"Brand Audit" vs. "Product Review" [Case Study: Hotel]

A brand audit is not a product review and it is the single most important thing you can do to improve your brand. Yet most people aren't familiar with the term, or if they are, they don't understand how it differs from a product review.
But it's actually very simple - exactly what it sounds like, actually. Just substitute some common words for the jargon:
  • Brand = image
  • Audit = inspection
A brand audit is an inspection of your image.
More concretely, it is a comparison of the image you wish to project to the world with the image that you actually do, as seen through the eyes of the auditor - usually, a brand consultant.
This week we stayed at the Gallery One Doubletree Guest Suites by Hilton Hotels, in Ft. Lauderdale Beach, Florida. The visit provides an opportunity to illustrate what a brand audit is, and to situate a brand audit in the broader context of a review of a product (or service, or even an individual's performance on the job).
Let's start with a review. Essentially, this is an evaluation of what is good or bad with reference to a broadly accepted, abstract, functional quality standard. A review is not about "personality," "core values," or any attribute of the product or service that is intentionally inserted to provide emotional rather than functional differentiation.
In a hotel setting you aren't looking at this brand of hotel, but at all hotels, and at how they perform compared with an objective standard of quality.
For example, let's say a common standard of customer service is "picks up telephone calls by the second ring." And let's say you test quality by making 100 phone calls to the front desk. If more than 90 of those calls are picked up before the first ring, this is considered "excellent," versus if most of the phone calls are picked up after 10 rings or even go to voicemail, you would probably rate the hotel "poor."
(At the Gallery One, they have upped the customer service game by allowing customers to eliminate telephone calls altogether in favor of texts, which provided a considerably faster response than the typical phone call.)
A brand audit, however, explicitly evaluates the emotional experience the brand purports to provide. In a hotel setting, brands vary widely and are important to the overall equity of the property, since it is easy to mimic functional attributes. Hotels sell themselves, explicitly or implicitly, in such ways as:
  • "Elegant and exclusive retreats where you may easily find a celebrity"
  • "Funky and cool boutique experiences"
  • "Family fun resorts with an activity for everyone"
Product reviews are often written by members of the public, sometimes paid for by the company involved, and they are posted on social media. In the aggregate these reviews are intended to influence others.
Brand audits are paid for by the company and carried out confidentially. The task is to influence the client directly to improve the emotional experience associated with their brand such that it matches the intended outcome - or to introduce the idea that quality alone is not enough.
The step-by-step tasks of the consultant include the following:
  1. Establish with the customer what they think their brand is about (it very likely will not be what is actually experienced, which is normally why they're calling in a consultant)
  2. Break apart the fuzzy notion of "image" into 5-10 concrete, if slightly abstract, elements that can be tested. Normally these elements will begin with or incorporate the idea of "feeling" rather than a provable fact. (Example: "It feels like a premium property.")
  3. Reach agreement with the customer as to what an excellent performance on each of these elements looks like, realizing that a high level of performance is not necessarily a perfect performance.
  4. Propose a method of testing the elements in such a way that the results are reliable, without being exorbitantly expensive or intrusive of the paying customer's experience. (Since people tend to change their reactions when they consciously think about them, it is preferable to observe people rather than simply interview them.) 
  5. Actually carry out the test.
  6. Brief the client verbally on the results so that they can provide reaction and feedback that is later incorporated into the final report.
  7. Provide a report to the client that sums up the audit and offers recommendations for next steps. These can vary from offering methods to narrow the image gap, to suggesting a different ideal image, and even to recommending further future testing before any action is testing.
At the Gallery One, the brand promise articulated over and over again, in writing and in person, is to "tell us if something's not right and we'll make it better." Over the course of a week, the hotel kept this promise. 
It's why I go there, year after year, again and again.
Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. Dr. Blumenthal is founder and president of BrandSuccess, a corporate content provider, and co-founder of All Things Brand. The opinions expressed are her own and not those of any government agency or entity or the federal government as a whole. Photo of the Gallery One, a Doubletree Guest Suites by Hilton Hotel, by the author via Flickr (Creative Commons). No endorsement expressed or implied. No compensation was received for writing this post, nor is any compensation expected in the future.