If InterContinental were a sound . . . what would it be?

Michael Spencer

Michael Spencer is Managing Director of Sound Strategies Ltd, London, UK.

The proposition
In January 2007 at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in North London, the spiritual home of the Beatles experience and a shrine for many a music lover’s pilgrimage, we challenged the global brand team of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts (InterContinental)[1] to create their own musical version of their brand’s profile. This proved to be only the first stage of a journey on which we were embarking to explore the role sound could play as a core element of their global brand identity and positioning initiatives. However, this is not just a story about brand positioning, nor is it a blueprint for choosing background music. It is more of an account of the interplay between arts-based disciplines and business processes in support of a company’s strategic objectives. Some business people may perceive involvement in the Arts as a ‘‘flighty’’ occupation. In reality artistic procedures are highly disciplined and can be effective catalysts in building and reinforcing better business practices. They can also provoke valuable insights well beyond the territories of the initial brief. This project started with the premise that the music played in the public spaces of their hotels could help better position the InterContinental brand. It expanded exponentially to include a reconsideration of their core brand positioning and an extensive investigation into the role of sound in the hospitality industry. Guests’ attitudes, acoustic design, music briefing processes, technical specifications, marketing and promotional touch points – all possible interactions with audio were examined and evaluated. The outcome was a global Sound Strategy which both informed and integrated with InterContinental’s new approach to guest relations. It also generated a considerable web-based learning tool that fed into their staff engagement programme. This whole initiative marked a significant change in approach by one of the main players in the hospitality sector and one that has attracted the interest of industry research bodies. The impetus behind this wide-reaching expansion of the project brief came from the initial workshop, which went far beyond the use of sound in hotel bars and lobbies to reveal fundamental challenges for the brand team. As Eric Nicolas, then Director of Global Brand Innovation and the person chosen as pilot for the voyage to an InterContinental Sound Strategy, commented later, ‘‘In hindsight the workshop was key to the project. It opened our eyes to the bigger picture, and showed us how important it was to better understand this element of our business’’ (Box 1). In our work, we frequently find that projects of a limited scope reveal tremendous unexpected value beneath the surface – reminiscent of the Trojan wars of the ancient world, when Odysseus concealed his own potent instrument of change inside a wooden horse. This paper charts some of the key tipping points in the project and proposes the judicious use of a Trojan horse as an ally in producing substantive results.

DOI 10.1108/02756661011055177

VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010, pp. 39-46, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 0275-6668

j

JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY

j

PAGE 39

Box 1. Building on experience
The back story to the InterContinental project comes from a commission originating with Unilever; first in London, then in Tokyo. There are many instances of training programmes incorporating music: leadership and orchestras, creativity and jazz, teamwork and choirs. Unilever’s brief was to devise and deliver a music-based programme for brand managers that explored creativity, interpersonal relationships, and team building. Our response was to fulfil their request while designing a programme that focussed on the ‘‘quantifiables’’ that most executives insist on. Was it possible to get better value from their marketing ‘‘spend’’ where music was used: television, radio, film commercials? The research we undertook prior to designing the programme revealed that their process of choosing music had little rigour or methodology and seldom integrated with the development of the other positioning elements, such as copy and design. Decisions were also often left until the last minute and each carried a sizeable price tag. Our combination of preliminary analysis and creative, usually music-based, interactions led to a number of unanticipated challenges for the participants that helped them grow both as individuals and in their jobs. By the time of the project’s completion, we had all learned that music-based learning methods could extend far beyond mere skills training. This project gave us a framework for all our future music-based projects. Although this project had an arts basis from the start, we learned that the arts have to fit within a clear business case, and that ‘‘business needs’’ is where any training discussion must begin. In a two-pronged attack, first convince them of the business case, and then insinuate the Trojan horse to deliver more than is expected. The success of the outcome was best articulated by one of the early Unilever participants. ‘‘This project taught me that sound is a part of life, and shouldn’t be seen as an add-on.’’

