart, rather than their mind. A good way to do this is through storytelling – in words, pictures and video.
Given a choice between something that has a story and something that doesn’t, people will say the thing with the story has more value. Our attraction to storytelling is primal. But it has to be a good story, so it resonates and will be remembered. And if the story has an altruistic element, it will resonate more deeply to your customers who are higher up the needs hierarchy, who are seeking self-actualization in their travel experiences. I’ll give you an example.
We’ve been working for Within The Wild, a company that operates two wilderness lodges in Alaska. It’s a family-run business (family is an important value for travellers), with a powerful rags-to-riches love story. One of the founders is a self-taught outdoors guide who is among the best in the world. The other is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who has written two cookbooks and is considered to be the authority on Alaskan cooking.
They have converted former hunting lodges into wilderness viewing lodges, to educate people about the value of wilderness and conservation (altruism and sustainability are other key values for high net-worth travellers). They’ve had enduring success in this competitive niche because they have a great product that’s authentic in every way, supported by an amazing story and strong environmental ethic.
Their example goes beyond plain storytelling to resonate with the altruistic impulses of people, making the all-important emotional connection.
Another way to increase the emotional connection with customers is to tie a social benefit to the brand’s value proposition. As people become more self-aware, with increased social and environmental consciousness, brands should strive for the same values and motivations. People need to feel they are part of a greater whole working towards a greater purpose than themselves. This is one of the higher rungs in the needs hierarchy. Here’s an example.
Patagonia is an outdoor brand that I admire, and one that does a great job of tying social benefits to the brand. Its founder started the company to fill his own need for a better product, but he is also an outspoken advocate for the environment and sustainability. That’s why the company puts its full weight behind environmental causes that it believes in, and operates in a manner that’s always consistent with this ethos. Yes, their products cost more, but their story and ethics make you feel pretty good about paying $800 for a jacket. Compare this to buying a jacket at Walmart, whose price tag includes destroyed communities, exploited cheap labor and inordinate harm done to the environment. For people with needs that are altruistic (at the top of the needs hierarchy), this is a very poor value proposition.
Other ways that travel brands increase long-term value is through loyalty programs, and producing really great content (social, written, print, video) that engages people. Connecting to people on social media and other channels can have a very powerful effect as high engagement creates brand ambassadors who further amplify the brand’s message.
Reaching customers on a deep, emotional level is the best way to improve long-term value for your travel brand, to make it a true success story. This is a multipronged strategy that takes effort, but it’s going to deliver a high return on investment over a longer timeline.