Excelsior Hotels International

Using a semiotic square for the delicate job of producing a highly competitive identity for a new hospitality brand. What can hotel owners do to stay ahead of the pack when it comes to product innovation, especially when they want to stay true to an attribute that is shared by other brands in the industry?

This was the question that confronted Ogilvy when appointed agency-of-record to a hotel with no name in shell form in October 2005, by the Hong Kong owners of the nameless property. Ogilvy’s remit was to name the property and create an enduring identity which would be commensurate with the €100 million project. This identity had to appeal to global travellers and act as the fulcrum for staff training and service delivery.

In the global marketplace there are countless brands all trying to sell their “unique” attributes in their respective product categories. Malta’s hospitality sector is particularly crowded by 5-star offerings from major chains such as Hilton, InterContinental, Westin, Radisson and Forté, amongst others.

When applied to branding, semiotics is an analytical tool that can reveal how an attribute or concept is expressed in a product category. Taken further this analysis can reveal industry or category trends in how the attribute is expressed and exposes empty space where brands can innovate a new expression of the meaning. This is the approach that Ogilvy took for this challenging project.

By using semiotics, innovative codes can be called on for communication that position the brand differently than its competitors thereby forming the basis of a differentiated competitive identity.

A semiotic square enables this delicate brand innovation. A semiotic square can be thought of as an analytical tool that deconstructs structures of meaning in a particular category. The starting point of semiotic analysis is information gathering. In this case Ogilvy’s team compiled a variety of images from hospitality industry communication materials. The Malta brand themes were unveiled through analysis and then re-assembled in a proprietary semiotic square. In the experience area we found multiple examples of code breaking, thereby leading to the hotel name and a set of values for the new hotel together with a differentiated positioning.

The Brand Challenge for Ogilvy was to establish professional parameters of conduct and execution to increase client expectations of the power to build the brand competitively in a busy 5-star hospitality market. Advertising and PR strategies were quickly developed, possible stories were researched and a story list was drawn up for client approval. The agency then wrote those stories and distributed them to local and international media in parallel with formulating the brand identity manual, a mammoth 137-page edict for every detail of the hotel’s operations and service delivery.

Ogilvy’s brand values and positioning for the hotel in “Live the Grand life” creatively reinforced the core of the brand and its communications based on a nomenclature of Grand Hotel Exclesior. The brand values and positioning also acted as the core of Excelsior’s advertising and PR strategy and resulting international outreach programme. Ogilvy’s semiotic analysis stood alone to guide brand positioning and differentiation on an attribute that is shared with competitor brands.


Innovative methods are needed to generate novel and profitable results, and ultimately, to build strong brands. The hotel opened in Q4 2007, Ogilvy’s international pre-launch campaign was instrumental in attracting 90% plus occupancy levels and brought 26,000 covers through the door for festive celebrations. Moreover, in 18 months Ogilvy wrote 90 stories resulting in generating 16,014 column centimetres in international and local publications with an average published value of €304,416. The brand identity manual remains an industry standard and is regarded as a benchmark in best practice.