If hotels could speak... Oh, they can!
So, I’m still wincing from last month’s intimate waxing humdinger of a voice. (If you’re new, check it out. It’s eye-wateringly good. 😆) Jo from InnerBeauty got in touch to say thanks for featuring them. Her job title? Head Lady Gardener. Perfection.
Also! Before we get to talking about this month’s voice – I wanted to let you know about a hopefully helpful thing I’ve made:
📣 A super-helpful way of thinking about tone of voice
As you might know, a while ago I created Voicebox – a complete method for creating different tones of voice for brands, projects, products, or whatever else you might need them for.
At the heart of Voicebox is the idea of the ‘11 Primary Voices’ – the foundational distinctive tones – the Firestarter, the Straight-Talker, the Energizer etc – that you can mix and match into an infinite variety of voices.
More and more people have been telling me that just this ‘mental model’ alone is super-useful. Because I am a) bad at taking praise, and b) quite slow on the uptake, it only recently dawned on me that I could make that bit available on its own!
So, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve created a short 40-minute video course called ‘Say Hello to the 11 Primary Voices’. It’s for copywriters, brand folk, strategists, consultants, in-house writers… anyone who’d like to sharpen how they think and talk about tone of voice. You can buy it here. I’d really like it if you did. It’s £49.
Now let’s look at this month’s voice. It’s Hotels.com.
🛎 Let’s check in
Hotels.com are one of those ginormous book-a-stay vacation websites that do accommodation and flights and car hire and blah blah and, I suspect, nobody really likes, but most of us have used
For the last few years, they've been using the character of Captain Obvious in their TV ads – a bearded military chap designed to allow them to repeat tediously basic key messages under the guise of ‘knowingly ironic’. Personally, I've always found him deeply unlikeable.Also, the whole ‘obvious’ voice is funny for about two seconds but quickly paints itself into an insufferable corner. Viz:
Anyway, it looks like he’s gone now. And in his place, Hotels.com have done something that – ironically – feels in retrospect really obvious. They’ve used what’s been hiding in plain sight all along. The hotels themselves.
So, tell me about yourself…
Every ad follows the same formula. As the camera lingers over the hotel’s various charms, the hotel introduces itself and talks about the type of guest it would like to meet. The first one I saw was Minster Mill country hotel.
Here’s the words in full:
‘How do you do? I’m a 13th-Century countryside inn. I may look old-fashioned but I assure you, I’m young at heart. I’m looking for someone in need of a peaceful, impromptu getaway. Here, you can fortify yourself in a proper restaurant – or take a picnic hamper and explore the grounds. Fancy games? I have loads. Join me for a weekend jaunt. I’d be delighted.’
Minster Hill’s plummy tones are the perfect blend of country-posh mellifluousness. And the literal tone of voice is burnished by those few well-chosen phrases: How do you do… Fortify yourself… Jaunt… delighted. It feels characterful without being a caricature, and is oddly bold if you think about it: a talking hotel! That’s not being knowing or ironic or played for laffs! Just warm and sincere!
I watched this ad online several times. Pretty soon I was being followed all over the internet by other talking hotels. Next was the Business Hotel:
As jaunty marching music plays, a female voice with strong Alexa vibes says:
‘I am a business hotel. I eat, sleep and breathe efficiency. I expect my bedsheets to be as crisp as my speadsheets. I’m looking for someone who appreciates high ROIs and even higher RPMs. Must like hard work, punctuality, and a good, firm handshake. If you’re someone who likes earning Rewards as much as Earnings Reports, I would be honoured to be your perfect somewhere.’
It’s really nicely done. The voiceover is clipped and efficient yet also warm and helpful. Those little rhymes and flourishes (‘bedsheets as crisp as spreadsheets’; ‘if you’re someone who likes earning rewards as much as earnings reports’) nail the efficiency thing while also being playful. (They seem to be fondly acknowledging the naffness of business language rather than outright taking the piss.)
🏨 Oh, hello
So I’ve become acquainted with two talking hotels now, and I’m noticing a few things. The first is about format – there's an implied ‘dating profile’
Secondly, I’m struck by how strongly that vibe of 'proud to be at your service' comes across. This is, after all, the superpower that hotels can draw on. (An AirBnB would presumably be much more ‘So yeah, I’m someone’s second home, let yourself in, I’m busy gouging out the soul of this historic neighbourhood, leave a review or else.’)
Thirdly – I notice I’m now thinking ‘I wonder what the next one will sound like?’ The game is afoot! The repeating pattern has been established and there’s always pleasure in seeing how the variations work.
😖 Oh, merde!
