The WESTIN Brand

Mid-Career as a corporate lawyer I was fortunate to find myself as Associate General Counsel of what was then known as WESTERN INTERNATIONAL HOTELS. In 1930, hotel owners Severt W. Thurston and Frank Dupar, both of Yakima, Washington USA, formed a partnership in order to manage their hotels more efficiently. Together with Peter and Adolph Schmidt they formed Western Hotels, with seventeen properties, all but one in the state of Washington.

Early management developed each property individually. After more than two decades of rapid growth, prompting a name change in 1954 to Western International Hotels, many of its properties were merged into a single corporate structure in 1958, and the company went public in 1963 as Western International Hotels Company. In 1970, the chain was acquired by UAL Corporation, the parent company of United Airlines.

By the early 1980′s Western International Hotels had some 60 properties, mostly in the U.S., but including such landmark properties as The Plaza Hotel in New York, The Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles; and, the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco. Part of it’s attraction to it’s almost exclusively high-end business executive travelers was that each of it’s core urban hotels commanded a distinctive identity as a truly luxury, prestige property, always in the best location: The Olympic Hotel Seattle, The Crown Center Plaza Kansas City, The Bayshore Inn Vancouver, The Continental Plaza Chicago, etc.

However, as Associate General Counsel, I would have referred to my desk an increasing amount of claims that had actually occurred in a small, but growing non-luxury motel chain known as Best Western Hotels. A classic case of consumer brand mis-identification.

At the very emergence of the idea that all markets were, or were becoming Global; this up-start Best Western Hotels, changed it’s name to Best Western International Hotels. The Board and Management instructed me to file a lawsuit claiming trademark infringement, and to prevent this obviously confusing identity to legally continue. I did so, and as the law suit progressed, the first alarming truth we learned was that, standing alone, there was no protection under the law for generic names like “Western,” “International,” and of course “Hotels.” Therefore, the only claim for infringement would be if someone actually used the identical order of words that our Company had spent almost 50 years building as a brand identity.

As I began to understand this awful legal realization, it became my task to report to the then CEO Harry Mulligan, and at his direction, later to the Board, that the Company had no real choice but to change it’s name. Because the Company’s flagship was The Plaza Hotel, the world famous NY landmark, the idea was initially to rename the Company The Plaza Hotel Company. However, I had to advise the Board that while this might seem like a strong brand name, it was burdened by all of the same problems of the existing name. The word “Plaza” was not trademark protectable. Not to mention that a quick trademark search showed more than a 1,000 hotels and motels in the U.S. alone that used the word Plaza.

What followed, provided me with a lifetime of experience and understanding of what make a good Brand Name; and, the strategic steps that must be taken to create a strong and memorable consumer Brand. Authorized to retain one of the leading brand identity consulting companies; and, at a cost of more than $400,000 in 1980 dollars, I had the rare opportunity to learn many valuable lessons about brand identity. We performed a computer analysis of thousands of names generated as being synonymous with the established image of the Company.

I learned that the best brand names are short. The rule of thumb is five to eight letters–maybe a few more if they flow right. The most protectable names are new words, that cannot have trademark conflicts: Exxon, Kodak, Walkman, Häagen-Dazs, DieHard, Liptor, etc. At the same time the name must for the most part, posses product association, imagery, character (personality) and differentiation.

At first we came up with the name Windhover (the “h” is silent), which is a hawk indigenous to the British Isles. Everyone fell in love with it. A logo was produced  and cast in bronze, which if you look closely you might see that it merges the shape of a W with the head and tail of a hawk.  However, as all good designer’s do, Landor had a “throwaway” option, which we felt confident would be rejected as being too common, and not ringing with the British prestige of the Windhover.  It was a computer generated contraction of the words Western and International: WESTIN. Harry Mulligan and the rest of senior management selected the “name” Windhover, with the logo “symbol” of the hawk.  Landor had generated a logo “symbol” of a rather bland stylized chandelier to hang over the Westin name.

Actual production of all of the collateral products using the new name Windhover was commenced.  However, when what we thought would be the final presentation of the name change for formal adoption by the Board of Directors was made, questions were raised by Edward E. Carlson, the Chairman of the Board.  Already the legendary “Eddie” had started as an elevator operator with the Company as a graduate of the University of Washington. He went on to become President the Company, served as the CEO of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair–and is credited with the conception of the Space Needle.  By this time he also served as the Chairman and CEO of United Airlines, the Company’s then Parent.

On that memorable day, Eddie said I like the logo symbol of the hawk, but I really like the name “Westin,” because it keeps parts of the historic names of Western and International.  He then asked: “What would you think of the name Westin with the hawk logo?”  And so after almost a half million dollars, and the work-product of the best minds in the business at that time, a shot-gun wedding of two disparate creative ideas were merged.

For its 50th anniversary in 1980, The Company changed its name to the current Westin Hotels & Resorts. I went on to successfully register the new brand in 142 countries. As is often the case when brands grow in identity and consumer recognition, the symbol of the hawk was merged out, and what remains today is a Brand Name, the mere typeface of which is recognized around the world as one of the strongest and most enduring Brand identities of its time.

In 1987, UAL Chairman Richard Ferris announced a plan to make UAL into Allegis, a travel conglomerate based around United Airlines, Hertz Rent a Car, Hilton Hotels, and Westin and linked by Apollo. This strategy failed, however, and Westin was sold in 1988 to Aoki Corporation of Japan. In 1994 Aoki sold it to Starwood Capital, real estate investment firm and parent of Starwood Lodging, and Goldman Sachs, an investment bank. In 1998 Starwood assumed full ownership of the company. Built initially from the strong Westin brand identity, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide is now one of the world’s largest hotel companies. Starwood owns, operates, franchises and manages more than 1,000 hotels, resorts, spas, residences, and vacation ownership properties under nine different brands.  Every wonder where the idea of  the “W” came from?

November 16, 2015 UPDATE:  Marriott is buying Starwood to make the largest hotel company in the world. Together, the companies will operate or franchise 5,500 hotels with a total of 1.1 million rooms. The company will span 100 countries.

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