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How Marriott’s Inspired Content Helped Frustrated Travelers See a Better Normal

Sometimes the toughest business challenges inspire your most impactful content.

That proved true for the content team at Marriott International. Annie Granatstein, vice president of content marketing, shared her brand’s story around the pandemic-related decimation of travel – and the subsequent reinvention – at Content Marketing World.

The world’s behavior had changed. Marriott’s target audience had changed. That prompted the first step in their content reinvention – understanding their target audience.

When your audience’s behavior changes, it’s time for a content reinvention, says @anniegranat via @GregLevinsky @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Exploring the audience’s travel desires

Less than a year into the pandemic, pent-up demand for travel reached its apex. According to U.S. participants in a February 2021 Trivago survey:

  • 48% would give up their job to travel
  • 38% would give up sex to travel
  • 25% would give up their savings to travel
  • 20% would give up their partner to travel

Those results indicate a basic need to travel – seemingly on the scale of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Annie notes. Now, consider a December 2020 Finder Survey in which 74% said they wanted to better themselves – a 15% increase over the previous (pre-pandemic) year. Finally, consider a February 2021 American Express survey where 59% of respondents said they were interested in “philantourism,” the combination of philanthropy and tourism.

The travel audience world looks different.

“People didn’t want to just go back to 2019 and to the same world,” Annie says. “They didn’t want things to go back to normal. They want a better normal.”

@Marriott found travelers wanted a “better normal.” A quote from Mark Twain inspired their new campaign, says @anniegranat via @GregLevinsky @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

But how could Marriott help people visualize a better normal? This Mark Twain quote inspired them:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

They opted to position travel as an antidote to the difficult times of 2020 and planned the Travel Makes Us campaign.

Planning the travel content strategy

Not long after the campaign idea was formed – in January 2021 – Annie joined Marriott. The ad campaign was scheduled to launch in the summer.

As the new content marketing lead, it fell to her and the content team to translate the Travel Makes Us concept into content.

They created the content around three moments: audience (need to travel), cultural (desire to better the world), and brand (champion of a bigger and better world for all). They dubbed it the “regenerative travel” content strategy built on the “essential desire to return to travel to improve ourselves, our relationships, and our world.”

The strategy encompassed four travel storytelling pillars: self, relationships, community, and world. The stories appeared on Marriott’s owned editorial and social media channels and third-party publishing partners’ sites.

@Marriott’s regeneration #ContentStrategy was built around three storytelling pillars – self, relationships, community, and world, says @anniegranat via @GregLevinsky @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Owned editorial

In implementing the regenerative travel content strategy, they published content to help people learn how to travel better on their digital magazine Marriott Bonvoy Traveler.

Among the tip-driven articles: How To Be a Responsible – and More Mindful – Traveler and Make Travel Meaningful with 6 Regenerative Experiences Around the Globe. The interactive storytelling featured widescreen, cinematic, and interactive boxes to captivate readers. They also touched on topics like supporting New York City’s LGBTQ+ spaces and the tiny island where travelers could go for conservation and arts.

“They showed the really cool things you could do to have a more meaningful vacation,” Annie says.

Bonvoy Traveler’s e-newsletter (the magazine’s primary distribution method) featuring the more meaningful travel stories experienced a 28% open rate, much higher than the norm.

Publisher partnerships

Marriott collaborated with The Washington Post Creative Group to create an outlet for storytellers from underrepresented backgrounds to share how they travel better.

They invited people to apply to be the next great travel storytellers on The Washington Post’s website and social media channels. The application process proved fruitful. The storytellers were then assigned “beats” based on recent reader trends – less-traveled cities, nature destinations with fewer people, and connecting with locals.

“If you’re working with publishing partners, get them to tell you what’s trending on their channels with their audience,” Annie says.

Marriott chose these storytellers and angles to cover:

  • Charlotte Simpson, “The Traveling Black Widow,” who took up solo travel after her husband’s death, wrote about visiting Buffalo, New York, for the so-called “second cities” beat.
  • Jaylyn Gough, a member of the Navajo Nation and founder of Native Women’s Wilderness, wrote about returning to the reservation where she was born but not where she grew up. Her nature-off-the-beaten-path content tied in with readers’ desire to find less crowded places to explore nature.
  • Jeff Jenkins, founder of the online community Chubby Diaries and a passionate advocate for plus-size travelers, went to the Florida Keys to learn from the locals how to scuba dive and replant coral in the reefs off Key Largo.

Each story included a blend of text, photography, videography, and audio. But the content didn’t end there. To reach Gen Z, they published TikToks aplenty.

@washingtonpost #ad What is regenerative travel? @MarriottBonvoy member @chubbydiaries breaks it down. #TravelMakesUs #TikTokTravel ♬ original sound – We are a newspaper.

The metrics prove the sponsored content partnership’s success. As Annie reports:

  • 90% of readers intended to take action with Marriott
  • 80% agree Marriott provides an inclusive environment
  • 28% of TikTok users recall seeing Marriott Bonvoy content

Marriott worked with Vox Media to create content focused on education, inspiration, and action. It resulted in an explainer video about the science of travel and how it improves people’s minds and emotions, personal stories about travel sparking creativity, and an interactive quiz to help people plan a trip based on science with Marriott.

Don’t go for safe when times get tough

Adversity may have a negative effect on your content marketing strategy, but it can be turned into a positive when you rethink what you’re creating and who you’re creating it for.

“When shit hits the fan, companies sometimes can be scared to say anything and go really safe,” Annie says. “We did the exact opposite, and it worked.”

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute