Marriott Is Starting to Look a Lot Like a Media Company

Inside the content-marketing strategy of the world's largest hotel brand

a collage of content from Marriott
Marriott is focusing on content including feature stories and documentaries across digital and video. Marriott
Headshot of Josh Sternberg

A feature-length piece about the history of Venice’s oldest Jewish ghetto (dating back to 1516) with a dollop of suggestions for modern visitors. A mini-profile on a mixologist, with an informative Q&A (apparently, the shape and size of an ice cube matters for your drink). A tips-and-tricks post on five places to go on the bullet train when in Tokyo (Kusatsu Onsen looks heavenly).

This mix of high- and lowbrow content, written by journalists who have been published in outlets like The Washington Post, The Guardian and Travel + Leisure, could easily slot in any mainstream travel publication. And that is exactly what Marriott wants you to think.

The 92-year-old hotel chain is placing a big bet on what content—from advertising and marketing to feature stories and documentaries across digital and video—can do for its business. In one jam-packed weekend in late February, it unveiled a brand new loyalty program (Marriott Bonvoy) with a coordinated worldwide marketing blitz that leveraged big-time sponsorships at the Oscars, World Golf Championships in Mexico, a Manchester United-Liverpool soccer match and the Dubai Jazz Festival as its coming-out content party.

For Marriott, the world’s largest hotel brand, storytelling-as-a-service is a guiding light for its 30 individual hotels, like the Ritz-Carlton, W Hotels and the Westin, with each staying true to its brand but connected to the broader Marriott content strategy of “enabling the stories of travelers.”

“Our members are at the center of the narrative,” says Scott Weisenthal, vp, global creative and content marketing at Marriott. “And that’s really, really important. Everything we do is about their stories, enriching their lives. And then in essence, by doing so, we turn our guests and our members into brand advocates.”

"We’re at the nexus of content, technology and distribution."
Scott Weisenthal, vp, global creative and content marketing, Marriott

This process doesn’t just happen serendipitously. The content marketing team led by Karin Timpone, Marriott’s chief marketing officer, comprises four different divisions that are ultimately responsible for creating, distributing and analyzing content. Staff count can number as high as 90—a melange of full-time personnel, freelancers, and agency partners and vendors—depending on the projects.

“We’re creating almost, if you will, like the [TV] network [model],” Timpone says. “And the individual brands have their unique and distinct point of view and their programming voice; that’s … the entirety of what is possible here.”

(Timpone announced at the beginning of September that she is stepping down from the company at the end of the year, after six years on the job, to “pursue new opportunities.”)

Marriott is not alone in creating content for the traveler, of course. Hilton, with its 17 hotel brands, for example, pushes content out to its roughly 94 million loyalty members across various media. With the hospitality and travel industry growing for myriad reasons—e.g., consumer desires for unique, local experiences; growing popularity of home shares—Hilton has pushed advertising and marketing campaigns to urge travelers to book directly through its own site. But the marketing is still focused on celebrity. In this case, Anna Kendrick. Marriott, conversely, focuses its marketing on an individual’s travel experience—like an ad featuring guests playing golf, swimming and enjoying dinner at one of its properties.

“The emphasis in both the Hilton and Marriott campaigns is building sustained relationships between a traveler and the brand,” says Debika Sihi, an associate professor of economics at Southwestern University. “The Marriott campaign takes this a step further and highlights local experiences with the comfort of the tried-and-true Marriott brand.”

Marriott took Adweek inside its content-marketing operations, providing an insightful look into how and why the heritage brand is placing such a big bet on storytelling.

The ‘wheel of content’

M Live is Marriott’s real-time social-marketing command center, focusing on reputation management and mining for trends and insights.

Its content studio creates films and documentaries, which are “upper-funnel storytelling about inspiration and aspiration,” Weisenthal says. This team is made up of creative directors, producers and strategists, but also will tap outside production companies “to get more bang for our buck,” producing hundreds of pieces of content to strategically support the Marriott Bonvoy program and 30 portfolio brands, all distributed across paid, earned and owned channels.

Four-Pronged Strategy: 1) M Live, the hotel giant’s real-time social-marketing command center. 2) The Marriott Bonvoy Traveler hub provides 'inspiration from a destination lens.' 3) The content studio produces films and documentaries. 4) The company’s in-house creative agency handles brand design, marketing and advertising content.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.