Hans Brinker Budget Hotel
Terrible hotel. Brilliant tone of voice.
Aaaaand, we’re back. Don’t know about you, but I’m feeling strong autumn term vibes. I’ve even bought a new pencil case. Now, I’ve got some unusual and thoughtful brands to talk about over the next few weeks – but they’ll have to wait. Cos today we’re looking at a proper daft voice. It’s the Hans Brinker budget hotel in Amsterdam. Pack your bag and lower your expectations, let’s go.
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What IS this place?
Hans Brinker is a budget hostel in Amsterdam. (It’s named after the classic 19th-century Dutch story of a boy who wins an ice-skating competition.) Here’s what it looks like from the outside.
And here’s what the rooms look like on the inside. It’s very much the standard hostel ‘submarine bunk beds stored in a derelict hospital’ vibe:
So, like, a bit crappy – but does the job if you’ve mainly gone to Amsterdam to party or get stoned. And indeed,Hans Brinker muddled along just fine through the 80s and 90s – though with more empty rooms and complaints from guests than they would have liked.
Then in 1996 they asked the new-kids-on-the-block agency KesselsKramerto help them sharpen things up – Which they did not by improving the hotel or doing a fancy re-brand, but by keeping everything exactly the same and proudly embracing how crap it all was. They started calling themselves 'the most horrible hotel in town'.
These ads are 25 years old. You’ve almost certainly seen them around. They still turn up all the time in listicles and Pinterest boards. They use a cheesy sales voice and super-cheap graphicsand big up non-features and un-benefits.
I particularly like how these first ads imply a previous time when Hans Brinker hotel was even more terrible – when some rooms didn’t have doors or, where toilet-flushing was presumably an optional extra. What a time to be alive!
The breathless excitement is often offering you more or extra of stuff nobody ever looks for in a hotel: Noise. Gloom. Dogshit.
And it worked a treat. Bookings doubled. Complaints all but vanished.In fact, it worked so well that Hans Brinker gave themselves an upgrade. They stopped referring to themselves as merely ‘the most horrible hotel in town’ and started calling themselves ‘the worst hotel in the world’. They even wrote a book celebrating the fact. Here’s a charming ‘book launch’ video of a young woman dribbling on it.
And as cultural trends have come and gone, Hans Brinker has always been able to find its own unique crap take. There was the ‘cool design’ phase:
When we all started getting more eco-aware, Hans Brinker was there to tell us how they’d been ‘accidentally eco-friendly’ all along:
Then there was their ‘boutique hotel attention to detail’ phase:
They had their humblebrag phase:
And more recently, in the era of TripAdvisor and social media, they implored guests to ‘like’ them:
First, yes, the heart of the voice is the gleeful and unashamed embracing of everything that’s crap, seedy, grubby and lame about their hotel. It’s a radical honesty that’s both refreshing and disarming. Here’s a bit from their website homepage:
(Aside: as I was looking at that, I suddenly remembered I’d copied and pasted something from their website a while ago. Turns out it was nearly ten years ago!):
‘The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel has been proudly disappointing travellers for forty years. Boasting levels of comfort comparable to a minimum-security prison, the Hans Brinker also offers some plumbing and an intermittently open canteen serving a wide range of dishes based on runny eggs.’
Ahh, ‘runny eggs’ is perfection. Just the right balance of funny-sounding and slightly gross, but not actually disgusting. And the two extracts are so clearly the same voice. How’s that for brand consistency?
So, obviously, the heart of the voice is their gleeful embracing of their limitations as an establishment. But I think the secret sauce is actually its infectiously exuberant imagination. Almost every ad is a great bit of re-framing or sideways thinking. You may not get any windows in your room, but every visit to Hans Brinker comes with a VIP invitation to see the world differently.
You see this time and again in how quickly people pick up the ball and run with it. There’s semi-official stuff, like this ‘budget passport’ by artist Jody Barton. (In the small print: ‘In the event of an emergency do not contact the hotel as our International Search and Rescue Facility does not exist.’)
Then there’s the countless guest reviews that revel in being in on the joke:
All of this taps into a universal truth about travelling. As travel blogger Richard Tulloch put it: ‘Bragging about your luxurious stay in a six-star hotel won’t make people jealous; they’ll think you’re crass, unimaginative and richer than you deserve to be. But brag about your worst hotel experiences and you establish yourself as an intrepid traveller, a courageous citizen of the world.’
Through nothing more than a tone of voice, Hans Brinker gives its guests something worth far, far more than 10 euros a night: a story to be part of, a tale to tell. (Interestingly, I stayed at Hans Brinker in the early 90s, before they found their crap-mojo. It did the job and I forgot about it. Had I known I was staying at the ‘world’s worst hotel’, you can bet I’d have told everybody.)
Three things to love and learn from
🤦♀️ Turn a weakness into a strength
You’re probably already thinking yeah yeah radical honesty it’s totally an opportunity we know we know. But in my experience we’re so conditioned to look for the positive that we’ve rarely taken the time to really properly explore our limitations. Set aside a good chunk of time and check your ego at the door. Invite your rudest friends, colleagues or customers to come and give it to you straight. Then figure out – if we really committed to this short-coming, what unexpected benefit might appear?
😊 Let people share your voice
Compare Hans Brinker to artist Daniel Danger’s $1 Grilled Cheese Truck. It’s superficially the same joke: ‘you get what you pay for, and cos you’re paying peanuts you have to put up with this shit’. But if I show the cheese truck to people in workshops they tend to gasp, laugh, then fall silent. It creates a division between the brand and the customer, and even though it’s ‘knowingly rude’, it’s clear the joke’s on you. Whereas Hans Brinker gets a much warmer response: People start telling stories of their own awful holiday experiences. The ‘actually, travelling was fun when we were skint’ vibe spreads fast.
🪣 Don’t be afraid to keep drawing from the same well
Hans Brinker have literally been using the same idea for a quarter of a century. It still feels fresh, and they’re still finding new takes on it. If you find yourself thinking ‘it’s time to refresh our tone of voice’, you might be better-served re-committing to the one you’ve already got.
Whaddya think? Have you stayed at Hans Brinker? Have you seen a brand you think I should feature? Hit reply and let me know. See you next time. 👋
Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. The book also contains within it a short tale of the little Dutch boy who plugged a leak in a dike with his finger, saving his village. That boy was not Hans Brinker, though they often get mixed up. Which is the sort of fact that appeals to the same people who love telling you that ‘Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster…’
Check out Paddy Gilmore’s excellent Brands and Humour Substack for the full chicken-suit story of KesselsKramer and Hans Brinker. If you like Tone Knob, you’ll love Paddy’s newsletter where he dissects funny ads and looks at what makes them tick. Was Paddy inspired by Tone Knob? Probably. Am I gutted that Paddy wrote about Hans Brinker first? YES, DAMN YOU PADDY. 🤪
Presumably the two-tone ‘photocopied a million times’ look was also a nod to the ‘tart cards’ that sex workers used to leave in phone booths and were very much part of Amsterdam’s seedy 90s vibe.
Source: I was once in a meeting with a chap who’d been at a conference where either Kessels or Kramer (I forget which) gave a talk, and he almost certainly said these numbers.
There’s loads of cool stuff on Jody’s blog. And this piece about him in It’s Nice That is also worth a read.