4 storytelling lessons from 100 years of ‘The Hilton Effect’

The hotel chain celebrated a century of business growth by shining a spotlight and crafting content around its biggest champions: Its employees and customers.

This year, Hilton turned 100.

Considering it’s grown from one hotel to more than 5,700 hotels and 17 brands in 113 countries and territories, the chain has a lot to commemorate—but it didn’t want to mark the occasion with only statistics and accomplishments.

We could have told an incredible story ourselves and thrown a great party, but we wanted third party perspective,” says Lou Dubois, director of content for global brand communications at Hilton Worldwide.

Dubois says:

The result … detailed in a 65-page whitepaper by New York Times best-selling author and Stanford University professor Chip Heath and co-writer Karla Starr, was “The Hilton Effect.” As they define it, “The Hilton Effect is the impact that Hilton has had and continues to have on travelers, the travel industry, its employees and communities around the world.”

The whitepaper turned into an entire campaign full of stories and content—many of which provide lessons in storytelling excellence.

Consider these four takeaways:

1. Tie everything back to your organization’s vision and brand voice.

“At Hilton, we want to create ‘Hilton stories’ and not stories by Hilton,” Dubois says. “If you read a script, watch a video or visit our newsroom, and say to yourself, ‘Can I tell this story without Hilton?’ and the answer is yes, then it’s not a Hilton story.”

Define your organization’s mission and vision from the beginning, because it will inform both your storytelling and your brand’s voice throughout all communications efforts.

Dubois says:

Our founder Conrad Hilton’s foundational business mission was to spread the light and warmth of hospitality, and in so doing, create a better world. That remains our mission today, and at our core, Hilton is a business of people serving people.

As your organization grows and changes, refer back to what you’ve defined and refine it as necessary.

“To understand where you’re going, you have to understand where you’ve been,” Dubois says. “By embracing the past and telling that impact story, you also begin to form the narrative of the future.”

2. Focus on employees.

Your employees are the driving force behind organizations’ products and services and are the faces of your brand. It’s no surprise that employees are the largest source of stories.

“Without people, our hotels are just buildings,” Dubois says.

If you want storytelling efforts that carry emotion, shine a spotlight on your employees and drop the corporate speak. To start, reach out to your workforce and ask for their experiences.

Dubois says:

We host events for owners, for team members, for our regions that often tip us off to what is happening in these places, that we can then further flesh out. The people in this company have great pride in what they do, and finding passion when that pride exists is much easier.

Dubois says that Hilton also has focused on providing easy ways for its team members to share their stories. Its global communications team created a way for hotels to talk with its corporate office and built proprietary software and systems, called “The Comms Shop,” to open up communications and streamline engagement.

You don’t have to have a large budget or your own software to effectively gather stories from your employees. Instead, build relationships.

“Get out and visit your offices and spend time with different types of employees,” Dubois says.  “That’s how you learn.”

He adds: “I’ve been lucky to visit over 40 of our hotels in the past year, and it’s no stretch to say that I’ve learned something unique and met incredible people at every one of them.”

3. Make it visual.

Dubois says:

If you make your storytelling about people and let the product or innovation follow, that’s when you get empathy and emotion which brings in audiences. Behind every great business idea is a person, so this is something that any company can take advantage of in their content strategy.

“Multimedia can really make or break a story,” Dubois emphasizes. “Taking time to gather photos, videos and other assets, particularly with those people, is vital to the process.”

Take, for example, the “hero video” Hilton used to introduce #TheHiltonEffect:

That video is accompanied by a series of mini documentaries profiling 17 Hilton hotels across their brands and around the world that exemplify the chain’s mission. Countless images and short-form videos pepper #TheHiltonEffect hashtag on Twitter, as well:

Dubois says Hilton “realized that to tell the story properly, we needed to show it.”

If you can show your story instead of telling it, do so.

4. Keep your global audience in mind.

Dubois says that telling stories of hotels around the world “naturally lends itself to global distribution,” but #TheHiltonEffect’s reach spread even farther than the team thought it would.

“The Hilton Effect” was distributed in 10 languages, with the chain partnering with Fortune Magazine for more effective worldwide distribution. Most of Hilton’s short films were created in English, but were translated across regions to reach audiences there.

Dubois says:

One of my favorite things is to visit a hotel in another country and to see the video that we worked on playing out on the in-room televisions. That tells me that this wasn’t an American story, this was a story of a company from America that is truly a global organization.

Whether you embark on a storytelling campaign that stretches across countries and continents or are sensitive to the far-reaching and often global audience digital content can have, Dubois says to focus on tailoring stories to better reach individual audiences by thinking like a local.

“Native-language content truly makes stories resonate in those regions, so be conscious of the story you’re telling and how people there will respond,” Dubois says. “Involve your local experts, as they know these regions better than anyone, and think about distribution tactics regionally. What works in America doesn’t work everywhere else, so think about where your content is going around the world, and craft it accordingly.”

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