There is a clear need for established brands to evolve into businesses fit for a digital age, but, for those with their DNA rooted in an offline world, does that mean giving up on the physical altogether? This is the question Tamara Lohan, founder & CTO of Mr & Mrs Smith, will explore at the Adobe Summit EMEA this month, in a session called “Does Everything Have To Be Digital?” (Click here to register—please note that Adobe is CMO.com’s parent company).
It’s an important issue for the business which started life as a publisher, bringing out its first guidebook—a collection of handpicked boutique hotels in the U.K. & Ireland—in 2003. Since then, drawing on its strength in content, it has evolved into a fully digital travel hub offering inspiration and booking for customers globally, including its 1.5 million members.
In conversation with CMO.com recently, Lohan explained why the physical remains critical to the brand in a digital age.
Lohan: We started Mr & Mrs Smith with a physical guidebook because that’s what you did in those days. It was different from all the other guidebooks out there because of the look and feel, and it captured a moment when people were revolutionising the design of their homes too. We were all chucking out the chintz at home, but the hotels weren’t keeping up.
So we set out to find these amazing, unique, small properties that nobody had heard about and put them in a guidebook, and that’s where we built our brand. Having a physical product in the hands of a customer really helped. We had a membership card in the beginning too, so both these things captured what we were about in a physical product.
Nowadays, none of our revenues come from publishing. Instead, our business is based on digital systems, and we have an offline travel team of people available on the phone who can service our customers 24/7, and an international in-house editorial team of eight people who look after the website and the content that goes up.
And what I find hard is getting the brand across when you can’t touch the customer. We haven’t published a book in three years because guidebooks are a dying breed, but it’s important to mix the digital with the physical world. It’s very difficult to build a brand and touch the consumer if all you have is a pure website or an app and your digital marketing. You need to touch the customers in other ways.
CMO.com: In what ways do you connect with customers physically?
Lohan: We still place great store on physical products. When people sign up to our top tier of membership, GoldSmith, we send them a beautiful pack with a leather luggage tag. Our gift vouchers are very tactile, and our DMs are all very interactive. Rather than just send a postcard, we send booklets and things that open up. Next year we’re doing a coffee table book.
We do a lot of customer events too. Every year we run the Boutique Hotel Awards, and that positions us as experts in a category. It allows us to shine a light on some of the amazing properties that are out there. And we make sure everyone is involved in those, not just the press, but we invite customers and hoteliers.
Our business is digital, but, at the end of the day, our product is physical—it’s an experience within a hotel. So we have to get across what that experience is going to be in a digital way combined with non-digital marketing, people, and content.
What our heartland in publishing gave us was great stories behind the hotel and people’s experiences within the hotels. Everybody talks about content marketing now, but it’s what we did from the very beginning, using tastemakers whose opinion you could trust to review hotels. It was all about these stories and the incredible imagery of these unique places that we were giving a voice to. And so that has always been very much at the heart of the business and what has fuelled our ability to create content for the website and blog.
CMO.com: There’s a lot of experimentation in the travel industry with chatbots. Is this a technology you would avoid?
Lohan: Chatbots are something I’m interested in, but AI is not at a stage yet where you can replace the human on the phone. We differentiate ourselves from the large-scale online travel agents by providing customer service and being omnichannel.
Depending on the mood or mode, a customer may want to be able to just go onto the website, use an app, use Messenger, or pick up the phone. They may be sitting on the train and don’t want to be that person speaking loudly on their phone, or they may be at work and don’t want their boss to know they’re booking their holiday, or they may be booking a family trip and have lots of questions.
We’ve got an incredible travel team who are experts and can help when things get really complex so, for us, the magic is going to happen in the interplay between the digital and the human.
It’s difficult to find a solution in the digital world for all those questions and circumstances. Digital helps us to promote things, and have a single customer view, and makes us more efficient, not so that we can get rid of the travel team, but so that they can concentrate on what they’re good at—and that is the more complex itineraries and travel questions. There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to speak to a human being when you really want to.