Creating a sound strategy
Nicolas describes what InterContinental was looking for: ‘‘We realised that the guest experience involved much more than things such as fine dining and the thread count on the bed linen . . . that is taken for granted in a luxury hotel. We had to look deeper into the impact we could make on our guests and in ways that were meaningful to them. ‘‘We were intrigued by the way in which the sensory environment might influence the experiences they have and stimulate stories they might take back home. We felt that sound, and the way in which our guests come into contact with it, could play a major role in generating these personal connections. ‘‘The way in which we wanted to move forward was obviously breaking new ground so we invited two specialists in the emotional impact of sound to set up an initial development team; Michael Spencer and his colleagues in Sound Strategies, and the Hollywood film-music supervisor Maureen Crowe.’’ Nicolas makes it sound as if this was a ‘‘done deal’’, but from our perspective there remained an additional barrier. We still had to establish the business case with the rest of the brand team and in particular with the Director of Global Marketing for the Group. The Abbey Road workshop in January was central to this process. In preparation we carried out a detailed assessment of the brand including a review of selected properties, interviewing staff and guests, and a thorough ‘‘positioning study’’; a method of analysis examining the way in which a brand is articulated through its commercials, printed materials, conferences, press statements, tone of voice, etc. For this we have evolved a proprietary methodology based on conventional corporate communications analysis incorporating visual semiotics and psychological research into the emotional effects of music. The results from this provided the raw material from which we designed the workshop. The workshop was a signature moment for the project and its participants, and their frequent references to it throughout the project lent it almost folkloric qualities. It involved ten participants, including the global brand team for InterContinental and executives from

PAGE 40 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010

j

j

Holiday Inn and elsewhere in the Group. The legacy of Abbey Road studios undoubtedly helped in giving the stamp of authenticity. Also, it helped that I am extremely familiar with the venue, having spent many hours as a member of the London Symphony Orchestra recording epics such as Star Wars. The content was divided into five sections: 1. Discussion of pre-work. Prior to the workshop, tasks stimulating a greater awareness of their aural environments were set for each participant. Also, drawing on our initial research they were encouraged to talk about a piece of music with which they found a particular affinity, and to notice especially the level of subjectivity they brought to their descriptions. We have found that one of the principal difficulties to face brand managers when making musical choices is overcoming their own subjective opinions. This discussion highlighted two fundamental issues. It was necessary to learn how to explain logically the musical requirements for the brand, uninfluenced by personal or emotional attachment. Then, before determining the ideal auditory experience for the public spaces of a hotel, the intrusion of extraneous and uncontrolled everyday sounds had to be managed. 2. Skills building. A practical exploration into the key musical elements from which aural structures are created. It is a natural inclination to respond to music more emotionally than analytically. For the participants, the act of creating structures out of simple elements such as the contrasting of rhythmical textures heightened their levels of critical assessment and musical understanding. 3. Creating sounds for the brand. Separate group explorations into how the brand’s characteristics and imagery might be transposed into aural equivalents. It is a common misconception that the words used to describe a brand can be directly applied to a music brief. Using the skills acquired from the previous task, the participants grappled with the difficulties in making a literal transition from description to practical execution; the brand may be ‘‘knowledgeable‘‘, but how does ‘‘knowledgeable’’ music sound! (Box 2). Through this process they started to identify the need for a more helpful and expressive form of articulation, and not necessarily one that is text-based. It was at this point also that the suitability of the brand’s definition was called into question.

