Marriott’s Crisis Response Defines Brand Leadership

Chris WrenMarch 23, 20203 min

It was John F. Kennedy who said; “Change is the law of life. And those that look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” With an uncertain future at our doorstep, markets and people are anxious for someone to demonstrate decisive leadership, grounded in reality. Enter Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson.

In an emotional video to employees, he said the current financial situation was worse than the worst ever quarter for the company, which saw about a 25 percent fall in revenue. “In terms of our business, COVID-19 is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” he said. Given the brand is nearly one hundred years old, had survived the Great Depression, World War 2, and countless economic downturns, that statement has weight.

The 5-minute message has everything you want from a brand leader in a crisis:

  • Radical candor: The empathy and visible anguish Sorenson feels are palpable. When he says this is the most challenging message he’s ever delivered, there is no doubt. He says, “As a leader, I have never had a more difficult moment than this one. There’s simply nothing worse than telling highly-valued associates – people who are the very heart of this company, that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.” And that’s the truth.
  • A clear statement of the problem and the impact: In China, business was down 90%, overall, today business is down 75%. Without the actions, layoffs and business continuity plans enacted, he was clear that some properties may not be able to resume service once the crisis is over.
  • Significant sacrifices the entire leadership team is taking: Neither he or Bill Marriott, Jr. will take any pay for the remainder of the year, and the executive team is taking an immediate 50% pay cut. Some might say that even at 50% this cut is still several times more than the lowest paid worker, but 50% is substantial and communicates solidarity.
  • Immediate changes to corporate policies: Many corporate employees will be taking leaves of absence for at least 60-90 days, while others will be shifting to 4-day work weeks. The brand will suspend all non-essential travel, freeze hires except for mission-critical roles. At individual properties, food and beverage outlets will be closing and entire floors will be shuttered depending on occupancy levels.
  • A sense of optimism: Based on early signs coming from China, Sorenson expressed hope that business will be restored soon as lodging demand is increasing.

As brands navigate this unprecedented time, brand leaders must continue to step up, be seen and heard by workers and customers. Clarity, transparency, empathy and hope are what’s needed right now. I encourage every brand marketer to watch Sorenson’s video. It’s a case study in how to respond in times of crisis and can only add to your toolkit should you ever be faced with a similar situation.

At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive at critical moments of change through online strategy workshops. Please email me, Derrick Daye for more.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

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