Created in 1999 by Alex Calderwood, who passed away last November, Ace Hotel is famous for disrupting the hospitality industry with a fresh identity catering to the “creative class.” Countless books, articles, and blog posts have already extolled the strengths of that identity (and Portlandia has mocked its eccentricities).
For example, according to a 2010 post on this blog, the brand’s approach to co-branding and partnerships is “endlessly creative” and “always perfect.” Gawker quotes the co-founder of review site Mr & Mrs Smith: “I can't think of another hotel group with such a strong brand and all-pervading identity – everything from the cocktails to the cleaning signs is unmistakeably Ace." On a recent trip to New York, this author had the pleasure of staying at Ace Hotel.
The room’s artwork (local artist) was impressive, as were the vintage-style furnishings (Smeg fridge, reclaimed mirrors) and carefully selected brand partnerships (Fred bottled water, Pearl+ soap-on-a-rope). But it’s more than art, music, and hipster-friendly ephemera that surrounds the guest at Ace; painted on the walls, printed on signs, handwritten onto the bill, words also permeate one’s stay. And it’s through these words—through the brand’s voice—that the hotel’s personality shines brightest.
It starts with an amusing, reassuring welcome note on the front doormat: “You are here.” Once inside, signs at the elevators remind guests, “If you took the stairs you would be there already.”
Many other hotels have exploited the “Do not disturb” sign as an opportunity for brand expression; Ace provides a “Not now” magnet stuck to the room’s metal door. In the room, clothes hangers assert, “You look good in that,” seals on the minibar liquor predict, “This will be your drink,” and under the towel rack, a painted message quips, “Want a fresh towel? Leave it in the tub. No tub? Leave it in the shower. No shower? Leave it in the sink. No sink? Leave it on the floor. No floor? Leave.”
This is Ace’s distinctive style of writing—informal, quirky, irreverent, witty, and blunt. Clearly, it’s not appropriate for every brand in every industry. But it would be a mistake to disregard Ace as nothing more than an extreme case and assume other brands can’t benefit from this approach. Poignant or playful, rash or reserved—just as public speakers must “find their voice” if they wish to be heard and remembered, so must every brand. As with people, having less of an “in your face” personality is not the same as—nor is it an excuse for—having no personality at all.
In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Calderwood explained, “There’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle. It is not just an interesting design, it is not just the right choice of typeface, it is not finding the right executives or team — it is all those pieces of the puzzle.” At Ace Hotel New York, the completed puzzle is that much richer because the brand’s voice colors every piece, first to last. In one more demonstration of that unique sense of humor, the visit ended with a handwritten note at the bottom of the bill, stating simply, “Thank you for sleeping with us.”
Rob Meyerson is Director, Verbal Identity, for Interbrand San Francisco.