Box 2. Being musical
Teaching musical elements to businesspeople sounds fine, but when the move is made from theory to application, challenges appear from both personal and business perspectives. Perhaps the strongest is a prevailing and, I believe, mistaken perception of music in society; ‘‘it’s something only special people do to fill the space on our iPods . . . what me, sing?’’ This somehow reinforces the misconception that as a listener one’s role is little more than to observe from the sidelines. The reality is different. Our relationship with sound is much more complex than we first thought[2]. The business concern is ‘‘How relevant can music be to business success?’’ Even though business is becoming more accepting of the concept of intangible assets through indicators such as the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), the lack of quantifiable data in arts-based projects still makes it hard to make a compelling case. Our experience indicates that such projects can stand on their own merits within a business context. Experience tells us that once participants become involved in the musical process no more convincing is necessary. Getting to that stage is the difficult part. Fortunately the documentation, testimonials, research, and methodology to start an initial dialogue are all available. If a key person within the client business has musical training, no matter how elementary, it is always helpful and they frequently becomes a valuable internal champion, helping to create a more contextually appropriate offering. Also, the power of being able to demonstrate one’s own bona fides as an artist should not be underestimated.

VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 41

j

j

‘‘ . . . we have evolved a proprietary methodology based on conventional corporate communications analysis incorporating visual semiotics and psychological research into the emotional effects of music. ’’

4. Studio functionality. How initial ideas can be augmented by technology. This had two results. It showed the importance of the logical progression from simple practical ideas to a more sophisticated final outcome. It also gave the participants a level of familiarity with a working studio so that its novelty would not impinge on future studio-based agency meetings. 5. Review. A presentation of our research findings and an examination of the processes and outcomes from the day. This is covered in more detail below. The workshop was recorded on video, and the musical outcomes were, for the purposes of demonstration only, converted into a sample ‘‘brand anthem’’ by one of my co-facilitators. During the review there was unanimous agreement that the approach taken for the workshop had been both informative and thought-provoking. More importantly, however, and with implications for the overall brand strategy, the act of expressing InterContinental’s brand characteristics in a form other than words or images stimulated a much deeper probing of the brand’s core values. This provoked the re-evaluation of the robustness of the core values and their methods of transmission. As Nicolas says, ‘‘This workshop made us re-examine the brand and revisit our descriptives. And we realised that what we were doing at brand team level was not perhaps appropriate at the grass roots of the organisation. The Abbey Road session showed us that we had to be able to explain our brand values in simple, clear terms that everyone in the organization could understand. We learned that metaphors might help convey ideas, and to avoid using any jargon’’. Jenifer Zeigler, an InterContinental SVP, added that ‘‘I had tended to see music in hotels as something generic. I can see now that there is a type of music that fits with our brand as against something that doesn’t’’. As observations led to deeper reflection, the dialogue moved away from its tight focus on brand matters and to insights concerning personal development. ‘‘I realised from this [workshop] that there were lessons to be learned in our style of management, and that we have to learn to leave room for other people’s creativity,’’ stated Mark Snyder, the SVP for Brand Management at Holiday Inns.

From workshop to sound strategy
Shortly after the workshop, we were invited to participate in a review with InterContinental’s agency reconfirming their brand values. In his book Strategy and the Fat Smoker (Maister, 2008), management consultant David Maister refers to ‘‘. . . the unexpected areas into which one can be drawn when one is able to demonstrate to clients the breadth of one’s skills’’. We started this project with one clear intention – to explore the possibilities of how sound could be used to leverage the InterContinental brand. Lurking within this brief, however, were other business and personal issues waiting to clamber out. When the unexpected materialised, we were prepared because our preliminary research into InterContinental’s culture, brand, and business imperatives had given us a sense of context. As to why we uncovered unexpected issues, in Nicolas’s view, ‘‘Using music in some way relaxed people . . . it wasn’t just another management training session. Only towards the end of the sessions did you realise the power of this process’’. For me, it was as if the Trojan horse

PAGE 42 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010

j

j

had lulled the gatekeepers into lowering their defences, making them open to the introduction of disruptive but potentially valuable concepts. The research and workshop outcomes provided the information to start the design and creation of InterContinental’s Sound Strategy, the key components of which included:
B B B B B B

Training structures. The commissioning and design of staff engagement tools. Advocacy procedures. The identification and briefing of audio content suppliers. Optimisation of guest environments for sound. The PR strategy.

