Content, Community, Commerce: Inside Marriott’s Thriving 65-Person Content Studio
Content, community, commerce. For Marriott International, the three C’s drive a business strategy that just netted the company a “Brand of the Year” honor from French content market MIPTV. But even before the accolades started coming in, Marriott has been on the front line of media news since September. That’s when the company became the first travel brand to launch its own content studio.
The project was spearheaded by Marriott’s global marketing officer, Karin Timpone, and its vice president of global creative and content marketing, David Beebe, who joined the company last July. Beebe, who has a background in creative development and worked for Disney/ABC, Showtime, and DirecTV, was tasked with shepherding the 18-brand hotel giant over new marketing terrain. “It’s no longer about brand-first,” he says. “It’s about giving consumers content that adds value to their lives, and in return adds value to us.”
Just four months old, the Marriott Content Studio counts 65 people on its team. It’s an amalgamation of Marriott’s existing in-house agency, which through a traditional agency model has historically guided the company’s brand strategy and voice, and a new crew of editorial and creative development specialists. Marriott will be using its newfound capabilities to develop episodic story-driven content.
“Brands like Red Bull and GE are trying to own a space—action and sports, or innovation and technology,” Beebe says. “When we set out to do this it wasn’t about emulating other brands but owning the travel space from a content perspective.”
Indeed, the vertical lends itself well to content marketing. Numerous travelers now create travel blogs and videos, tag their photos, and share their experiences with friends. But Beebe says that prior to the studio’s launch no other brand had “stepped up” to take advantage of this opportunity to build loyalty through content. “That,” he says, “is the way to connect.”
And in the past few months, the studio has been busy building that loyalty. Leveraging Beebe’s industry connections, Marriott has been seeking out partnership deals with producers and content creators throughout the entertainment community. Its mission is to identify social media influencers who are trusted by travelers and have a knack for creating authentic content.
“All the content we’re creating—whether it’s destination or utility, travel hacks or entertainment—is being produced with content creators in the creative community,” Beebe explains.
Success on Snapchat
These partnerships are being forged like traditional Hollywood deals: For a set period of time, content creators work exclusively with Marriott to develop ideas. If they do a good job, the deal might extend to another platform, like Instagram, or lead to a webisode series.
Among the influencers tapped by the brand are Shaun McBride (@Shonduras), Brittany Furlan (@brittanyjfurlan), and Casey Neistat (@caseyneistat), who together are creating a series of interactive stories that live on Snapchat. Working with Snapchat marketing and analytics agency Naritiv, Marriott launched the @MarriottHotels channel late last year to become the first major hospitality company to use the photo messaging platform.
Each influencer takes over the Marriott Snapchat account to document his or her travels, but it’s the app’s users who decide where the influencers will go. The ensuing content leads to practical information consumers can use: real-time tours, travel tips, and itineraries that are published both on the influencers’ own channels and on Marriott’s.
“The engagement on Snapchat is ridiculous,” Beebe explains, “the highest across any platform we’ve seen.”
Tapping Talent on YouTube
In addition to producing ephemeral content, Marriott is also using their content team to power longer-lasting relationships on YouTube. An exclusive production deal with Jack Harries and his YouTube channel, JacksGap, which boasts 3.9 million subscribers, will result in a series of three short travel films that focus on destinations from among the 78 countries Marriott International serves. The company has also signed a development deal with backpackers and video bloggers the Vagabrothers.
With these types of initiatives, Marriott plays an understated role. It’s clear to consumers the brand is enabling Shaun McBride to go to Hong Kong or Jack Harries to visit New York, and Beebe says they “appreciate that.” The focus, though, is on the influencers and their command of content that resonates with their fans, the coveted “next-gen travelers” for whom digital media is a driving force.
“One mistake brands make is that they don’t build relationships with talent,” Beebe says. “[For] pretty much anyone major in the travel space on YouTube and Snapchat, we’ve already got locked up.”
Exploring New Narratives
The company’s content studio isn’t only taking on social media, either. As a result of another partnership, this time with parkour, martial arts, and music collective Substance Over Hype, Marriott began shooting an original short film called Two Bellmen this month.
“A lot of people expect this to be a commercial,” Beebe says. “It’s the complete opposite of that.”
Two Bellmen combines storytelling and action with legitimate film and television talent and is set at the JW Marriott Los Angeles. The film is expected to run about 18 minutes and will be distributed both through in-room TV to the hotel company’s 48 million Marriott Rewards members and on Marriott.com.
Additionally, “Year of Surprises,” a 12-episode digital series, was created for Marriott Rewards members and to celebrate the program’s 30-year anniversary. It premiered in October and documents surprises presented to inspiring people.
And while some projects are designed for a wide audience of viewers—like Travel Brilliantly, Marriott’s crowdsourced travel innovation program—others are specific to one hotel brand or demographic. For example, AXS TV series “The Navigator Live,” produced in partnership with entertainment presenter AEG, speaks to the music-loving traveler who favors Renaissance Hotels by taking viewers behind the scenes with indie artists as they perform at the hotels and discover new cities on the road.
A New Medium
And then there’s Gone, a compilation of travel articles on blogging platform Medium. Gone launched in December with the goal of publishing 60 original pieces over four months that take readers from Venice to New Orleans to Saigon to Brazil. Marriott is the first travel brand to create a Medium vertical, giving it the unique position to power stories that are useful to travelers using Medium’s vast community of writers and content contributors.
Most of the stories, penned by journalists, make no mention of Marriott at all beyond including one of its hotel logos. Only a few—like “Haiti Is Open for Business,” which looks at the brand’s role in supplying the local community with new jobs—include a call to action to book a room.
Of Marriott’s overall publishing strategy, Beebe says, “Whether scripted or unscripted, the hotels are a character in the story. It’s not about integrating ourselves into the content.” He also notes that the company is planning to enhance the Marriott Rewards platform to create a community akin to the American Express OPEN Forum that fosters more user-generated content. Resort destination guests in Hawaii, for example, may soon be provided with GoPro cameras to document their trips.
Also in the works is a scheme to incorporate its growing reserve of stores with Marriott.com, which has 36 million monthly visitors and represents an enticing distribution platform. Destination content, both new and culled from other programs, will eventually be delivered to guests after they book reservations.
“Everything we do ties back to those three C’s,” Beebe says. “How are we engaging consumers and creating social conversations? How are we driving Rewards sign-ups and sales?” For Marriott, hiring a team of content experts and declaring a commitment to multi-platform travel storytelling is proving to be a journey worth taking.Image by Marriott Rewards