Think Long Term and
Sweat the Small Stuff

By Stephen Saugestad

I remember a lunch I had in Whistler a few years ago, at one of the biggest mid-market restaurant chains in Canada. We were a group of ten, and sat on the patio since it was a beautiful spring afternoon on the ski hill. The service was great, the beers came out quickly and we got lost in good conversation.

The moment was interrupted when a procession of servers walked out, arms loaded with plastic bags. For whatever reason, the restaurant’s policy was to serve patio customers with takeout containers. All the food was packaged on its own, then placed into separate bags, including the sides, condiments,- and plastic utensils. The food came in these big plastic bubble domes, which made the stack of containers look comically big. But it wasn’t funny. It was reckless. And to make matters worse, even the staff agreed with our reactions!

At the time I had an almost 20-year relationship with this restaurant. They have great food and their spaces are nice. They seemed innovative and willing to take chances. But that lunch left a really bad impression on our group. Those takeout containers are now what I associate with this brand. And that doesn’t align with my values as a person or a customer.

This kind of brand-image disconnect is the result of the short-term thinking that often happens with travel and hospitality businesses. If you want to build long-term value for your brand, you have to step back look at the big picture.

Sustainability is a value that’s high on the list for the customers of this restaurant brand. Had they done the positioning and alignment work at the brand level, this would have been made clear. Yes, it’s nice to save a few bucks on containers, and easier to have a blanket policy about eating outside that covers every restaurant. But building long-term brand equity means stuff like this shouldn’t fall through the cracks.

We also see similar challenges faced by hotels that we work with. Departments operate as independent silos, and only the leadership thinks about brand value. The catering department in a luxury hotel, for example,  will choose the styrofoam containers in a bid to shave a few bucks from their expenses. This becomes a jarring, and even hypocritical, contrast when seen alongside the cards asking customers to conserve.

Such “green-washing” undermines the brand’s commitment to sustainability, and clashes with guest values. Using biodegradable takeout containers is a small thing, but it goes a long way in building the right perception for the brand. Even small deviations from a holistic brand strategy can cause unintended but significant harm.

Keep in mind also that in this era of social media, every guest has a megaphone in their pocket, and influence among their family and peers. These short-sighted decisions can be widely broadcast and cause cascading damage. Remember the game-changing social media influencer campaign that convinced people to buy $1,000 tickets to a music festival with lineups? That “groundbreaking influencer campaign” was largely undone by the sad cheese sandwich.

Another form of short-term thinking we’re seeing out there with high-end hospitality brands is the luxury arms race. The problem is that making something “more luxurious” has a diminishing return. Once you get past four stars, luxury and good service are expected. It’s not a differentiation. At this price point, aligning with the values of your guests will provide more utility, differentiate you from competitors, and maker your brand resonate much deeper.

To build long-term brand value, it’s crucial that you do the foundation work that guides everything you do in the company. I’m not talking about a logo and tagline, but a brand strategy. This defines who you are, articulates your story and identifies your customers. Everything you do has to grow out of this work.

And once you do this work, don’t stop there! Apply some long-term thinking into how you spend your marketing budgets. A good way to do this is by applying “zero-based accounting.” This is the practice of starting from zero every year, rather than using last year’s numbers to define this year’s goals. It forces you to justify every expenditure, allocate resources where they’re needed, and eliminate expenses in the areas where they’re not moving the needle.

By using such long-term thinking, brands can ensure they are successes for the long haul. Do this well, and you’ll get a nice tip of gratitude from your customers, and ensure that they’re alongside you on that journey.