Sonesta chief brand officer on building name recognition in a crowded market

Sonesta chief brand officer on building name recognition in a crowded market

In an ad from January, an actor strolls through the lobby of the Allegro Royal Sonesta in Chicago.  

She’s recognizable — keen observers would know her from “Arrested Development,” “13 Going on 30” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” — but not exactly a household name. 

As she walks, she talks to the camera. “You’ve seen me in countless TV shows and movies,” she says. “You know my face like the back of your hand. But what is my name?” 

Judy Greer never introduces herself formally in the minute-long clip. But the actress’s fame level mirrors that of the hotel she walks through.

The ad was the first in a series of campaigns created by Sonesta International Hotels. Like Judy Greer, Sonesta Hotels doesn’t command the name recognition of some of its better-known peers. But now, in its first integrated brand campaign, the company is embracing its relative lack of consumer awareness by giving it a positive spin. 

“We just wanted to be honest with ourselves and with our audiences, and be upfront and transparent about where we are in our customer journey — and also have a little bit of fun with it,” Sonesta Hotels Chief Brand Officer Elizabeth Harlow told Hotel Dive. “There’s a lot of energy behind our brand, but we still have room to grow in terms of our brand awareness.”

The “Famous But Nameless” clip starring Greer, conceived in partnership with branding agency RO New York, launched the campaign. In July, Sonesta released a second ad, “Whisper,” playing on similar themes, calling its hotels “hospitality’s best-kept secret.” 

It may seem like an unusual strategy for an 86-year-old brand. But Sonesta, unlike other hotel companies its age, has experienced rapid growth in recent years. As the company continues to expand, Harlow chatted with Hotel Dive about the unique challenges — and advantages — of marketing a company without the name recognition of its competitors. 

A multifaceted campaign

Sonesta claims to be one of the fastest-growing hospitality companies in the world. And though it’s been around since 1937, only in recent years has Sonesta experienced rapid growth, expanding to 280 hotels across eight countries.  

“Sonesta is attracting new franchisees to fly its flag at a time when many other hospitality companies are shrinking,” said Sonesta’s Executive Vice President, President of Franchise & Development, Keith Pierce, in a statement last summer about the fast-paced expansion of its franchises

In 2022 alone, the company added 74 properties to its franchised portfolio, launched the upper-midscale select-service brand Sonesta Essential and kick-started multiple developments across Latin America and the Caribbean. The Financial Times even dedicated a multipage spread to its surprising growth story.  

The only problem with that growth, from a brand standpoint, is that customer awareness sometimes lags behind, leaving the company’s marketing team to think of innovative ways to play catch-up. 

“I lovingly refer to Sonesta as an 80-year-old startup because we grew so fast and so quickly,” Harlow said. When she joined in 2021, she added, “We didn’t have any kind of strategy behind social.”

“We didn’t have a TikTok presence until maybe a few months ago. That just shows you the infancy in which we found ourselves in, in terms of our social approach,” she said.

Now that’s changed with the social-first “Whisper” campaign, which showcases influencers Dayna Bolden, Hannah Ann Sluss, Luann Diez, Mada Graviet and Mary Ralph Lawsom whispering to one another about Sonesta hotels. At the end of the video clip, large text reads “the best-kept secret in hospitality.” 

Harlow said she saw the influencers as a way to “bridge that gap with younger travelers,” as well as reach highly engaged audiences. 

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