Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Sign of the Hotel: Why Naming the Whole After the Parts is Not Always a Good Idea


Earlier this year the Clarion hotel chain opened a new hotel in Stockholm, right next to the terminal of the Arlanda Express airport train. A curiously angular cheese-shaped building; it is described as Stockholm’s largest hotel, with hundreds of guest rooms plus all the usual big-hotel facilities. Since it is right next to the station it will probably be a popular conference venue.

But what surprised me is the name. From the window of the Arlanda Express you can’t easily see the name, but from the other side of the Norra Bantorget square you can see on the roof the massive sign that says “Clarion Hotel Sign”. My first reaction was to laugh because this looks like a typical screwup. I imagined that the contractors made a note to order the sign for the Clarion Hotel (“don’t forget the Clarion Hotel Sign dummy”) which was then passed to the sign maker who interpreted it too literally. Perhaps also the sign was made offshore in Guangzhou by someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “sign”.

Later I discovered that it was not a sign maker’s mistake, or at least that’s the Clarion Hotel chain’s version of the story. It really is the Hotel Sign, they insist, without any further explanation. But I still think that it is not a textbook example of clear communications. Their problem is that to choose a potentially confusing name for their hotel is just going to cause problems later on. Ambiguous names like “sign” are harder to Google and they can confuse customers.

Imagine for a moment that you decide to call your new hotel the “Hotel Bedroom”. Whenever customers try to search for your hotel they just find every hotel on the planet that has bedrooms. Then you can imagine the pythonesque dialogs with travel agents. “Er we’d like to stay in the hotel bedroom please.” “Well we weren’t going to suggest you stay in the lobby.” “Why not? We stayed at the Hotel Lobby last year and it was pretty good.”

This is not the first time someone has chosen a potentially misleading name. To give just one example, back in 1997 someone opened a restaurant in London called “Pharmacy”, but this was eventually forced to change the name to “Army Chap” (an anagram) because there is actually a law against calling anything a pharmacy if it isn’t really one.

If there is a lesson to learn from this it is that before you choose a name it is wise to try googling the candidate names to see if they can be found and also to consider the potential for misunderstandings.