The Sound Strategy’s scope grew rapidly to encompass short-, mid- and long-term goals involving the equivalent of approximately 160 separate business units, across an international landscape. Effective internal communications and compelling advocacy, taking into account the many different cultures and business practices involved, were urgent necessities for the Sound Strategy’s success. In a reflection of the remarkable level of trust that had developed between practitioner and client, we were enlisted in the cause by the brand team and encouraged to find increasingly innovative ways in which to advocate the project.

Telling the story, in words and music
Our first challenge was to give our diverse audiences a sense of the Sound Strategy’s complexity, yet to present the material in a way that was simple to digest and replicate. Since our plan had all the makings of a good narrative, it was to ‘‘story’’ that we turned. The legitimacy of story as a means of exploration and information-giving in business is well established. The writer John Simmons (2004, 2006a,b, 2009) has written extensively on this topic, and The Hero’s Journey by the mythologist Joseph Campbell is often used as a basis for corporate narratives (Campbell, 1997). The multi-layered epic nature of this project demanded a matching response, so as a metaphor we took a modern day saga – the blockbuster Star Wars. There were a number of reasons for this; it played to the passions of the team (some of whom were avid fans), the initial workshop had been held at Abbey Road where the original sound tracks were recorded, and many of the team knew the work of Joseph Campbell and his influence upon George Lucas, the writer and director of Star Wars. As a template we used the screenplay model created by the film critic and lecturer Bob McKee in his seminal work for screenwriters, Story. With this we mapped the strategic narrative into three sections; Research, Content (ideas, settings, characters), and Form (the selection and arrangement of the content elements). So, for example, R2D2 transmuted into InterContinental’s technological platforms and the settings became the public spaces of the hotel properties. The model was then converted into physical form as a large interlocking jigsaw in the style of a Mind Map (Buzan, 1996). This format was chosen to encourage a higher level of engagement and provide an element of entertainment as the potential audience puzzled out its structure. It also allowed us to visually display insights into the relationship between each part of the overall structure. (I recently used a similar device with Welsh National Opera to demonstrate its structure to potential sponsors and stakeholders). We also created a computerised version, which included links to audio and image clips, and research reports.

‘‘ It is a common misconception that the words used to describe a brand can be directly applied to a music brief. ’’

VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 43

j

j

The second challenge from the brand team came in two parts. We were asked to present the Strategy at two major internal conferences. The first was a Global GM (General Manager) Conference in July 2007, the second a conference for the GMs and their Directors of Sales and Marketing from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in April 2008. Each involved approximately 180 people, and our brief was not only to talk about the Strategy, but to involve the participants, ‘‘Abbey Road style’’. InterContinental’s GMs are, in effect, CEOs of their own SMEs (small- to medium-enterprises). Each business’ location acts also as a portal for their guests to the surrounding community. Every property, therefore, is encouraged to develop its own identity whilst staying true to the brand. This degree of autonomy leads to a colourful mix of individual personalities and management styles. How could we therefore convey the sense of the Strategy in a form that was immediately familiar? We turned to literature and its use of analogy and metaphor to deal with sensitive or unpleasant topics. Then, drawing on the parallels, we could turn the talk to the new strategic issues, hoping to avoid the all-too-common immediate impulse against significant change. What analogy could we use? As a topic with relevant business significance to them all, we chose food, in particular, chocolate. Our presentation suggested three levels of experiential contact with chocolate: at a vending machine, in a specialist confectioner’s, and then something altogether more special. The vending machine gives a quick undifferentiated ‘‘sugar hit’’ which is commodity priced and available at the touch of a button. At the confectioners we would hope for a much more interesting experience with new flavours and combinations to try, provided by someone with specialist knowledge. The apex of the chocolate experience was a chicken mole from Mexico made with onions, garlic, chilli . . . and chocolate; something that resonated with InterContinental’s aim of stimulating recountable experiences by their guests. We explained music also as being on three levels. Music in the public spaces of hotels parallels the vending machines. The ‘‘aural hit’’ is generally automated and provided by an external music provider using general selection categories that deliver, in the main, inoffensive music lacking in distinction; the antithesis of InterContinental’s brand positioning. At the second level, by taking responsibility for the custodianship of the music in an informed way the hotels move closer to satisfying the needs of their guests. It is interesting to note the numbers of staff we unearthed who had a genuine interest in programming the daily schedule of music. Our global guest survey had indicated how local musical culture was considered an integral part of a hotel visit and that this should be incorporated into the highest level of music provision. The goal therefore was to create a blend of local and emerging artists, which would be merged into a carefully chosen, brand-favourable international selection appropriate to the locale. For the GMs this chocolate parallel and three-part view had immediate logic. They realised, in terms they understood, that the aural experiences they were giving to their guests needed, like their oral experiences, to be of a higher, more selective quality. They could see how this selectivity could link with their locations and give them added autonomy, while remaining loyal to the brand. For the second conference we were given the brief to explain the Sound Strategy within the context of the broader new brand initiatives. There is now considerable research showing how both the tangible and intangible elements of servicescapes within hospitality and retail environments contribute to memorable consumer experiences (Jones, 2008). They must balance each other much like the different layers in a cake. In order to bring these two elements together we chose song as a medium by which to talk about both the Strategy and also the new brand positioning. Having the participants learn and perform a simple canon (or round) provided a powerful interactive way to demonstrate how the different elements of the hospitality experience interact. In this way we were able to create a powerful metaphor in which everyone participated, showing that fine dining, exchanges between staff and guests, music, furnishing, etc. all have an affective relationship with each other, much like the interplay between the different lines of a song. If one element is out of phase it can affect the whole

