Nikita Mishra
Jul 10, 2024

The CMO's MO: Alice Au thinks the marketing funnel has "fundamentally changed"

Hospitality is a fiercely competitive industry and marketer Alice Au of Wharf Hotels believes the race for market leadership will be set by the speed of digital transformation and customer engagement.

The CMO's MO: Alice Au thinks the marketing funnel has

"In Chinese, the word ‘challenges’ means two words 危機 -‘危 risks and ‘機’ opportunities. I look at challenges as opportunities waiting to be seized," says Alice Au, group head of digital marketing at Wharf Hotels, which includes the Niccolo Hotels, Maqo Hotels, and Marco Polo Hotels.

Over the past three years, Au has transformed the Wharf Hotels’ digital infrastructure, from rebuilding the brand and hotel websites to pioneering WeChat Commerce integration—a tactical move to merge digital touchpoints and elevate customer experience.

Under her leadership, Wharf Hotels is on its AI journey to revamp customer engagement and loyalty, positioning the brand at the forefront of the digital marketing landscape, not just in Greater China but also the rest of Asia.

In The CMOs MO’s latest iteration, Au shares insights into her brand's biggest marketing challenges and opportunities, her favourite campaigns, and the innovative strategies driving its success.

1. What are the three biggest marketing challenges for your brand right now?

I'll focus on the challenges within my scope. The pandemic has fundamentally changed how we approach the digital marketing funnel. Customers now move through this funnel within a single engagement, meaning we have just one chance to convert them.

Prioritising marketing investment has become crucial. In just one customer touchpoint, brands must effectively spark interest, influence consideration, and drive an immediate purchase decision. This streamlined approach is essential for nurturing the customer lifecycle journey.

AI and generative AI are rapidly evolving and our ability to quickly and deeply integrate it into our marketing processes will determine how well we can outpace competitors and succeed.

Talent acquisition is another big challenge facing the industry. We're competing with many other sectors for a limited pool of marketing professionals, especially those with specialised digital expertise and it can get tough.

2. What are the three biggest opportunities for your brand?

  • Engaging with customers across their preferred platforms is both a challenge and an opportunity. By connecting with customers across mobile apps in China, social media, and the web, we can ensure a seamless and personalised customer experience. This interconnected approach can help convert customers into one interaction.
  • Embracing AI and emerging cutting-edge technologies so that our digital transformation journey is fast-tracked.
  • Building a strong internal community: I've established 'DreamForce', a virtual community of colleagues from our hotels and corporate office focused on digital marketing. With the motto 'Share, Learn, and Elevate', we've created a strong Centre of Excellence that has become a powerful tool for attracting top talent to our hotel group.
At SalesForce's DreamForce conference in San Francisco

3. Where are you investing your marketing budgets this year? In what areas are you increasing or cutting spend?

Well, the focus has been on prioritising omnichannel marketing for 360-degree customer engagement—naturally, this is also our investment focus.

By leveraging omnichannel strategies, we aim to engage customers with Wharf Hotels—Niccolo Hotels, Maqo Hotels, and Marco Polo Hotels—in the most preferred and branded way. This approach will ensure that different online ecosystems are interconnected with our brands, whether it's through WeChat for our Chinese customers or our official websites for customers worldwide. We are also building direct connections across various social media platforms, such as XiaoHongShu (RED), Douyin (TikTok), and Instagram, incorporating user-generated content to share customer experiences.

In line with industry trends, we're significantly reducing offline printed materials like brochures, leaflets, flyers, and newsletters. By digitising these assets, we can offer versatile multimedia content that is more effective and engaging for our audience.

As a marketer, I feel this trend of cutting down on offline printed collateral will apply across industries, not just in travel and hospitality. Marketing investment has to steer towards multi-media assets for more versatility and better engagement.

4. Tell us one personal thing about yourself that others might not know.

Shopping is my favourite pastime. Kudos to the birth of the internet, which has revolutionised the way we shop—literally around the clock—anytime, anywhere.

About 20 years ago, while working at PCCW, I was invited to join the project team for the world's first MULTOS-chip card project with HSBC, known as i.LifeCard back then. I jumped at the opportunity because I loved the idea of revolutionising online shopping. This MULTOS-chip technology was a game-changer, making online payments as secure as in-store transactions.

Later in my career, right after the iPhone launched, we developed a loyalty programme mobile app that was one of the first to be available on the iOS App Store. This app allowed members to manage their loyalty memberships and shop for hotel stays and dining experiences. We were among the pioneers, not just in the hotel industry but across all industries. 

5. Metaverse and AI revolution: Is your brand hopping on the trend train or waving from the station?

Facilitating a private luncheon of CMOs from different industries for a thought leadership discussion on AI adoption

While the metaverse is becoming increasingly important for brand building and marketing, at Wharf Hotels, AI is our key focus. Integrating AI into our digital applications is crucial for our digital marketing transformation.

With the rise of generative AI, like multimodal large language models (LLMs), we can connect with travellers more efficiently and effectively throughout their journey with our hotel brands. From travel planning to their stay and even post-stay, AI helps us maximise customer lifetime value and build brand loyalty. 

6. Name another brand (can’t be yours) with an amazing customer experience that you really admire. Why is it great?

Disney. Not just because I’ve been a hardcore Disney fan since childhood, but because I'm truly amazed by how Disney integrates into our daily lives in so many ways. From amusement parks and movies to streaming TV, hotels, and cruises, Disney’s characters are loved by people from all walks of life.

Its acquisitions—such as 20th Century Studios, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Hulu—demonstrate the brand’s commitment to continuous growth and innovation, constantly weaving magic and innovation for the fans.

7. What’s your favourite marketing campaign that you participated in or wish you had?

Undoubtedly, it’s our Corporate Summer Campaign, running from mid-June this year to the end of August. This campaign marks a first for us, offering customers a seamless 2-in-1 booking experience. When booking a hotel room, customers can enjoy a special membership rate and start benefiting from all the perks of our Niccolo, Marco Polo, and Maqo Discovery Programmes.

Whether they book through our official websites or WeChat Commerce, we offer a seamless and holistic brand experience, no matter where they are. In fact, with the Direct Connect setup, there’s no need to leave their social apps like XiaoHongShu (LittleRedBook) and Douyin (TikTok)—consumers can check out the campaign and start booking right away.

8. What keeps you up at night as a marketer?

Having an entrepreneurial mindset, even after 20 years of working as a marketer, is the one thing that keeps me up at night. What new things can I bring to our customers tomorrow? This is especially relevant currently as we are working on the full rebranding of our Marco Polo Hotels brand, which will be launched later this summer.

9. Complete the sentence: “Today’s CMO must be ....”.

… a change catalyst, open to new things and always on top of how a brand can bring new added value to its customers.

Campaign Asia

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