There've been a few big announcements from Marriott this week. Marriott International announced it will be acquiring Starwood Hotels & Resorts for $12.2 billion, a massive deal that saw them outbid Hyatt and several Chinese companies. But outside of the big business-world news, there was also an intriguing creative announcement—the brand has started production on "Two Bellmen Two," a sequel to the JW Marriott-branded short film that premiered on YouTube in March, with Slumdog Millionaire and Rise of the Planet of the Apes star Freida Pinto and set in Dubai.
That's a big deal, if only because of what "Two Bellmen" represents to Marriott. The film was a high-production-value action/comedy that ran 15 minutes long, tipping it into another realm for branded content—and with more than 5 million views on YouTube, it clearly found its audience.
A lot of brands are exploring original content as a way to support—or even supplant—traditional advertising. Generating 15 minutes worth of engagement from people who sought you out is much more valuable than forcing people to stare at their phones while they ignore a 30-second spot before the thing they actually want to watch begins. That's the philosophy behind Marriott's push to invest in short films, magazines, documentaries, and more.
"There’s a shift in the way that brands and consumers connect today. It’s no longer the brands controlling the message—consumers are deciding when, where, and how they interact with brands. Anything interruptive in nature that’s about 'look at us,' people tune it out," explains David Beebe, Vice President of Global Creative + Content Marketing for Marriott International. "Our content strategy is built around customer first, and how do we engage with them, and how do we build lifetime loyalty with the brand? So the strategy is to stop interrupting what they’re interested in, and become what they’re interested in. And content is a great way to do that. It provides entertainment first, and then we’re asking them for a sell. So it’s building a relationship in a new way, using creative and content, that builds value."
It's easy to understand why consumers would rather watch an entertaining short film than a typical commercial, but traditional advertising has existed for so long because, for the most part, there's a reliable return on the investment. With the subtle branding of "Two Bellmen," though, it's fair to wonder if it actually accomplishes the goal of driving people to JW Marriott's hotels.
Beebe points to comments that people have left on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to indicate that the message that this is JW Marriott, and that viewers should plan to stay in one of their hotels the next time they travel, isn't getting lost. "If you look at the comments, you see people say 'It's great creative,' or 'I had never considered JW Marriott before,' or 'I'm only gonna stay at JW Marriott now,'" he says. "They're associating the content with the brand, and that's really key for us."
It's possible that there are people who will make a lifelong consumer decision about which hotel chain they'll be loyal to for the rest of their lives because of a video featuring dancing bellmen, but Beebe isn't just basing the return on investment on YouTube comments. He points to "French Kiss," the company's second short film, released in April for the Paris Marriott Hotel Champs-Elysees, as a specific revenue-driver for the hotel.
"Content never has a dead end," Beebe says. "It keeps people in the brand's ecosystem, and it keeps them engaged. So we created these sales packages, and the one we created for 'French Kiss' drove over $500,000 in revenue for that particular hotel. People watched that film, and they were promoted to the sales package that came with a great rate, champagne, an opportunity to meet the GM, and to tour the city where we shot the film. Content creates this relationship with the consumer, so we're continuing to expand."
The "Two Bellmen" sequel aims to drive travelers specifically to the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai, and the idea behind this sort of content is also that it translates to a variety of cultures. "French Kiss" cast American star Tyler Ritter (The McCarthys) alongside a handful of French YouTube stars. Freida Pinto, who stars in "Two Bellmen Two," is an Indian actress whose filmography consists primarily of American and British films. Keeping the cast diverse and international enough that it can reach people from anywhere, looking to go anywhere, is important to the strategy.
"From a creative perspective, we look for a diverse cast with global appeal, whether from television or movie backgrounds to YouTube stars to local actors," says Beebe. "So while the film is shot in Dubai and really features that hotel and all of the great things in Dubai, and the creative is developed to be acceptable in the UAE, it’s really a global project. We use that content to tap into multiple markets, on YouTube, on other local platforms, on airlines, all featuring local places, but it’s global appeal and targeting."
Short film isn't the extent of Marriott's content strategy—there are live events, a magazine, web series, and more, but it's definitely a big part of how the company sees engaging with young travelers, and keeping its brands relevant. "It's a shift in how we're marketing," Beebe says. "It's really about entertaining people first, where the brand plays a character and is the setting, and that's where the viewer learns the features and benefits of the hotel—but not in a cheesy, traditional advertising type of way. Millennials and next-gen travelers certainly understand that brands need to advertise, but they appreciate when you don't try to push them."