PAGE 44 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010

j

j

structure. Also, both song and brand have a strong underlying sense of momentum. With music it is provided by the pulse; with the brand, the driver is its consistent values.

Lessons learned prior to the roll-out
Whilst writing this paper the global financial markets have changed alarmingly with companies having to re-prioritise the pace of their strategic initiatives. Although an integral part of the re-positioning process for the InterContinental brand, this project is not immune from such external influences. The project, however, is still in place and although elements may become modified the insights and methodologies still stand intact. Currently, the Strategy is facing its global roll out. The Sound Guide, an extensive distance learning tool devised to empower staff and range over many different aspects of the audio experience, is poised for delivery by Internet. Music providers have been selected. It was an unexpected bonus to be approached by the Hospitality Research Department of the University of Surrey who, because of the innovative nature of this project, proposed an academic teaching paper for global distribution. There is also talk of including the same training techniques in a larger InterContinental global-staff-engagement initiative. The project still has a way to travel but there are considerable lessons that can be taken from a review at this time. At each key moment in the project’s development there was a requirement for originality in approach that had also to embrace the character of the audience. The content and methods of delivery were never chosen in a spirit of frivolity, although in practice they had a strong element of fun. They were carefully chosen, and illustrate how impactful the use of metaphor and interactivity can be, particularly when associated with familiar elements. This also helps develop a sense of ownership, turning a presentation’s audience into its advocates and enabling them to confidently articulate its messages. It is in fact one of the basic laws of the promotional ‘‘pitch’’ that you must present your case in a manner that can be easily replicated by its recipient when you are no longer present. From a facilitator’s perspective it was fascinating to see how this project ignited the whole brand team and everyone who came into contact with it in the organisation. It proved to be a catalyst for understanding better the relationship between staff and guests, and it highlighted beneficial practices for the business that its administration was not always aware of, such as one bar steward who, unknown to his manager, had already taken the initiative of introducing examples of local music into the programming of the venue’s background tracks. The GMs are supporting the initiative with enthusiasm, and their staffs feel empowered because this newly developed area of client engagement is within their sphere of influence. One of the brand executives acknowledged later that it was the first project they had Box 3. A closing word from Eric Nicolas
Speaking, as it were, as the client, this process made me realise that we have to learn to accept that innovation is sometimes messy. Convincing upper management can be difficult too, but in part because they saw such a rigorous process in place in the creation of this Strategy they bought into it. They still have to learn, however, that results cannot always be measured in terms of ROI or carry a specific price tag. There were a number of moments throughout the project where change was provoked in our perspective and we wanted others to have a similar experience. That is why we asked Sound Strategies to try to convey a flavour of the Abbey Road workshop at the first GM conference, because we felt it was important for the GMs to experience a transformation in themselves, too. For the second conference, my boss and I asked them to present because they brought a new and more creative way of thinking about and expressing attributes of the brand. We knew what a chance we were taking by having an outsider help explain our new brand positioning, but it worked. And finally, on a personal level, I would like to say that after this project I can no longer listen to music in the same way. I find myself always wondering, ‘‘How do others hear this music? How is it affecting my mood? What can I learn from it that may influence our brand?’’

VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 45

j

j

experienced where such enthusiasm had been created despite the fact that ‘‘there was no obvious direct ROI.’’ It even caught the imagination of CEO Andy Coslett, who brought out his electric guitar as part of a keynote speech. He was, after all, in part responsible for the birth of the project with a statement he made to the press, ‘‘Why do we play The Girl from Ipanema when no one in the bar is over 40?’’ (Saporito, 2007). There are at least three primary learning points we took from this experience and which are at the core of our practice. First – it is fundamental to the success of any arts-based initiative that it responds to the business imperative of the client. Second – research into the organisation’s context and cultures is vital in order to respond effectively to any surprises. Third – any outcomes have to be converted into a practical and easily digested format appropriate for your client. For the many clients of arts-based practitioners I feel that the overriding message is to remain open-minded during training sessions. You never know when a Trojan horse will appear with unexpected gifts (Box 3).

Keywords: Corporate communications, Brands, Corporate identity, Organisational change, Corporate strategy.

Notes
1. Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts is one of the eight brands that constitute InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG). It has over 160 properties worldwide, many of which are independently owned or franchised. 2. The canon of research into how music is processed within the cerebrum increased dramatically with the invention of the fMRI scanner and it is still growing. Perhaps one of the more accessible books on this subject is This Is Your Brain on Music (Levitin, 2006). His research showed that music affects more areas of the brain than does speech, and also that the cerebral processing of music stimulates the areas of the brain that produce dopamine: the feel good hormone. The paleoanthropologist Stephen Mithin, in his book Singing Neanderthals (Mithin, 2005), proposes that the music is of ancient origin and derives from a form of communication practiced in pre-hominid communities which pre-dated referential speech.

References
Buzan, T. (1996), The Mind Map Book, Plume, New York, NY. Campbell, J. (1997), The Hero’s Journey, DVD, Acacia. Jones, P. (2008), Handbook of Hospitality Operations and IT, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, Chapter 3. Levitin, D. (2006), This Is Your Brain on Music, Penguin, London. Maister, D. (2008), Strategy and the Fat Smoker, Spangle Press, Boston, MA. Mithin, S. (2005), Singing Neanderthals, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. Saporito, B. (2007), ‘‘On the road with Andy Cosslett’’, Time Magazine, April 19, 2007. Simmons, J. (2004), Dark Angels, Marshall Cavendish Business, Singapore. Simmons, J. (2006a), The Invisible Grail, Marshall Cavendish Business, Singapore. Simmons, J. (2006b), We, Me, Them and It, Marshall Cavendish Business, Singapore. Simmons, J. (2009), 26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry, Marshall Cavendish Business, Singapore.

About the authors
Michael Spencer is Managing Director of Sound Strategies Ltd (www.soundstrategies.co.uk), and Director of Creative Arts Net (www.creative-arts.net). Formerly a member of the London Symphony Orchestra and Head of Education at the Royal Opera House, he works extensively with global enterprises and education organisations internationally, and particularly in Japan. Michael Spencer can be contacted at: michael.spencer@sound-strategies.co.uk

To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight.com Or visit our web site for further details: www.emeraldinsight.com/reprints

PAGE 46 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 31 NO. 4 2010

j

j