But! Sadly, the rest of the gang aren’t nearly as good. It’s a terrible shame. The Oregon Coastal Lodge feels like he needs some relationship coaching (‘I might have a rocky exterior, but I’ve got soft pillows and breakfast on the house’.) SOFT PILLOWS AND BREAKFAST ON THE HOUSE?! My guy! Come onnn! Is that the best you got?! You’re SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT!
The ‘luxury Parisian Hotel’ – which really shoulda been an absolute ‘this is M&S’ style sumptuous delight is flat and unconvincing. Here’s the blurb:
‘Bonjour, I’m a luxurious Parisian hotel. Join me for a weekend of life’s finer things. I’m looking for someone who enjoys Michelin Star dining, views like no other, exceptional company, the most exquisite decor, and croissants you’ll dream about for years…’
Every detail is just a little off. ‘Finer things’ is a generic cliché. ‘Views like no other’ is the sort of bullshit line copywriters put if the views are actually of the car park. And dreaming about croissants misses the opportunity that writing about food always offers: bring the sensual moment alive, don’t waft us away into the future. The overall effect is of someone who’s ever-so-slightly self-deluded.
🤮 Oh, no
Though ‘self-deluded’ is positively charming compared to the boutique hotel. The boutique hotel is a straight up insufferable wanker.
‘I’m not like those other hotels. I’m what you call boutique. I’m into intimate conversations, leather lounge chairs and soaking up the city’s atmosphere. I’m looking to provide a more unique experience. Do you like single-origin coffee over a game of chess? Me too. And don’t you just feel like everything sounds warmer on vinyl? I do.’
I properly hate this. I hate that they’ve equated ‘boutique’ with ‘smug and supercilious’. I hate how ‘I’m looking to provide a more unique experience’ sounds like it was lifted straight from a brand PowerPoint. And I really hate the tick-list of hipster cliches, and GOD do I want to punch the line ‘do you like single-origin coffee over a game of chess?’ right in the face. Yes! I like both of those things as it happens! And you’ve managed to make them sound like pretentious affectations! Which EVEN IF THEY ARE is absolutely not the way to talk to me about them!
Frankly, it’s weird how let down I feel. Perhaps it’s because we’re in Captain Obvious territory again, of making one character look good by looking down someone else.
🛎 Three things to check out
If you’ve been Tone Knobbing since the start, you’ll know that I’m deliberately all about focussing on the positive stuff we can learn from and not negging on bad writing, so let’s get back to what’s best about these – particularly ‘Country House’ and ‘Business Hotel’:
👯♀️ They’ve found a way to do a ‘chorus of voices’
Whenever clients ask about ‘flexing’ their voice for different audiences, or having different voices for, say, internal or external comms, I almost always say NO! Nailing ONE voice consistently is hard enough, don’t make it any more complicated! Here, the whole ‘hotels as characters’ thing give Hotels.com a simple and instantly-gettable way of bringing together many strong and distinctive voices, and showing they understand a wide range of different customers – as well as showing what connects them all.
🧐 Be specific. It’s more universal
It’s no coincidence that the best of the set is the Country House: it’s written with a real, specific hotel in mind (Minster Mill in the Costwolds). The business hotel hits its stride because it finds humour in specific details of business life that we all kinda love to hate. The others flounder either because they use unconvincing details (‘Hipsters like vinyl don’t they!’) or can’t be bothered (‘views like no other’). This is Writing 101: the more you bring to life a real, specific detail, the more people will connect with your universal theme.
😳 ‘Would I wanna hang with this person?’
It’s such a simple yet useful test – if you’re creating a voice that has a strong sense of ‘character’, ask yourself ‘would I like to meet and spend time with this person?’ Do they big me up? Make me feel good? Or do they make me feel like I’m trapped in an elevator with Captain Obvious?
That’s all for this month. Parting notices:
– Let me know what you think of Say Hello to the 11 Primary Voices.
– Know someone who you think would like this? Please do forward it!
– Oh! Also, I’ve turned on comments for this one. Let’s see what happens, eh.
I worked for a similar brand a few years ago and one of their big challenges was that they were so good at, ahem, optimising one’s frictionless journey through their funnel, that even regular customers often couldn’t say whether they were actually customers or not.
Paddy Gilmore of Brands and Humour says my dislike of Captain Obvious is likely down to ‘Disposition Theory’ – the theory that ‘when our friends humiliate our enemies, it’s funny’. Because of the way they’re set up, Captain Obvious ends up feeling like the enemy humiliating our friend. Thanks Paddy. It’s good to know there’s neuroscience behind why I always found Captain Obvious such a smug prick.
In the pre-internet days we called these things ‘lonely hearts’ didn’t we. Which, now I hear it afresh, has a real sense of existential bleakness to it. I still prefer it to the anodyne ‘dating profile’ tho.